South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Larry Au says bleak pronouncements about Hong Kong’s future do not account for a city that thrives on reinventing itself, and a generation of inspiring youth who dare to speak truth to power
The weeks following Beijing’s decision on the political framework for the chief executive election have been characterised by collective shock, disbelief and anger among pro-democracy activists and their sympathisers in Hong Kong. Radio and television current affairs shows have been full of angry shouting as the public phoned in to air their discontent. Newspaper articles talked again of how “the city is dying” and questioned whether it was time to “leave dear Hong Kong”. Even some pro-establishment politicians expressed their surprise at the restrictiveness of the ruling.
It is hard under these conditions not to be pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future, now that genuine electoral reform in 2017 seems next to impossible. But there is still reason for hope.
Saskia Sassen of Columbia University wrote an article last year titled “Does the city have speech?”, where she proposed the notion that cities have a way of speaking – in the abstract sense – to their inhabitants through interactions between the concrete and social elements. An example she gives is that of the traffic jam, where a car is brought to a sudden halt as it exits a highway. This is a way for the city to tell its inhabitants that the mass use of cars, or a particular configuration of infrastructure, is unsustainable. According to her, it is because of this capacity for speech that cities are able to resist forces that threaten their very existence, as well as to outlast more rigid and closed systems such as nation-states, corporations and empires.
Sassen argues that what makes cities resilient are two characteristics: complexity and incompleteness.
Complexity rests on interdependence. When “hard” infrastructure such as a power grid fails in a city, it affects residents indiscriminately, regardless of race, religion or other markers. The same applies to “soft” infrastructure, such as when the rule of law comes under threat, as this affects small businesses and multinational corporations alike.
A political system modelled after principles of propertied enfranchisement prevalent in 19th-century Britain and America, aimed at protecting the interests of a minority economic elite, is not only morally wrong, but simply bad policy. It does nothing to solve the deep-seated inequalities in our society that our current electoral system perpetuates. Sooner or later, more will realise this.
Already, within the past few weeks, contrary to what NPC Standing Committee chairman Zhang Dejiang believes, we have seen a shift of public opinion against the National People’s Congress decision. According to a recent poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 54 per cent of the public now support a veto of restrictive reform proposals, in comparison to just 29 per cent against such action.
Last week’s class boycotts, organised by student committees representing all tertiary institutions and backed by some 400 academics from all major disciplines, were unprecedented.
Evidence also shows that the business community is gradually realising the harm to governance that political inequality poses. Chairman and chief executive of CLSA Jonathan Slone recently remarked that “I haven’t seen any investors say ‘I’m cautious about Hong Kong because of Occupy Central’.” This harks back to what Daiwa Capital Markets observed in its July research note – that threats to Hong Kong’s judicial independence were a bigger concern than Occupy Central.
As the city’s inhabitants realise that the democratic deficit in Hong Kong affects their shared destiny, we will see possibilities for powerful and unlikely alliances emerge.
Incompleteness, on the other hand, is linked to the fact that cities are constantly being remade and reinvented. This is where social movements such as Occupy Central fit in, as the powerless of the city utilise these new coalitions to destabilise dominant narratives and challenge the status quo.
We have seen this over and over again in Hong Kong’s history. Heritage activists during the Star Ferry and Queen’s Pier campaigns forced us to reconsider the place of heritage in development, leading to policy shifts in preservation and initiatives such as PMQ, the former Hollywood Road police married quarters in Central, has been redeveloped as a design hub. Similarly, the movement opposing the high-speed rail showed us the brutality of the expulsions that Tsoi Yuen Chuen’s villagers faced, forcing us to reconsider the place of basic humanity in development.
The present transformation under way within the democratic movement – the new ideology of resistance and the changing of guards – is indicative of a movement reconstituting itself as it attempts to offer an even more compelling vision of the city’s future in order to win over hearts and minds. If they do not succeed in time for 2017 in securing a genuine choice for Hong Kong, they will surely succeed later.
As legislator Dennis Kwok once put it to me: “Those who bet against Hong Kong always end up losing.” The capacity for the city to speak will continue to grow and it will only speak louder to ensure its survival – until it is heard.
But perhaps there is an even simpler reason for optimism: this generation of students who have, again and again, showed their willingness to stand up and speak truth to power. If they are indeed the leaders of tomorrow’s Hong Kong, we can still hope for change.
Larry Au is a graduate student in sociology at the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford