Our society needs an open talk but has to approach it fairly

Our society needs an open talk but has to approach it fairly

Updated: 2019-07-10 07:31

By Christine Loh(HK Edition)

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Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor reached out to student leaders at local universities to meet to start mending deep divisions in Hong Kong. The students demanded a meeting in public; and exoneration of protesters facing criminal charges – a condition the government could not accept.

The lightning rod to Hong Kong’s political crisis was the now “suspended” – dead – extradition bill that would allow case-by-case renditions of alleged fugitive offenders from Hong Kong to other jurisdictions, including the mainland. People came out repeatedly in droves ranging from hundreds of thousands to perhaps 2 million to object. Even with safeguards, they feared the bill could be misused by the mainland for political purposes and local officials would be unable to resist the pressure.

The bill touched on a very raw nerve in Hong Kong. People feel their political system has not improved after the handover in 1997, the rich versus poor divide has continued to widen, and housing prices remain unaffordable. A rising China should make people feel positive but there is also a sense of unease that Hong Kong has become less important and the younger generations must become more competitive to survive.

Hong Kong’s uniqueness is its strong institutions and liberal way of life. Its independent judicial system, clean administration, professional policing and individual freedoms make it a good place to live and work. The extradition bill stirred up deep wells of concern that the special features of Hong Kong are being eroded.

Our society needs an open talk but has to approach it fairly

Hong Kong disengaged from Britain and connected to the People’s Republic of China as a special administrative region in 1997. The world has since changed. British politics is engulfed by Brexit and China’s rise in economic, diplomatic, technological and military terms is arousing angst among Western powers. Hong Kong is a corner of the world where geopolitics is colliding.

There is a great need for dialogue within Hong Kong. People’s political sentiments, especially those of the younger generations, are aligned with Western liberal thinking. That’s why they want universal suffrage and for their personal liberties to be protected. That is how they understood the “one country, two systems” principle that governs post-1997 arrangements. They are extremely sensitive to anything that smells like a diminution of their way of life.

It is against that background that the contending sides of Hong Kong politics, including the government, have to think about dialogue and reconciliation. The demand for a meeting between the government and students in an open forum is understandable. After all, student leaders want to be accountable to their constituents and it is best if everyone can see and hear what happens.

Besides, social media is enabling a new kind of “leaderless” activism not under anyone’s control. Student leaders know only too well social media can bring all kinds of people together very quickly and for directions to come from many quarters about what recipients of messages should do.

Government officials are concerned an open meeting will be a media fest – good for finger-pointing and clever insults but not deliberation – and it may even make society more polarized. An open meeting took place during the illegal “Occupy Central” protests in 2014 between student leaders and officials; it did not narrow differences between them on electoral reform.

While officials continue to talk to those who are willing to engage; they can also consider facilitating a discussion on how to design a process for open community dialogue, including with youths. In other words, focus first on form before substance. Without an agreed process that is seen as fair and workable, it would not be possible to get into the substance of concerns.

For guidance and inspiration, it may not be too far-fetched to take a lesson from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which actually worked in mending much deeper internal schism of the former apartheid state. The process will have to allow people to vent their frustrations, and there will be anger and recrimination. Those in power and the elites are uncomfortable because they don’t know what to do if there are no ready solutions at hand. They are also used to having their way, or at least expect others to follow their lead. They can learn new skills to actively listen and deliberate rather than command. They have to let go of their “control” mindset.

Universities could be invited to bring together a group of known local and international experts in conflict resolution to identify the best practices in creating dialogue. The universities are neutral because they are not asked to take sides between government and students. Local experts, including those who work with youths can be involved, provided they are not aligned with political parties and activist groups. International input can help Hong Kong widen its perspectives and take on board experiences in conflict regions with much more serious internal strife problems.

The preparation for a dialogue format could be done expeditiously – say four months – as the local and international experts have no axes to grind and should be able to work quickly to put recommendations together. They could invite suggestions too, including from activists and political groups, in open meetings.

When a process that is seen to be fair emerges, it could be tried out, say, on a specific area, and then improved upon. By then – perhaps Hong Kong will be better prepared to deliberate in the open under agreed conditions.

This suggestion does not solve Hong Kong’s problems. It is a way to co-learn on dialogue and reconciliation. It is based on a belief that all sides still have Hong Kong’s best interest at heart and trust must be rebuilt as a first step toward open dialogue.

(HK Edition 07/10/2019 page9)

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