After he eventually re-emerged from his bunker days after the big July 1 march against the Article 23 national security law in 2003, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa tried offering some concessions. For months, critics had demanded tighter safeguards in the proposed legislation – things like requiring police to get a warrant before raiding suspected subversives. And for months, officials had said these were impossible. Suddenly they became delightfully easy to do. But it was too late. The national security law, a requirement of the Basic Law, was finished, and the real issue was how long it would be before the Crop-Haired One stood down, and whether Beijing would do anything to improve the quality of governance in Hong Kong.
Evidently it did not. Today’s Hong Kong government is in the same position, multiplied by a hundred or so. It is hinting at minor concessions to the political reform package, such as the scrapping of corporate votes in the election process that forms the 1,200-strong nominating committee. This comes on top of the Big Exciting Offer to send a supplementary memo to Beijing giving a truer picture of local opinion on political reform. As in 2003, such ‘concessions’ should have been in-built from the start – but that’s not the point. Protesters and their apparently growing numbers of sympathizers should be looking beyond the technical details of electoral arrangements. With Chief Executive CY Leung blaming invisible foreign enemies and describing the less-wealthy half of the population as unfit for civic life, the nominating committee is a sideshow.
The boss aside, the administration remains morbidly fixated on the political reform package and the protesters occupying the streets. The attitude is ‘wet streets cause rain’: protestors occupying intersections create political crisis. Officials have offered all the concessions they can, so why aren’t the students pulling out of Admiralty and going back to class? It’s a fascinating and puzzling thing to watch. Do they genuinely not get it? Or are they deliberately closing their eyes to reality for fear of what they will see? Or are they pretending (superbly) not to get it because that’s what Beijing expects and requires?
The cliché du jour is that it’s unfair to expect the poor old Hong Kong Police to sort out this major political mess. The fact is that it’s not even reasonable to expect CY and his floundering functionaries to solve it. It is Beijing that has screwed this up. It has mishandled Hong Kong over the years by putting losers in charge, enabling rampant cronyism, and alienating much of the population, especially the young. And now it has brought everything to a head by using disproportionate, belligerent and crude methods to impose what is essentially minor political reform.
If 2003 is any guide, the Chinese government will just walk away. But then again, the one thing the Communist Party fears is its own citizenry – especially when they’re on the streets.