Hong Kong Conversations

22 Nov 2019
Author: Robert Precht
I want to share with you my impressions following a week of conversations in Hong Kong with students, barristers, solicitors, expat lawyers, journalists, entrepreneurs and others. I am cognizant of my status as a non-Hong Kong resident, yet I feel a deep connection to the city. I first came to Hong Kong in 1976 and felt an immediate affinity with this amazing, dynamic place. I offer these observations with modesty and a recognition that they may not be accurate. 
  • The recent strife in the city is an extreme example of what happens when people see their lives changing for the worse and feel they are unable to peacefully arrest the process. The government is unaccountable, and Hong Kong people are deprived of the means to change the government. The root of the problem is lack of democracy. 

  • The demonstrators enjoy wide support. A pro-Beijing entrepreneur I spoke to said that if he were younger he would be on the barricades too. Trying to commiserate with a friend whose parents emigrated to Hong Kong from the mainland, I said the last three months must have been stressful. “No, I am angry. Angry at the police.”

  • Everybody I spoke to seemed to be depressed to some degree. They feel a sense of hopelessness and uncertainty about what’s coming next. 

  • I encountered conflicting views about the wisdom of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Most people saw it as a positive, a needed boost of morale for the demonstrators and a signal to Beijing to tread carefully. These people had no illusions about the motives behind the Act -- that it’s part of the cold war between the U.S. and China and that few US congress people actually care about Hong Kong.  But the actual intent of the legislators and the possibility that the Act would not be enforced did not negative the overall positive signal the Act sent. A minority of the people I spoke to said the Act was counterproductive. These people feel that the most important thing is to deescalate tensions between the demonstrators and the Hong Kong government and their patrons in Beijing. The Act, they believe, does the opposite. 

  • Supporters of the demonstrators fear speaking up or making any criticisms of the behavior of protesters, even when they turn to extreme violence.  Supporters criticisms will split the movement. Some also fear that by speaking up they would become the targets of harassment. I think this is unfortunate, because it deprives the movement of moderating voices. 

  • The protesters and allies I spoke to seem comfortable with not having a leader or leaders to negotiate directly with the government. As one solicitor put it to me, “this is the most successful movement I’ve been in and it's been leaderless. Why change?”

  • In terms of possible solutions to the current strife, nobody was optimistic. The movement has its five demands, but nobody believes the government will accept them all. Without a leader, the movement is unable to negotiate with the government to find a middle ground. The government, in turn, seems mindlessly intransigent. 

  • Regarding the non-responsiveness of the government, I think it’s useful to remember that the government has very little experience governing. They are bureaucrats, they are used to signing documents. They are the ancestors of the British Colonial Administration which vested no decision making authority in locals and treated them as middlemen. The current Hong Kong government has no experience as politicians dealing with the wants of the public. It should surprise no one that they are so inept. 

  • Finally, I want to make a prediction. My prediction is that Hong Kong is going to get through this crisis because it is a resilient place. The city has endured the Third Plague Epidemic of 1894, the Japanese Occupation, the 1967 riots and Cultural Revolution, the handover, SARS, and financial crises. It’s a tough city and there is no way to replace it. No other place in Asia has such a strong rule of law tradition, including Singapore and Japan. International companies have been doing business in Hong Kong for close to two centuries. No expat I spoke to is considering leaving. Related to this conclusion, I believe the lawyers of this city will be its chief guardians and public interest lawyers will gain a more important voice. Tycoons and other elites won’t be able to ignore the marginalized populations of the city the way they have in the past. Hong Kong will emerge stronger, with a stronger sense of its own identity and stronger commitment to protecting basic rights. 

  • I am a child of the 1960s. I experienced and still remember the convulsive demonstrations that took place in the US at the time against the Vietnam War and against racial injustice. Tragically, hundreds of people died, U.S. cities were torched, and there were multiple assassinations.  But the country moved on. And I believe it became a more just place. One of the possible benefits of getting older (I just turned 65) is an enhanced sense of perspective. Yes, things may get worse in Hong Kong before they get better, but in the long term the city will endure and be a more just place.