14 August 2019

Are the Hong Kong protests unjustified, pointless, and futile?

Does this fate await Hong Kong?
Why would its people protest knowing this will happen?
(cartoon copyright of https://latuffcartoons.wordpress.com)
Two months following the outbreak of apparently spontaneous, popular, and uncoordinated protests against Hong Kong's government, Hong Kong's people and its allegedly autonomous government are nowhere near a settlement. Instead, things have intensified. The protests have breached decades of civil society norms and sporadically turned violent (both physically and symbolically), while the government has employed force
that even crowd control experts elsewhere in the world find unjustified and excessive, fielded undercover cops as agents provocateur, and allegedly rented gangsters to beat up protesters in public.

There is a disinformation war waged by the Chinese Communist Party which will meet its match in a crowdfunded international advertising campaign from the protesters, while mere kilometers away, Chinese tanks have amassed at the border between China and its "Special Autonomous Region" of Hong Kong.

Have no doubt that this protest has already internationalised; without knowing, we are already consuming Chinese influence operations either from Peking or via its collaborators and useful idiots in your local area. We at Illusio urge you not to ignore the narratives from Peking, Hong Kong, or any faction, but to cast a critical eye on them.

An unruly mob that needs to be stamped out?

Hong Kong's future, either way: a boot stamping on a human face, forever?
The authorities in Peking have begun to characterise the protestors as terrorists and agents of foreign interference. There is naught to do but to laugh heartily at their delusion that this would sound convincing to anyone outside its totalitarian state. It is also par for the course for a regime that harasses, imprisons, disappears, or murders those who demand the right to vote, much less engage in protests. For a regime whose fear of the rise of a liberal young, educated, middle class made it choose to massacre an entire generation of youths in 1989, the demographics of this year's Hong Kong protest will no doubt set off Xi Jinping's Pavlovian reflex.

While there is certainly no credibility to Peking's rhetoric so far, it does signal the Communist Party's consistency to its mainland audience, that there will be no embarrassing climbdown on its part. Within the domestic CCP power structure, strongman Xi Jinping is in such an unparalleled power of authority that he is effectively trapped in a position of no retreat, no surrender - even when negotiations and compromises are necessary to resolve the situation.

Is it the economy, stupid?

Leslie Fong was once Singapore's former state newspaper chief and now special correspondent at the South China Morning Post. Fong is remembered by top journalists and editor PN Balji as a newsman who protected his staff against temper tantrums from thin skinned ministers. The average reader of The Straits Times would be more familiar with Fong's full throated op-ed defenses of the PAP government and its ideology. Imagine if you will, Fong working at a Chinese Pravda, since the Hong Kong paper was bought over by a Chinese oligarch. Then imagine Fong repeating his professional regime apologist schtick there. Speaking for himself only but hiding under the guise of unnamed "thoughtful Singaporeans", Fong opines that the protests have deep socioeconomic roots (aka "bread and butter causes") and the current kerfuffle can be resolved by the rioters allowing the Hong Kong government to apply itself to that set of problems (chief amongst which appear to be the public housing crisis - both increasingly unaffordable and 99 year leases all set to expire soon!)

Similarly, Singapore's minister for law K Shanmugam, who appears to be not just a Marxistfinder General but also a historian and economist, has gone on record stating his belief that socioeconomic problems in Hong Kong are the base of the protests.

There is naught to do but laugh with Singapore's establishment, for they are burying Hong Kong with the faintest of praise.

Governments exist to deliver social goods for all, and a public policy that satisfies a plurality of the popular vote. Socioeconomic problems and policy disagreements are routinely solved as a matter of government business by functioning representative democracies, even those with SAR Hong Kong's limited representation system. Policy and socioeconomic problems do not cause popular protests in functioning representative democracies, precisely because the popular ballot is a mechanism par excellence that ensures public policy aligns with public interests in the long run, tempering hardline policy to avoid revolutions from the masses or coups by the elites.

In fact, Hong Kong's colonial history has shown that its legislative council can and did moderate its policies upon popular protests, no matter how the protests were dealt with.

The statements by Singapore's establishment figures, while positioning as either a "pro regime pundit" or "credible governance theorist" faction, can only imply that Hong Kong's government and political system is not fit for purpose, that it has failed to deliver social goods for a long time, and that it is not just tone deaf or arrogant, but incapable of aligning public policy to popular demands and needs.

One country two systems to blame? Functional representation to blame?

We now examine the claims of the officially uncoordinated, spontaneous, leaderless protest movement in Hong Kong -- insofar as any claim can credibly, reasonably, and realistically be made by an allegedly spontaneous, uncoordinated, leaderless protest movement which continues to refuse to appoint representatives to negotiate with the Hong Kong government.

The five demands, apparently also formed out of the void in a similarly spontaneous, uncoordinated, leaderless manner as the protest movement, are:

We note that none of these demands mention any of the socioeconomic problems that Leslie Fong and minister K Shanmugam, presumably reasonable, responsible and respectable men, have pinpointed as the root cause of the protests. It cannot be that we are wrong about Fong and Shanmugam being reasonable, responsible and respectable men; rather, their analysis must be, while correct, not entirely correct and somewhat off the mark.

The extradition bill may have sparked the initial protests but they only grew in popularity because of the Hong Kong government's response: initially tone deaf, then increasingly entrenched and unresponsive to feedback, dismissive of the popular consensus, then outright hostility in its blatant use of excessive force, the local triad, undercover cops, and suspected deployment of undercover Public Security Bureau or 公安局 operatives/hoodlums from across the Chinese border.

Governments exist to deliver social goods for all, and a public policy that satisfies a plurality of the popular vote. The extradition bill is not seen as a social good, nor is it accepted by a plurality of Hong Kong citizens.

Policy problems and disagreements are routinely solved as a matter of government business by functioning representative democracies. The popular ballot is a mechanism par excellence that ensures public policy aligns with public interests in the long run. By signalling consistently over the years that it is far more interested in demolishing Hong Kong's autonomy (way ahead of schedule under the Basic Law) than delivering public goods and a coherent public policy, it is no wonder that it has steadily lost public trust. The fact that the same coalition of legislators keep getting elected under the system despite the lost of trust and inability to deliver is a sign that the system is unable to self-correct via the ballot box - leaving protests and demonstrations as the electorate's only option of political negotiation.

Hong Kong's functional representation system is incapable of electing legislators who can form a workable government that is accountable to its people. It is even incapable of electing legislators who are even willing and able to work for the interests of the people they represent, while being far more pliant to the interests of the autocrats in Peking and the tycoon cartel in Hong Kong. This problem is inherent to the system and has been highlighted by political scientists since shortly after the handover.

Fong and Shanmugam have fatally misdiagnosed the problem: it is not socioeconomic but political. Hong Kong's housing issue, public policy failures, and even the extradition bill problem cannot be solved without political reform of its broken functional representation system. The question, as with all protests, is whether a negotiated settlement featuring best compromises by interest coalitions can be possible under the so-called One Country, Two Systems arrangement between Hong Kong SAR and Peking. But that is the topic for our next discussion!

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