Ripples of Occupy One Year On: Veteran journalist says age of Hong Kong’s “exceptionalism” is over

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Francis Moriarty ‘s optimism has run out for Hong Kong’s bleak political landscape.

Photo: Moriarty interviewing Alex Chow, then secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students during Occupy Movement

The following is the text of talk given by independent journalist Francis Moriarty to the Project Chambers group on 18 September to mark the anniversary of the Occupy Central/Umbrella Movement protests. It has been edited slightly for print.

So, one year on, and the anniversary of Occupation Central upon us – where do things stand?

To observe where things are, and guess at where they might be going, let’s reflect on how we got here.

I know this for certain:

If you had asked me 20 years ago where Hong Kong’s political development would be today, I would not have described anything resembling the present state of affairs.

I was very optimistic, and I was very wrong. My expectations for better governance were too high. I had hoped that, with the end of colonial rule, local talent would show how the city really ought to be run.

Some bureaucrats and advisors have tried, against what seem increasing odds. But it must be said that the overall performance of successive administrations has left people wanting. Not because of any talent shortage, but for reasons of politics and structure.

High on any list of the reasons for this perpetual governance problem is the political accountability system introduced by the first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa.

Consider its name: “political accountability” system. It is not called “performance accountability” system. Nor is it the “accountable politically” system, though that might be closer to reality.

Increasingly, it is seen as the “accountable to the Chief Executive’s political survival” system.

This leads me to the expanding controversy over the Chief Executive’s so-called transcendent powers under the Basic Law, which it seems is mainly about two things:

The first is accountability. Meaning the Hong Kong leader’s requirement to be accountable to Beijing for seeing that its policies implemented here.

Second, and more crucial, is legitimacy.

The assertion of transcendent powers does not address the nagging issue of legitimacy, and repeated references to constitutional instruments as the source of legitimacy only serve to point up the absence of popular mandate – exactly the opposite of the intended result.

Unhappiness over governance – and over administrations seen as imposing values imported from elsewhere – has been the root of virtually every large-scale protest since 1997 – Article 23, national education, the high-speed railway and, of course, Occupy Central.

The younger generation views the social and political environment as deteriorating, and they are making important life decisions accordingly; this especially so for undergraduates, post-graduate students and recent grads who are starting out in their chosen professions. They feel personally affected by the pressures to which they see the education system being subjected, and are making tough choices whether to stay in Hong Kong or pursue their dreams elsewhere.

I should make it clear that I distinguish between administration and governance – Hong Kong is a very well administered city, probably about as good as it gets, but it is not equally well-governed.

Let me define my terms:

To me, government means a body with legal responsibility and authority, including moral authority and the support of the governed.

Governance is process –identifying needs, setting appropriate policies, monitoring implementation, making corrections and accepting responsibility.

Sometimes, good governance means having to say you’re sorry.

The persistent problems of governance that we’re experiencing are mainly structural, but they are made worse by the near-absolute refusal of the responsible officials to address the issue of obtaining mandate and legitimacy through a process capable of engendering real popular support. That, and the absolute refusal to say, we’re sorry.

Also on the list of things that I was wrong about was the direction that the Mainland would take – and the degree and velocity of the changes it would undergo – over the 20-plus years after 1989.

China’s extraordinary economic growth has fundamentally altered Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland — closing the gap while undermining the SAR’s self-confidence.

And, I was wrong – again — for expecting that China would live up to its promise of democracy as early as 2007, as promised in the Basic Law.

After all, I thought, how could Beijing possibly go back on such a solemn promise, on such an important matter, involving a place as important as Hong Kong? It could not possibly be in the best interests of the nation to let Hong Kong become what people in those days referred to as “just another mainland city.”

My confidence took a hit when both the Liberal Party and the DAB removed the universal suffrage in 2007 planks from their respective platforms but still, with so many things going for it, how could Hong Kong not be master of its own fate?

Well, a lot of things changed — some radically — including, all those other mainland cities.

In short: The age of Hong Kong’s “exceptionalism” is over.

During the past few decades Hong Kong people, and those who wish them the best, have conducted discussions as if the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China was one thing, while the Basic Law and Joint Declaration were things apart.

Hong Kong people, and their supporters, believed that this little place would show the way – in economy, in education, in law, in social development — for the more than one billion people on the mainland.

And, somehow, river water and well water would not meet.

Hong Kong was exceptional. Its tycoons were exceptional. The people were exceptional. The wealth was exceptional. The number of Rolls-Royces lined up outside the Landmark was exceptional. It was a time when someone would drop a $1,000 for lunch and just say, “Cheap!”

Hong Kong was not unlike like Lake Woebegone, the mythical town invented by the American storyteller, Garrison Keilor: a place where “all the women are beautiful, all the men good-looking, and all of the children above-average.”

Our future was so bright we had to wear shades. Preferably designer.

Yes, there were worries and cautionary voices. But we had the promise of Deng Xiaoping to put hearts at ease: There would be One Country-Two Systems, Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy – for at least 50 years.

No one expected– nor did anyone seek – political independence.

But most people expected what they were being promised: rule of law, basic rights and liberties, and – eventually – a government elected by universal suffrage according to democratic procedures.

What a different space we inhabit today. Now, there are worries openly voiced about what will happen 32 years from now, when 2047 rolls around.

Full democracy has been repeatedly put off – and, like justice, democracy deferred is democracy denied. The White Paper issued last year by Beijing made that denial all but permanent and triggered the Umbrella protests.

Along the path to the present, the development of political parties has become stunted, splintered and malformed, resembling some kind of strange banzai plant – artificially bound, unnaturally twisted, pleasing uniquely to the gardener.

Governance – which I fully expected would improve post-1997 – has significantly worsened. The problem has become systemic and more difficult than ever to resolve.

Public support for the government is weak. Few government ministers get passing grades for competency in public opinion polls. The same surveys show the popularity of the chief executive approaching historic lows, while his unpopularity is at an all-time high – meaning there is very little middle ground where the public might be swayed. That is what is what polarisation means: In the words of Yeats, “things fall apart/the center cannot hold.”

Of course the government’s decision-making is affected but it’s caught in a bind : on one hand, wanting to be — and under pressure to be — decisive when implementing policies, but at the same time treading cautiously lest it ignite opposition.

There are few officials or advisors who can be rolled out in a crisis and carry the day: Chief Secretary Carrie Lam has been overly deployed; Regina Ip courts controversy and is assumed to harbour her own political ambitions; ministers have stepped down over illegalities; advisors like Anna Wu, who managed the flare-up over national education, and Exco convener Lam Woon-kwong, are known to have sympathy for pan-democrats.

Complicating matters is internal division – as the sacking of Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak-sing and Civil Service Secretary Paul Tang suggests.

The dumping of Tsang Tak-sing – a person of unquestioned loyalty to Beijing – sent a clear message to the older generation of Leftists and some pro-Beijing tycoons that their sell-by date is past. During the ongoing crackdown on corruption, a purge by another name, it does not help the old Leftists that they nearly all have links to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

A split among tycoons has been evident. A widening rift involving tycoons, princelings and SOE’s bears careful watching.

So, Hong Kong is slipping from the warm comfort of exceptionalism into the cold discomfort of Mainland factionalism. The Xi Jinping administration is the new game in town, and C.Y. Leung has moved rapidly to get in line with it.

If the downfall of 66-year-old Tsang Tak-sing is attributable to his inadequate work with youth preceding Umbrella protests, it is hard to see how it will be improved by replacing him with 58-year-old Lau Kong-wah, a politician who is widely caricatured as a bespectacled trash can — and who in fact can be Googled using the search terms “Lau Kong-wah rubbish bin.”

If Lau Kong-wah’s experience with district work is supposed to be an advantage, one has to ask why this did not work in his favor when he campaigned for one of the five Legco super seats — elected citywide — and failed?

Tsang Tak-sing’s departure may also be a spear pointed at his brother, Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, who denies ambition for higher office but is among the few persons who could command a modicum of public support in any real race for chief executive.

Viewed this way, Tsang Tak-sing’s forced departure could be a pre-emptive move aimed at clearing away potential challengers for the top job in 2017.

Paul Tang’s dismissal from the post of civil service secretary is widely viewed as an indication of Leung’s view – probably shared by the Liaison Office, whose pronouncements increasingly precede statements from Hong Kong officials – that the civil service is at risk of “going rogue” and needs to be disciplined.

During Occupy, many civil servants showed support for the protesters by wearing yellow ribbons as they went in and out of the Central Government Offices. Quite a few posted their sentiments on social media sites. But a number of them have since told me that they and their colleagues no longer express their thoughts openly at work, or on the internet, because they strongly suspect that they are being monitored, even on personal computers.

One bureaucrat’s wife told me that she and her husband no longer discuss political or work issues at home, not even over the dinner table.

“He gets upset,” she said, “and besides, I already know how he feels.”

The impression that people are being monitored for their views seems to be on the rise, likely in response to police prosecution of online activists. It would be very interesting to see a poll done on the public’s thoughts regarding electronic surveillance.

And if bureaucrats are feeling monitored, their loyalties suspect and needing to be brought into line, it must unavoidably have an effect on policy debate with the government.

The era of freewheeling, heated internal debate behind CGO’s closed doors – like the era of Hong Kong’s exceptionalism — may also be on the way out.

The emotions and hostilities of the post-Occupy environment might have reduced from a rolling boil to a slow simmer, but the passion and energy remain, especially among the young. The clamor has largely died down, but just because people are not shouting does not mean they have become convinced.

Even so, I cannot foresee anytime soon a repeat of what we saw a year ago. The conditions have changed – we are more likely to see what I would call asymmetrical challenges – specific, carefully selected skirmishes on specific issues rather than full-on frontal protest.

The arguments will rise in volume as the next round of district council elections approaches and a number of Occupy activists announce their candidacies. More will follow in the subsequent Legislative Council elections. Those elections will be run as a de- facto referendum on the government and on democracy

As mentioned earlier, the community is polarized at many levels and this will prove bad news for the government longer term.

Consider the row triggered by Zhang Xiaoming, the head of Beijing’s Liaison Office here, regarding the so-called superior powers of the Chief Executive under the Basic Law.

Mr Zhang was stating what is official policy and he has said it before. But even when formulaic and anodyne, the frequency and timing of such statements is another matter.

It is not simply a matter of Mr. Zhang’s recent utterances, nor those of former Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung who – without giving the citation from the 1993 amendment to the Chinese constitution’s preamble — told reporters that it is wrong to call the PRC is a one-party state, as there other parties are referred to in the Constitution.

Again, the real point behind these recent comments on the Chief Executive’s special status has to do with legitimacy – an issue not only under discussion here but also being whispered on the mainland.

The comments seem designed to remind Hong Kong that it was a colony before the handover, and remains so. They are telling us that just like the Governors before him, who were appointed by the monarch and operating under the Standing Orders and Royal Instructions, so too the Chief Executive has an imperial appointment and represents the nation in Hong Kong.

The message seems to be: “No one at all elected the governor, but 1,200 people elect the Chief Executive. That’s more democracy than you ever had. So suck it up and be happy.”

Viewed through this lens, the Chief Executive’s authority cannot be compromised – so there should little surprise that these comments are timed to coincide with the Umbrella protests and aimed to fend off any repeat performance.

But the timing of the statements is also at once perverse. It was entirely predictable that a reaction to them would be triggered from pro-democracy quarters. It seems Beijing is very much playing a game of hard and soft – opening quiet talks with some pan-democrats, while at the same taking a line that touches on their deepest concerns.

The way Xi handed the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender and military parade has also fed into the sense of disquiet here, and raised further questions about legitimacy: How, people ask, can victory in a war that ended in 1946 under the Kuomintang be celebrated by a Communist government that was not formed until three years after the Japanese surrender?

And closer to home, the growing lead-in-water controversy is gradually adding to the discussion of legitimacy. I am told that there was/is considerable division of opinion at very high circles over how to deal with it, one camp arguing for the usual approach, the other camp (prevailing, for now) arguing that if not handled properly the revelations could bring the government down. The question to which reporters are seeking an answer was posed famously by Senator Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings: “What did you know and when did you know it?” If it should be established that someone knew in government knew of the problem but did not immediately act, it could bring the government down.

Playing with legitimacy issues is risky. As I said earlier, the more one relies on statements of formal power, which is authority, the more it points up the absence of popular legitimacy.

So, what holds Beijing back? What keeps it from putting an end to the local drama by suspending the Basic Law and imposing direct rule? Fear of local reaction? That has not held it back elsewhere.

I think the answer lies mainly in economics and global politics.

Hong Kong’s benefit to the mainland goes well beyond its ability to dry clean extraordinary quantities of money.

There are many benefits that flow to China because of Hong Kong’s special status with countries overseas – not least of all the United States, where President Xi is about to go on a state visit, and where in the capital three of the key figures in the Umbrella protests – Benny Tai, Joshua Wong and Martin Lee — will be also appearing at the 75th anniversary of Freedom House.

I’ll stop there.