The protest dividend is being rolled out and the protest movement would be wise to accept credit where credit is due.

In the latest move by the government to try pacifying its unruly citizens, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO) has announced a HK$10 billion wodge of handouts mainly for the elderly and the poor.

As ever, because the CENO disdains consultation, the handouts are problematic and will do nothing to solve fundamental problems of poverty and inequality. But the bottom line is that money will be placed directly in the hands of citizens, rather than being frittered away on yet more grandiose projects.

Carrie Lam. Photo: Stand News.

Although the CENO may actually believe that dishing out public money will somehow solve the extreme crisis of government facing Hong Kong, the fact is that without the protests, measures such as these, which have been ignored in the past, would never have materialised.

So, alongside more substantial victories, including the scrapping of the extradition bill, this monetary bonus is directly attributable to the protests. Indeed it is now clear that the only way to get the government’s attention is by taking action on the streets.

While chanting the mantra of ‘if only the protesters would be peaceful’, the government has an unbroken track record for ignoring peaceful protest … and indeed election results when their supporters lose.

It remains unclear how far the administration will go to undermine the results of the District Council elections by ignoring the overwhelming mandate given to the pro-democracy camp. However early indications are ominous.

The CENO has, for example, organised two meetings with those defeated at the polls but has shown no inclination to meet the newly elected councillors. The new Kwun Tong District Council has overwhelmingly voted to scrap a bizarre plan to spend HK$50 million on a waterfront musical fountain, arguing that this money could be better deployed elsewhere. The government has simply ignored them.

The proposed design of the music fountains at Kwun Tong Promenade. Photo: GovHK.

So, it appears that even when citizens peacefully participate in elections, the CENO and her waxworks have no intention of listening. However the sheer volume of street protests cannot be ignored so, little by little, they are having an impact.

It is, of course, also true to say that when it comes to what are ridiculously called ‘sweeteners’ they fall far short of what protesters are demanding. On the contrary, the government uses cash handouts to fulfil a fantasy narrative they have concocted to explain why the people are out on the streets. In this version of reality, the protests have nothing to do with liberty and the yearning for a democratic society but are really about underlying social and economic issues.

Obviously the gaping inequalities in Hong Kong society form part of the background of discontent and equally obviously successive governments’ unwillingness to address these problems is a pressing matter. However, as a bare minimum the CENO, who claims to be ‘humbly listening’, should at least pay attention to what the protesters are actually saying.

But this is not happening because all this nonsense about humble listening only matters when the government’s hand is forced. Those with very short memories might have forgotten that the CENO’s first response to a march by one million people against the extradition bill was to reaffirm her determination to ram the bill through Legco. She was only stopped in her tracks after the protests escalated and violence came into the picture.

Photo: May James.

As matters stand, Mrs Lam insists that the protester’s remaining four demands cannot possibly be met. However this determination to hold an unholdable line will crumble as the protests continue, maybe not tomorrow or the day after but, as Hong Kong stumbles on from crisis to crisis, something has to give.

The hard men in Beijing and their echo chamber in Hong Kong, actually believe that the protests are only taking place because of foreigners pulling the strings and that, at heart, Hongkongers only really care about money. They, therefore, believe that dishing out money to citizens will bring the protests to an end. The only problem is that this analysis is deeply flawed and that the rulers’ contempt for the people of Hong Kong is belied as civil society discovers its power to act and new forms of creative protest emerge.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship