Amid all the reports of teargas, pepper spray, spilt blood and raw, unadulterated hatred on the streets and university campuses of Hong Kong this week came a putative ray of hope: a South China Morning Post story, which barely rose above the level of public relations, regarding a public forum on peace and reconciliation to be held on Saturday at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai.
The forum, organised by the hopeful-sounding Hong Kong Forward Alliance with the equally upbeat title “Ways Forward: Let’s Talk and Listen,” will feature speeches by conflict-resolution gurus such as Clem McCartney from Northern Island and Hannes Siebert from South Africa.
Reading the article about a one-off forum founded by a group of business types, academics and professionals whose aim is to bring peace and amity back to a battered and broken Hong Kong, it was hard not to laugh. Or, alternatively, to cry.
Indeed, the article could be read as satire had the two writers chosen only a slight alteration in tone. Its facts and context certainly lend themselves to that risible literary form.
And so do the rose-coloured quotes from well-established Hong Kong voices of moderation such as lawyer Teresa Ma Ka-ming and Christine Loh Kung-wai, an adjunct professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – under siege this week by its own students – and former undersecretary for the environment in the Leung Chun-ying administration.
Ma, a group leader, expressed her hope that this newborn entity can start the dialogue that will bring an end to Hong Kong’s “current deadlock” while Loh, a member, called the forum “our contribution towards peace, dialogue and reconciliation.”
Perhaps it should be noted at this point that Loh’s erstwhile boss, Leung, was the most reviled and divisive politician in Hong Kong – until, that is, after two calamitous years in office, the city’s current Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor managed to snatch that opprobrious honour away from him.
Pardon the naked scepticism about the Alliance and its nascent efforts to put Hong Kong back together. But let’s face it – a single-day forum on Hong Kong’s 24 weeks of ongoing and increasingly violent anti-government protests – a colloquy at which none of our black-clad, mask-wearing, brick-throwing protesters or members of Hong Kong’s overworked, exhausted and angry police force will be giving keynote speeches – is just a waste of shopworn rhetoric and precious time.
Hong Kong is not ready for dialogue and reconciliation. It’s not the time for empty academic talk of peace and harmony when there is a virtual Wild West Show playing out in our streets every week – and, more recently, every day.
How else to describe scenes like the one we witnessed in Sai Wan Ho on Monday morning, when a police station sergeant, already holding one protester in a headlock with his left arm, wheeled around and used his revolver in his right hand to shoot a second protester, notably unarmed, in the stomach?
Thankfully, the protester who took the bullet, Chow Pak-kwan, a 21-year-old student, will survive, albeit without a kidney and part of his liver. But the sergeant’s questionable in-the-moment decision to fire on Chow only further inflamed the protest movement, transforming the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shatin into a war zone throughout Tuesday night.
Protests raged on as the week progressed, largely crippling the public transport system and prompting the Education Bureau – against the characteristically wayward advice of the chief executive – to close all schools.
Meanwhile, the sergeant who shot Chow – surnamed Kwan – and his family have been doxxed, possibly endangering their lives.
Whether Kwan was right or wrong, one must wonder about the wisdom of placing a station sergeant in such a position? That’s a job for riot police – who, it must be said, have also engaged in dubious conduct – but widespread protests, staged in multiple locations, have stretched the Hong Kong Police Force so thin that even traffic cops are expected to do battle with hardcore protesters in what have become urban trenches.
The near-immolation of a middle-aged construction worker named Leung Chi-cheung in Ma On Shan on the same day that Chow was shot added another horror to a city out of control and currently well beyond peaceful dialogue and reconciliation. Leung had accused nearby protesters of being more British than Chinese before he was set alight.
The death on Thursday of a 70-year-old cleaner hit by a brick in Sheung Shui was more bad news.
Where do we go from here?
So where do we go from here, with fearful mainland students at our universities baling out of Hong Kong, protesters and police at each other’s throats and the Lam administration unwilling to yield on a single one of the protesters’ remaining demands?
Let’s remember that these months of chaos started with the chief executive’s ill-considered attempt to shove down the throats of the Hong Kong people a now nearly forgotten and formally withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be transferred to the mainland.
If the chaos is going to end, our now toothless yet inflexible government – propped up by a beaten-down police force – has to bend, and the sooner Lam’s masters in Beijing realise this, the better for all parties involved.
It’s fine to take a hard, unforgiving line against violent protests, as Lam has done, if you have earned the confidence of the people you govern.
But recent polls show a mere 20 per cent of Hongkongers stand behind their chief executive during this crisis.
A far greater percentage, you can count on it, supports the protests, despite the mayhem they have wrought, as we have seen this week in the large lunchtime anti-government demonstrations by office workers in Central.
Clearly, the only immediate way out is government concessions.
The establishment of an independent commission of inquiry would have cleared the streets months ago. Now some kind of amnesty deal for arrested protesters – and dirty police – may also be required.
And, of course, Lam has to go. Her position is simply untenable.
That’s how we even begin to approach that difficult road of peace and reconciliation.
Whatever unfolds, however, the old guard of Hong Kong, including some of those professionally successful, respected voices of moderation now gathering in Wan Chai, should know this: their Hong Kong no longer exists.
That city has gone the way of the extradition bill, and it’s not coming back. Let’s see what rises up in its place.