By Jean-François Dupré
On Tuesday morning, Chief Executive Carrie Lam appeared at a much-anticipated conference.
Not only has she merely hinted at the potential withdrawal of the Extradition Bill (“the bill is dead”)—thus falling short of agreeing to any of the Anti-Extradition protesters’ many demands—her statement only reiterated the same platitudes the SAR government has been spouting for the past two decades.
Like an automaton speaking from a skipping record, Lam pledged to sincerely listen to the public and to broaden the basis for communication.
But we’ve heard this before, and we all know that the government’s version of “listening to the people” usually runs like this: “The government is now consulting the public on political reform. Our proposal is to increase the share of voters from 0.00015 per cent to 0.00017 per cent of the population. Together, let’s roll forward democracy! Send us your views!”. They would be advised to add this disclaimer: “options other than those laid out in this leaflet will not be considered due to [insert dubious legalistic or procedural constraint or fallacious argument here]”.
Most people would take the word “listening” to imply “taking into consideration” and “influencing” policy-making. But here lies the problem. In usual government speech, “listening” means, quite literally, just “listening”.” Something closer to “hearing.” As in: “if you shout loud enough, take to the streets by the millions, and tear the Legislative Council down, perhaps some of us will hear you from our secluded mansions.” But most of the time, it seems government house has been darn well soundproofed.
Remember that in 2014, after rounds of public consultation and the threat of the Occupy Central movement, the government’s assessment of the public consultation exercise was basically that Hongkongers had been quite happy with the pace of reforms so far.
Remember also that the government’s official interpretation of the extradition debacle is still not that they were wrong to propose such a harmful bill in the first place, but that they just didn’t explain it well enough. Explain something nonsensical for long enough, and to the weak-minded, it will eventually start to make sense. Or so they must think. Unable to bulldoze their way through things, they think they can brainwash their way out of the fiasco.
Lam also promised to “reform the existing consultative machinery” so as to “receive views from a wider spectrum of society,” with an emphasis on the “Youth Development Commission.”
Calls to enhance communication by an authoritarian government (or by any government for that matter) can only have one aim: co-option. Lam’s plea to multiply and broaden communication platforms is merely an open search for goons who might be willing to sell out their group, help get the government’s message across, and by the same token legitimise the system.
People don’t want to be merely consulted – they want to be in charge!
“My sincere plea is, please give us an opportunity, the time, the room for us to take Hong Kong out of the current impasse,” Lam said. She is clearly just buying more time, hoping for the anti-government momentum to cool down, thus avoiding tangible reforms, including her own resignation and replacement through democratic means.
In a word, all of Carrie Lam’s promises boil down to one thing: strengthening the system of consultative and electoral authoritarianism in place. The government’s promises for change are in fact promises for authoritarian stagnation. This is a song we’ve been hearing for a long time.
There is only one answer to Hong Kong’s political woes and for its government’s legitimacy crisis: democracy. And to get there, Hong Kong’s civil society cannot simply oscillate between relative compliance and sudden bursts of rage every half-decade or so. It needs to put constant and persistent pressure on the government, and avoid cooptation traps that are meant to bribe the opposition and strengthen the system’s legitimacy.
Jean-François Dupré is a political scientist and Hong Kong permanent resident