How many weekends in a row has it been?
And who would bother counting – other than those members of the administration who, hushed like a pious congregation the past nine weeks, seem to have convinced themselves that Hong Kong is in the grip of an ideological super typhoon… originating, ostensibly, from the US and Taiwan.
The most responsible solution to weathering this cross-Pacific conspiracy must be to deploy the police, admire the bravery and subtlety of the PLA’s latest video-propaganda, and wait it out. Except, of course, that there is no countdown to clear skies.
With no end-point to the protests in sight, and with the protesters’ initial list of demands growing to include calls for broader democratic freedoms that have either been eroded in recent years or, like universal suffrage, never formally existed in Hong Kong at all, the question arises: what possible terms could there be for a reconciliation between the protest movement and the administration of Carrie Lam?
The original demand of the protesters now seems amusingly unambitious: the withdrawal of the extradition bill. The Chief Executive’s assurance that “the bill is dead”, conspicuously unaccompanied by the bill’s formal withdrawal, is being seen by many as a dismissive and stingingly undemocratic slap in the face of at least those roughly two million people who took to the streets on June 16.
And while it is true that Lam’s apparent nonchalance and disregard of the protesters’ primary objective was a stubborn assertion of her authority, it nevertheless proved that the protest movement is not powerless.
It does have sufficient numbers to make an impact on policy-making – whether that is achieved through disruption, through drawing attention from international media to the state of Hong Kong’s autonomy, or through repeatedly calling into question the Chief Executive’s ability to manage an increasingly divided society.
The incremental expansion of protesters’ demands, to include, among other things, the resignation of Lam, an independent inquiry into the behaviour of the police, and a retraction of the term “riot” as applied to the June 12 protests has functioned as a counter-move by the protest movement in the game of power initiated by the administration through its refusal to scrap the extradition bill.
No one could expect all of the protesters’ demands to be met, and it becomes increasingly difficult to see why any of them would be at this stage, given that the government has defined its response to the unrest in terms of a lack of response, resulting in a situation of stalemate.
What can the protesters do then, in the wake of the deafening silence from their own leaders? One idea, of course, is for the protesters to call for a radical overturn of the current system of leadership, to demand full democracy, and to set themselves in direct and persistent opposition to the ideology of the PRC and its encroachment on the liberties in Hong Kong that many Hongkongers feel define them.
This latter point – the raging question of what constitutes the identity of a Hongkonger – now gives a fresh impetus to the movement – and a rather more dangerous one. If your identity as a Hongkonger arises in large part from the enjoyment of freedoms unavailable to citizens on the mainland, how far will you go to uphold that identity once the tenancy on the “one country, two systems” model ends?
For now, outraged protesters know that they are able to provoke. Whether it be flying the colonial flag during marches and rallies or defacing the PRC seal at the mainland’s liaison office on July 21, one suspects that they anticipate with some degree of relish the angry reaction of the central government, or of particularly vilified officials like Junius Ho.
In the case of Ho, his comments following the desecration of his parents’ graves, interpreted in some quarters as veiled death threats (specifically to pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu), exemplify the kind of embarrassing, self-flagellating diplomatic disposition that has prevented meaningful talks between officials and protest representatives.
“The paths ahead of you”, Ho warns, “one is the path of being alive, the other is one of not being alive. Which path would you choose? Make up your mind early.”
The difficulty now in making sense of the current political situation, let alone articulating a prospective solution to the turmoil, is that it is not even clear that we are in crisis. This may be the new face of Hong Kong politics, one defined by a constant evolution of fears and desires on both sides – a politics incompatible with clear-cut definitions. The problem is one of misrecognition, or denial, on the part of the government regarding the true nature of its opponents.
It has currently chosen the police force as a substitute for its position in the game of diplomacy. But, with the police as the only line of communication between the government and its citizens, the result is a diplomacy whose medium of negotiation can only, sadly, be the threat of physical or legal repercussion.
The PRC may choose to dismiss the protests as anomalies arising from pockets of radical thought and label protesters “extremists”. But the meaning of the word “crisis” when applied to recent events seems to have already shifted to a point where the tone of unyielding defiance that we have come to expect from Beijing sits hopelessly at odds with reality.
Since neither organised protests nor heated, even violent confrontation between hard-core protesters and riot police show any sign of abating, we can say that we are either currently living in or at least on the brink of living in something like a post-crisis political climate, where the fundamental meaning of the protests shifts away from opposition to the extradition bill or Carrie Lam or the police form to opposition to the current system as a whole.
The endgame is now, and protesters are growing increasingly weary of playing according to the current set of rules. Very soon, if it is not already too late, the government will find itself without an opponent that it recognises.