“Never negotiate out of fear but never fear to negotiate” — John F. Kennedy.
History rarely moves in ways simple enough to be wholly comprehensible at the time. Even our best journalism takes close-up snapshots — never the long view. What observers and commentators make of what is happening in Hong Kong is not, in any complete sense, what history will eventually make of it.
Historical meaning is elusive without the perspective of time, which is precisely what we don’t have at the very moment we need it most. The inescapable flaw of history’s future judgment is its inability to offer current value.
So the question becomes what is to be concluded about Hong Kong right now, in the unfocused, semi-darkness of the moment? Some observers view the struggle of the “pro-democracy” street protesters as the classic diorama of good guys against bad guys. This is obviously simplistic but emotionally appealing.
Others view the recent turmoil as the breakdown of law and order and the erosion of a decent respect for legitimate authority. This is factually correct, but is emotionally unappealing.
And it is beside the point, which is: Where do Beijing and Hong Kong go from here and in what civilized manner do they do it?
One has the sense that this really is new political terrain — that brilliant Hong Kong is sui generis, one of a kind, resistant to obvious analogies, a situation not really like anything else.
The basic but special demographics and geography of Hong Kong place this little gem as close to physical mainland China as you can get without falling over into Guangzhou, and yet for a long time sovereign power was absurdly far distant. After the sensible Thatcher government accepted that it had to give it back, the sensible Deng Xiaoping imagined a Hong Kong embraced without rancor or fuss into the overall Chinese family, even if it proved the case that this spoiled prodigy would incessantly demand special treats. Which, more or less, it has, and more or less incessantly.
Were Deng alive today, would he take the rod to the spoiled child? Or shake his head knowingly, the uncle of eternal patience? So far, at least, the Beijing of today has mostly left the official reacting to the local Hong Kong authorities, even as students, among others, continue to play in the streets, freeze traffic, disrupt the adult economy and disrupt domestic tranquility.
Would such public-space activity be so patiently and lengthily permitted in Los Angeles, where I reside?
Beijing is understandably perturbed by the protest against its judgment regarding the rules for the 2017 election, in which everyone in Hong Kong will be able to vote, but not everyone will be able to run. It regards its rule making as well within its sovereign power.
Pushing negotiations with the upstart protesters down to the working level of the special administrative region itself is tactically correct and within the markers of “one country, two systems” — the governing code endorsed by the late Deng that, though battered, is anything but dead. But there is an operational problem: The local Hong Kong government would appear to have lost too much moral — or at least persuasive — authority.
The territory’s chief executive, Leung Chun-Ying, who took office in 2012 and early on made some good, tough policy decisions, has inadvertently ratcheted up the tensions. Certainly his public comment in which he openly worried over the consequences of permitting the poor to have as much influence over public policy as the elite was not helpful or calming. It is hard to imagine any responsible Communist Party official in Beijing uttering something like that.
Beijing might quietly want to note that Leung attained the highest office in Hong Kong via an election nominating process that in part will carry through to 2017, despite the grandiose and welcome opening to universal voting.
The danger with that is that Hong Kong, and Beijing may never gain the kind of inspired leadership both deserve and the tricky “one country, two systems” requires.
Perhaps the process of selection should get a second look. A plenary session of review, perhaps a community-at-large process taking even many months, hosted at one of Hong Kong’s universities, would hardly seem more of a waste of time, energy and spirit than these stupid and dispiriting street circuses.
To this end, why not ask Tung Chee-hwa, China’s first chief executive (1997-2005), to chair the review?
With his timely and obviously goodwilled calls for calm and reason, Tung, who — crucially — retains Beijing’s trust, offers the people of Hong Kong very good reason indeed to listen to him with special attentiveness.
There may be some room for navigation between what Beijing has proposed and what some Hong Kong locals prefer. Surely the time for a higher level of calm and consensus is ripe.
The territory and mother China should be working together on ameliorating the social and economic pressures threatening to pull Hong Kong down far more dramatically and dangerously than today’s governance dispute. Hong Kong should get its act together and cut down on the self-flagellations.
Tom Plate, the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, is the author of “In the Middle of China’s Future” (Marshall Cavendish). He recently completed a three-city lecture tour of China at the invitation of the All-China Journalists Association and has made many reporting trips to Hong Kong since 1997. © 2014 Pacific Perspectives Media Center