Reasons to still Believe in our City

After almost three months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, there are hopeful signs that cool heads may yet prevail. Boase Cohen & Collins Senior Partner Colin Cohen, whose love for the city runs deep after almost 40 years as a resident, offers his thoughts.

Hong Kong, 20 August 2019: One swallow doesn’t make a summer, as the old saying goes, so certainly we should not be celebrating too early about a tear gas-free weekend. But a few days of relative calm – large-scale demonstrations, yes, but thankfully passing without major incident – do represent a welcome indicator that perhaps all sides in Hong Kong’s political turmoil are willing to give peace a chance.

I travel frequently for work and, increasingly in recent weeks, I’ve been asked by friends and business acquaintances overseas for my views on what has been happening on our streets. They are baffled how one of the safest and friendliest cities in the world – renowned for its rule of law, work ethic and hi-tech efficiency – can descend into chaos.

The answer, I firmly believe, begins and ends with our Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and her administration. They retain the authority and means to find a political solution.

A huge protest rally on Sunday (18 August) passed off peacefully

As we all know, the protests were triggered by a controversial government proposal to amend Hong Kong’s extradition laws to permit rendition to, among other places, Mainland China. On 9 June, an estimated one million people took to the streets in a peaceful protest against this measure. Rather unwisely, Ms Lam compared the protesters to unruly children and insisted on trying to fast-track the proposal through the Legislative Council with a vote on 12 June. Cue chaos. Tens of thousands blockaded government headquarters on that day, leading to violent clashes in which anti-riot police fired tear gas and bean bag rounds, and the bill was suspended.

Angered by the government’s refusal to withdraw the bill completely, an estimated two million people took to the streets on 16 June. As well, many protesters were demanding the Chief Executive’s resignation and an independent inquiry into police actions. Somewhat belatedly, Ms Lam issued an apology and vowed to learn from this humbling experience. Tellingly, however, no one in the administration was held accountable, the government remained largely inactive and it was left to the police – as street-level figures of authority – to bear the brunt of people’s frustration.

In the weeks since, opposition to the extradition proposal has morphed into anti-government, anti-Beijing and anti-police demonstrations. Adding to the turmoil, a notorious incident in which alleged gang members attacked protesters – and innocent bystanders – brought accusations of police collusion, strongly denied by the force, and sparked an ongoing investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

With Beijing becoming increasingly vocal in its condemnation of the protests, Ms Lam and her team remaining mostly dormant, demonstrators growing more radical and over-stretched police reacting with increasing force, the violence escalated. It culminated in Hong Kong’s airport being occupied while hundreds of flights were cancelled and tens of thousands of passengers were stranded. The dramatic video footage beamed around the world portrayed our city in a poor light.

In this particular episode, it has to be said, the Airport Authority was slow to react. Allowing protesters into the arrivals hall was simply asking for trouble, even if the sit-in was peaceful at the beginning. After obtaining a court injunction to expel the demonstrators and beefing up security, the airport’s operations have quickly returned to normal.

In assessing how we have reached this point, it is not enough to focus on the doomed extradition proposal. For years now, successive Hong Kong administrations have declined to listen to people’s genuine grievances about hardship and inequality in our society. Consistently, our leaders have failed to address urgent issues regarding affordable housing, education, healthcare and social welfare. At the same time, they have championed expensive infrastructure projects. As a result, ordinary Hongkongers have become disenchanted with a government that appears unsympathetic and out of touch. Young people, especially, feel they do not have a voice.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam has the task of restoring calm

The protesters have five demands: complete withdrawal of the Extradition Bill; unconditional release of all arrested protesters; formation of an independent commission of inquiry; retraction of the “riot” characterisation of the protests; and universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and Legislative Council. Some of these are impossible to meet, but complete withdrawal of the bill and a commission of inquiry – which would examine causes of the crisis and police and protester actions – would appear reasonable. The government could use these as a carrot to bring dissenters to the negotiating table and show everyday Hongkongers that it is serious about social reform.

While the idea of a commission has considerable support, others oppose it. High-profile pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip has highlighted historic examples of such bodies in Hong Kong and overseas and pointed out they were initiated after a crisis, while this one is ongoing. Writing in the South China Morning Post, she commented: “… the public interest would be better served by introducing radical social and economic reforms to help curb the wealth gap, address the acute land and housing shortage and improve opportunities for and communications with disgruntled youth.” I don’t always agree with Ms Ip but, whether you support a commission of inquiry or not, on these issues she is talking common sense.

The events of this past weekend give me renewed hope that this gradual healing process can begin. After weeks of increasingly bitter accusations and escalating violence, all sides displayed welcome signs of tact. Sunday’s rally and impromptu march – attended by 1.7 million people, if you believe the organisers, although police insist it was just a fraction of this number – was largely peaceful, with protesters effectively policing themselves and snuffing out isolated incidents of radical behaviour.

Police adopted a hands-off approach and remained unseen for most of the march. The government, adopting a less strident tone than before, described the protest as “generally peaceful” with a spokesman commenting: “The most important thing currently is to restore social order as soon as possible. The government will begin sincere dialogue with the public, mend social rifts and rebuild social harmony when everything has calmed down.”

By returning – hopefully not temporarily – to peaceful means to highlight their grievances, Hong Kong’s protesters are offering the administration some much-needed wiggle room. If a truce of sorts can be maintained, our government has the opportunity to begin rapprochement and show it is serious about reform. The onus is on Carrie Lam to steer us to calmer waters.

This article was contributed by Colin Cohen, Senior Partner of Boase Cohen & Collins.

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