Harbour View: A knock in the night

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Two fears create an irreconcilable gap between those negotiating over Hong Kong’s future.

In the endless debate surrounding the minutiae of our next CE election, it seems that a crucial distinction is being lost. It is at the heart of the unbridgeable gap among those tussling over how Hong Kong will be governed. Many people understand it in their hearts, but it is not articulated enough. This is not about 50 per cent of nomination committee votes, how many candidates there will be, or 2017 versus 2022.

At the heart of this division are two fears, two ways of living, and two possible futures for Hong Kong.

Control or die
There are, in modern ordered societies, two basic ways of living. In one based on personal power, you have control or you die. In societies characterised by rule of man and without the checks and balances that democratic societies enjoy, the alternative to control is loss of control, followed by death or imprisonment.

When Mao Zedong was the undisputed ruler of a fifth of humanity he would not fly for fear of assassination. No matter how high anyone rises, they live in fear. Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang were immensely powerful – until they weren’t. The average citizen can hope to keep their mouth shut, their head down, and escape notice, but they never know when they may anger someone, have their property seized to further someone else’s ends, or just fall victim to a whim of someone with marginally more power than them. The high and mighty live in constant fear of losing their billions of dollars and decades of accumulated power in a heartbeat. What hope is there for the peasant whose land is seized, the lawyer who defends those suffering from forced abortions or the artist who is ‘disappeared’ for an inopportune word?

the alternative to absolute control is loss of control, followed by death or imprisonment.

In such places, power is the only currency and one that can be lost at any moment. Everyone, from top to bottom lives in constant fear of losing whatever control they have. As the most powerful currency, power is fanatically sought, jealously guarded and never ceded.
Accordingly, giving the people of Hong Kong a modicum of control over their future is terrifying lest the idea spread to the rest of China, leading to a loss of control. This is the fear that every power holder in Beijing has and the source of the hardness of their hearts.

A knock in the night
In Hong Kong, we don’t live with that fear yet – but people see it coming. The accusation levelled at the colonial British, that they didn’t implement democracy here, is perfectly valid – and misses the point. People in modern, ‘cleaned up’ Hong Kong don’t fear a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Police catch bad guys; they are not the bad guys. Rule of law means that people don’t live in fear of political enemies or random forces that could overturn their lives. They can speak their minds. For the many faults of colonial era rule, the essentials of a free society were in place, but one: self rule.

Losing political control in a place like this does not mean death or prison. It means you live to fight another day. You may suffer unpopularity, but not imprisonment, attacks, confiscation of your property or torture. People have a chance for succour from neighbours, charity and family who will not be persecuted for helping the fallen.

This is what the people of Hong Kong fear. Concerns about air pollution, integrity of the food supply, job opportunities, wealth distribution, labour laws and yes, constitutional reform, are all very real. But when everything – your life, family, freedom and property – can be taken away in a heartbeat, everything else is secondary.

Where power lies
In a system that is so strongly executive led, with police, prosecution, and laws in the hands of the Chief Executive, it is no surprise that the struggle is around his or her election. The suggested reforms to LegCo proposed earlier this week generated no more than casual interest. The power is elsewhere.

There are other sources of power in society. Moral authority is available to those who have the freedom to speak. Our judiciary recently made a strong stand for its independence. Capitalism allows for business people to have their own access to resources to advance their views.

In places where political power is the only law, rulers bring these alternative seats of power under their control. Press is seized and censored, judges replaced, capital seized. In Cambodia, the first act of the Khmer Rouge was to close the markets and abolish the currency, crushing capitalism. That is what it looks like when it happens quickly. It can happen slowly to the unvigilant.

power is the only currency and one that can be lost at any moment.

There will be those who might think the concerns of Hong Kong’s most vocal activists to be overblown. But with newspaper editors being attacked in the street, a seemingly compromised ICAC raiding the offices and homes of pro-dems and religious leaders, and even non-political business people like Ricky Wong being blocked by arbitrary government decisions, it is no wonder Hong Kongers question how quickly they are losing their future.

Two irreconcilable fears are colliding, between those who live in constant fear and those who would live without it. Behind all the talk of this vote or that vote is this yawning gap.

Others in different places in time and geography have bridged this gap. There are lessons from the former Soviet Union, parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe where those at the top of the pyramid of fear have let go of control to let people be free. Hong Kong’s situation is unique, yes, but we must learn from others to fashion our own response to this challenge.

If not, Hong Kong will cease to be the capital of capitalism, Asia’s World City or even the Fragrant Harbour. The only fragrance that will rise will be the stench of fear and the Hong Kong we know will be no more.