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Hongkongers’ dialogue with Carrie Lam? You say what you want, and I’ll tell you you can’t have it

It is difficult to generate much optimism for the up-coming “dialogue” between government and people, because so many outcomes have been ruled out from the start.

The Executive Council convenor, Bernard Chan, has said that the government has agreed that there will be no “further concessions” on the five points for which protesters have been asking.

Carrie Lam

Carrie Lam. File Photo: StandNews.

Nothing at all. So the dialogue, supposing that anyone on the protest side bothers to participate at all, will consist of one side explaining what it wants and the other side telling them they are not going to get it.

This is not a dialogue. It’s a meaningless monologue disguised as a dialogue.

The dialogue will be the political equivalent of a baby’s dummy: they put it in your mouth, you suck it, nothing comes out of it but they hope it will put you to sleep.

Of course it is not for old fogeys like me to speak for the “water people”, but the expectation that protesters will accept the government’s latest step as justifying a reciprocal offering from them seems far too hopeful.

Machiavelli wrote that a prince can choose to be beloved, or choose to be feared, but he needs in any case to be respected. Our government has managed a tragic trifecta: it is neither loved, feared nor respected. It is time to recognise that some of the positions taken in the past few years are no longer tenable.

As Sun Tsu put it, “the general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace … is the jewel of the kingdom.” It is time for some tactful retreating.

Some of the things in the five points are, alas, not in the government’s gift. Full democracy, to start with, will have to wait for a change of weather in Beijing or an implausible change of mind from Pooh.

queen elizabeth stadium

Queen Elizabeth Stadium – the dialogue venue. Photo: GovHK.

Some of them, on the other hand, look quite painless. What is the problem with a Commission of Inquiry? Those who have done nothing wrong, as we are always told when some expansion of police powers is in the offing, have nothing to fear.

There have been such inquiries in Hong Kong before. The sky did not fall. It is true that, as Mr Henry Litton put it, it would take two years and the outcome would not satisfy everybody. So, he thought, it would be a waste of time. But this is a bizarre objection coming from a former judge of the Court of Final Appeal.

Has there ever been a case before the CFA, one wonders, which took less than two years to fight its way up the legal ladder, and left all the parties involved satisfied? This does not make the CFA a waste of time.

Ms Regina Ip thinks an inquiry unnecessary because the government’s preferred inquiry by the Independent Police Complaints Committee has been reinforced by some outside figures and now has the necessary credibility. This is, alas, not true.

The IPCC has been with us for a long time. It is the place where police complaints go to die: where they are painlessly euthanised and respectfully buried. The idea that it can be transformed into a fearless investigator of police transgressions by the addition of a few fresh members of the establishment is fanciful.

A proper inquiry needs to be able to compel witnesses to attend and to offer them, in appropriate cases, immunity from prosecution as a result of anything they may admit in evidence. It needs its own research team to identify issues and relevant sources of information.

It does not matter too much if the final report does not command universal approval. The process is important. It allows people to say what they want to say in a public forum, and the media to report it. The evidence given can be tested by cross-examination and people who have something at risk in the proceedings can be legally represented.

june 26 g20 china extradition protest

Photo: Darius Chan Ho Shun/CHRF.

The fact that this may result in a slow-moving legal drama running on for two years or more is not necessarily a disadvantage. Over time passions cool, monstrous slights diminish in perspective, obsessive personalities find other things to obsess about and people who have not distinguished themselves can be quietly promoted to somewhere harmless.

The case for a proper inquiry seems to be almost universally accepted outside government circles, though no doubt for different reasons. Some people would like it called something else. “Truth Commission” may be a bit ambitious for something so infested with lawyers.

Then there is the matter of definition. Are the protests, or some of them, “riots”? This ought to be a non-issue. We do not have the mainland system, where the Party identifies you as a spy, a traitor, a troublemaker or an evil cult, and the role of the court is simply to translate the identification into the language of execution or imprisonment.

In our system it does not matter whether the Commissioner of Police or the Chief Executive says that an event is a riot, because this is the matter for the courts to determine as individual cases come before them.

So it would not change anything that matters if the Commissioner, and the CE, were to “clarify” that they were using “riot” as a lay term meaning a disorderly event and were not seeking in any way to influence the judgement of prosecutors or courts.

Then there is the matter of the amnesty. Contrary to an often-repeated untruth, there is no problem with the rule of law here. Countries with civil law systems (a category in which some optimists place China) do sometimes have partial amnesties.

The usual excuse is some national celebration – the King’s birthday, or a new government, say – and the usual offering is a reduction either in percentage or length of time terms, often confined to non-violent offenders, which lets some people out and gives others an earlier release date to look forward to.

This performs a useful role in conservative societies where the judges are rather free with long sentences.

west kowloon law courts building judiciary

The West Kowloon Law Courts Building. File photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

So there should be no objection to some form of amnesty in Hong Kong, though the exact terms will have to be framed carefully to avoid the appearance of unfairness.

The most tempting arrangement would be an amnesty for public order offences before a certain date. The advantage of this is that the inevitable objections from the police unions could be met with the reply that it was exactly like the amnesty which they extorted for corrupt cops in 1978.

As for democracy, a dramatic change is not on offer, but the government could withdraw some of the innovations made at its own initiative which took us further from a democratic system than we need to be to meet mainland requirements.

The government could, for example, drop the legally dubious practice of asking Returning Officers to vet candidates for elected office. This may be lawful but it is not compulsory. If a candidate meets the formal requirements laid down in the law then the sincerity with which she or he has supplied oaths, signatures or declarations should be a matter for the electorate, not a civil servant.

It could also put a rocket under the Electoral Affairs Commission, whose increasingly dilatory performance in filling vacant seats (the time taken for this process has ballooned from three months to more than a year) is an alarming problem in these days when councillors are unseated in such large quantities.

These are ways in which we can make progress not towards a democratic government, but at least towards a government which looks as if it aspires to democracy and is not devoted to frustrating every possible manifestation of it.

The question, of course, is whether we have such a government, or merely a government which is desperate for a bit of peace and quiet in the run-up to October’s national festivities. This will no doubt become clear in the next couple of weeks.

How not to do this is indicated by the progress on the first point: the withdrawal of the extradition bill. It is, we are now told, to be fully and formally withdrawn. If this had been offered in the first week, or even perhaps in the second week, of June it would have ended our summer of discontent before it started.

Instead, we were told that the bill was dead. This led to an endless argument. On one side were those who thought that though described as “dead” it might rise like Tim Finnegan if splashed with a bit of whisky. Others thought that dead was dead and there was no need to inflict the additional indignity of burying the bill at a crossroads with a stake through its heart.

Finally the government conceded the crossroads and the stake, only to discover that formal withdrawal of the bill requires the presence of the Legislative Council, which will not meet until October.

This is a textbook example of how not to offer an olive branch. Concessions which are made slowly, reluctantly and late do not count. What is needed is some sign of a sincere and genuine change of heart. Dialogues and focus groups are not it.


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Hongkongers' dialogue with Carrie Lam? You say what you want, and I'll tell you you can’t have it