Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
The anniversary of the collapse of the Hong Kong Occupy movement is upon us. It’s remarkable to me that in-depth studies and understanding of the event remain few.
I’ve presented my initial views in an earlier article. These observations came hot on the heels of the final days of the movement. I covered the timeline, the distinct phases of the event and its immediate repercussions.
With time and more in-depth consideration, it's clear to me that the movement was bound to fail. And the causes of that failure are coming into sharper focus.
Benny Tai, the author of Occupy, is an intellectual - some would say pseudo-intellectual - with little political acumen. It’s evident his life experience is somewhat closeted as he operates in an academic domain. At times his ideas are fanciful and damaging to his cause.
As my earlier article asserted, Tai never had specific command or any control of Occupy. He blew the whistle to start it, then immediately lost sway. A collection of social justice warriors, half-baked action groups and listless students took over. Unsupported by any real institution, his efforts were a shambles.
With the mainstream democracy parties divided, it was never likely they’d coalesce around Tai. Nor did he have enough of a mandate to form his own party. In short, he had lukewarm partners and a motley collection of fringe groups.
In such a venture, organisational capacity is fundamental to success. A political party provides that structure, the mechanisms to mobilise people coherently. Tai had none of that. Further, the pro-democracy camp treated him with some suspicion. This attitude made them unwilling to harness their systems to his agenda. At best they supported him with marginal enthusiasm.
It's interesting that Occupy exposed the limitations and downsides of social media. Indeed, newly mobilised social groups took part in actions coordinated through social media. But if participation is to be enduring, it needs to be institutionalised. Which means the formation of political parties.
Social media had great success in getting the people out there, working well in a rush to the streets. Beyond that, it starts to break down as a tool of coordination because too many actors have an input. Diluted, twisted or flipped messages overwhelm the recipients. The resulting confusion causes disillusion.
Occupy affirmed this phenomenon. Social media helped drive the ‘contagion effect’ by awakening people - it’s instant and in your face. Images of tear smoke and riot police flooded out. People galvanised by this scene got off their backsides. Then the moment passes. The energy decreases, as serious consideration of the issues must take place. That’s when social media displays its drawbacks. Not able to handle the detail of political discourse, with all its nuances and subtle messages. It's an echo chamber. To attain genuine understanding, to help resolve issues deep contemplation must take place.
The Occupy people sought to address this by holding briefing sessions and meetings. Again, without the discipline of an organisation, these events spiralled out of control. Most descended into shouting sessions with the more aggressive elements storming the stage. It all pointed to the disunity of the pan-democrats cohort.
Tai was right about one thing. History has taught us that economic growth leads to social mobilisation. As people prosper, their aspirations change. In turn, this leads to a higher demand for the rule of law and a say in the way things get run. Usually, that’s a call for greater democracy.
At the same time, the traditional elites that dominate try to block entry by the newer groups. We’ve seen that in Hong Kong. The business community, who held sway under the colonial rulers, were co-opted post-1997. Beijing harnessed their knowledge. Through their direct power and behind the scenes influence, they held off broader participation by newer groups.
We know that the incorporation of newer groups into the system and taking part in politics brings stability as the norm. If not, disorder, hatred and instability may arise. The recent shenanigans in our quasi-parliament are emblematic of that. Repeated quorum calls and filibustering are a manifestation of feeling exclusion.
In the context of Hong Kong politics, many lines of influence operate. Sitting above the rest is Beijing. It's inescapable that Beijing has genuine concerns that shape its policy to Hong Kong. These apprehensions impact political development. Unfortunately, the pan-democrats haven’t acted to assuage Beijing. In fact, the opposite. They have at times signalled an intent to overthrow the CCP. As might be expected, Beijing is less than pleased.
Beijing’s bottom lines are clear; no moves towards independence, no attempts to destabilise the Mainland and don’t make Hong Kong a base for subversion. The pan-democratic forces have stepped into each of these realms at various times. No wonder Beijing views them with deep suspicion. Especially when they run off to Washington proclaiming the demise of Hong Kong.
The genuinely accountable government, which we all seek, arises when principles get recognised across society. That includes that opposition is legitimate. In Hong Kong, you see a reluctance by officials to embrace such ideas. Being accountable for their actions is an anathema. Its routine to fail to provide adequate answers or information. Frequently they fall back on confidentiality as they mitigate efforts to explain their actions.
It is thus fortunate that Hong Kong still has a strong pillar of support in the rule of law. This provides a buttress against the excesses of government by holding it to process and legal provisions. Should the rule of law lapse, Hong Kong’s position would be precarious.
Had Tai taken more time to study he would have seen that throughout history democracy never arrived in a neat package nor as a certainty. The process of getting there was messy, sequential, with stalemate at times and reversals. Its appropriate to view Occupy in that context. Another step in the direction, although futile in itself.
Three years on from Occupy, Hong Kong remains a divided society. That is perhaps the one important legacy of that period. Diverse political views continue to be debated with freedom of speech still prevalent. Except for talk of independence, I’ve never heard any Beijing official suggest you can’t say certain things.
It’s worth remembering that in many Western nations there are limits on what people can say. For example, in Germany denying the holocaust is a crime. In the UK making comments suggesting a particular ethnic group is lazy or work shy may constitute an offence. All nations have issues that trigger a comeback. For China its independence or separation of its territories.
As regards the future, in most societies it's seen that the middle class are essential players in the drive for democracy. The emergence of a middle class, with their desire for influence, has proven a catalyst force. In Hong Kong, the middle class are inconsistent democrats. They remain constrained by a degree of nationalism, and fear for the economic consequences of full democracy.
Feeding the fear is the failure of the western democracies. With electors expectations ignored in a stagnating economy, democracy looks a poor choice. China meanwhile dooms under a non-democrat system. Layered atop that is an understanding that democracy got hijacked by wealthy vested interests. This is especially so in the US, where the few benefit. Thus, they consent to an authoritarian regime with a proven track record of prosperity.
In its first bloom, Tai’s Occupy movement was primarily a student-driven initiative. The middle classes took an interest, but never wholeheartedly embraced it. Then once the police adopted a low profile approach, the movement waned and collapsed.
It was inevitable that a few radicalised elements would spin off. Some of these people have spouted the fantasy of independence for Hong Kong. This, in turn, has created greater suspicions on Beijing’s part.
Meanwhile, the moderate pan-democrats are fearful of moving into conciliatory space. Some of the astute pan-democrats recognise that concessions must happen. Both sides need to give something if Hong Kong is to progress. They are afraid that the radicals will tarnish them. Thus, they dare not move.
The momentum that Occupy had dissipated itself. It's not coming back. Pivotal figures like Joshua Wong are facing more jail time as he fights various legal charges. Distracted and as fragmented as ever, the Democrat forces are their own worst enemy.
Occupy failed because it never had substantial middle-class support; then it overstayed its welcome before descending into violence. Despite the rhetoric of the occupiers, who like old-soldiers relive the moment, you can see the movement has dissipated and is unlikely to return.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.