Johnny Lau: Four looming concerns that haunt the OC movement

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Johnny Lau shares four lessons he learned from his experience in Tiananmen Square. All parties involved in the current OC movement should take heed.


Originally written by Johnny Lau in Chinese, translated by Harbour Times journalist, Cassy Chau (周嘉怡).

As ” Occupy Central ” movement developments unfold, up until HT’s publication deadline, the government is now engaging in dialogue with HKFS. Protesters have been willing to “un-occupy” certain areas to reduce the impact on people’s livelihood. The situation has appeared to de-escalate slightly. However, while everyone is trying their best to resolve the current crisis, we must under no circumstances take resolution for granted.

I also witnessed a period of de-escalation, but tragedy was still inevitable in the end.

There are still four major concerns that Beijing, the Hong Kong Government, movement leaders and citizens must all face. Having been through the 1989 pro-democracy movement and the June 4th crack-down, I also witnessed a period of de-escalation, but tragedy was still inevitable in the end. There are certainly lessons to be learned.

Core issues remain
1. Although the Government and the people are willing to talk, the core issue is political reform. The fundamental problem still lies in the huge differences between authentic universal suffrage and “sham universal suffrage”. Within this enormous gap, neither parties have been willing to compromise below their respective bottom lines. Both parties continue to insist what they will not concede. To solve this fundamental problem is no easy feat.

To explain this, it is largely due to the longstanding impression that the Government (especially CY Leung) cannot be trusted. Especially after tear gas was fired by the police, any degree of trust shared between the government and the people was all but lost. When students took the initiative to request dialogue with the government, the students did not encourage withdrawal from occupied areas because they knew it would secure political tension and bargaining power over the Government. On the eve of “June 4th”, the students and the officials also had at least four meetings, but the results were not favourable. There was a huge gap between the version of democracy the students sought and what the officials found acceptable. It all ended in bloodshed. The effectiveness of these dialogues between the Hong Kong Government and the people is still unknown. All parties have much work to do.

Knowing its errors without making correction is China’s political character.

Lessons learned, not corrected
2.Beijing’s thinking, attitude and characterization cannot be ignored in this saga. So far, the way Beijing has characterized the incident is as follows: externally, it is an international struggle to prevent foreign and external forces from influencing and messing up Hong Kong; internally, it has been a “battle to defend the regime” to prevent anyone from hijacking the campaign and turning it into open defiance against the central leadership. In Chinese political culture, once an incident has been characterized one way(rightly or wrongly), it will go on no matter what. Even if the characterization has been found to be erroneous during the process, it will not change immediately. For example, even after Beijing realised that the hard-line stance it has taken has been less than effective, it has not changed immediately, nor will it let CY step down at the moment. Since CY has been executing Beijing’s orders, albeit to an extreme, letting CY step down would be like admitting its own policy errors. Knowing its errors without making correction is China’s political character. My concern is if the situation intensifies again, when will Beijing lose its patience? It is indeed difficult to predict. This is the trajectory the “June 4th” tragedy followed.

Leaders or followers at the front
3. Can the movement’s leaders remain highly united in the long run? Do they have the ability to control the direction and the details of the entire movement? This is one of the key issues. Currently, HKFS is still the most influential leader in Admiralty, but at the level of society as a whole, the three founders of OCLP still have greater influence (as some think HKFS is radical). On the other hand, in some of the occupied areas, neither HKFS or OCLP have any influence. The Government’s willingness to speak with HKFS will help solve the current dilemma. However, it could all just be a temporary strategy for the Government. Compared to moderate pan-democrats, the political reform advocated by HKFS lacks much leeway for compromise. In the end, the government will still prefer to negotiate with moderate pan-democrats. The voice and influence on political reform the students currently have will likely wain in the future, giving them much less incentive to back down now. Therefore, students and academics must properly combine youthful passion and experience to lead this movement better. On the eve of “June 4th”, students rejected advice from scholars, and Tiananmen Square was soon out of control. Can these lessons be avoided today?

Beware of black hearts, black hands
4. Do not ignore the fact that some may want the situation to deteriorate, so as to plunder for profit. This is the greatest tragedy in politics, but it is also inevitable. At the moment, the majority of citizens’ participation in the movement appears to be spontaneous. Yet, with little experience in mass movements, most are willing to move forward bravely, but little know the appropriate time to make strategic retreat. Some people will take advantage of their blind enthusiasm, and raise tensions between the Government and the public (for example, saying that the students are “starting a revolution”). There are also unlawful forces that are taking advantage of the situation by playing off already soured police and public relations, making the situation even more difficult to control.

So, if these four hidden concerns remain unresolved, the trajectory of this movement will remain unpredictable. I hope all parties tread with great political wisdom, and turn Hong Kong’s current situation around for the better!

Johnny Lau is a well-known commentator on a range of topics, especially on the Hong Kong-China nexus. He is the worker for Wen Wei Po from 1972 to 1989, where he retired as Bureau Chief. He is now a lecturer and China relations consultant and has been a mainstay of Hong Kong media for over 40 years.