When I left for a trip overseas a week ago, the news was all about the removal of the last Occupy-Umbrella movement protestors from Admiralty and Causeway Bay. To pro-democracy activists attached to sitting in tents on streets as an end in itself, it was no doubt a wrench. To the Hong Kong government, it was cause for a triumphal declaration that the Great 2014 Tent Threat to Civilization has been vanquished once and for all.
A few days pass, and Occupy has passed into folklore. No fewer than four of the seven stories in the South China Morning Post’s two leading news pages concern Mainland corruption. Specifically: Hong Kong authorities raid securities firm Guotai Junan International; Chinese officials hold another China Resources executive; Beijing regulators clamp down on Macau money-laundering (after 10 years or so); and the plucky People’s Liberation Army remains resolute in its battle to clean itself up, oh yes. Around a quarter of the space is used up by advertisements for watches, of the tacky ‘luxury’ sort associated with palm-greasing north of the border.
That just about leaves room for a story about a Mainland tourist dying in a balloon accident in Turkey. A tragedy of course – but what is it doing on page 1? Genuinely puzzling. Is the loss of a Chinese national abroad supposed to rouse feelings of patriotic solidarity in readers? Or is the angle supposed to be the deaths last year of nine Hongkongers in a balloon explosion in Egypt, which is, you know, quite close to Turkey isn’t it? Or does someone simply not have a clue, and figured that this silly-sounding US-Cuba agreement to normalize relations is best tucked away on page 12?
Then there’s a Chinese bank’s economist wondering if Russia, with its plummeting currency, might ask for a bailout from Beijing – which would be a story if it happened, but otherwise isn’t. And Hong Kong’s Constitutional Affairs Secretary Raymond Tam carefully repeats the Foreign Ministry line that the UK has no post-1997 role in the city. Which brings us back to the pro-democracy Occupy-Umbrella thing, which obviously has not gone away at all.
With Beijing apparently micro-managing everything behind the scenes, the utterances of local Hong Kong officials have become slightly other-worldly and disjointed, as if they were all on some sort of drug. Police Commissioner Andy Tsang mutters darkly about rounding up instigators, as if the Tents-on-Streets people are some sort of Al-Qaeda in our midst. His bozo of a boss, Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok, blathers about billing protestors for the damage caused to government property. And then there’s his boss, Chief Executive CY Leung, rather rashly declaring everything ‘over’. The amateur psychologist in me guesses that, as well as reading from Beijing’s script here, these people are hoping that spouting such inanities will somehow detract from the wretchedly dismal disaster that has unfolded under their watch over the last few months.
Meanwhile, the pro-democracy camp is unsure what to do next. Lightening civil-disobedience strikes in the form of ‘shopping’ trips are (potentially) witty, poking fun at crass consumerism and gently taunting a police force that has found itself having to take sides in Hong Kong’s greatest modern political split. Hanging banners from mountains also works. Paying tax bills with multiple small-sum cheques, like withholding public-housing rents, is probably less advisable. Nothing delights the government more than pro-democrats exposing themselves to charges of harming public finances (like lawmakers filibustering funding requests or triggering oh-so expensive elections by resigning mid-term). Rightly or wrongly, Hong Kong people take such accusations seriously. (And for those of us on above-median incomes, writing out tens of thousands of cheques is seriously lifestyle-incompatible.)
Better to stay within the boundaries of what public opinion will accept – not play into the hands of the United Front and be squeezed onto the margins – and be patient. Enjoy the holidays. It is likely to be less than a month before the government launches the second round of consultation on political reform. The other-worldliness can only intensify as Beijing insists on carrying on with the phony exercise as if nothing has happened since August. Don’t sweat it. It is the people whose job is to sell guided democracy with a rigged nomination system who have the tough challenge ahead.