South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Yvonne Li says even as the clearance begins, there’s still time to heal the rift in society, but the community needs to step up and help persuade protesters to leave voluntarily
The “umbrella movement” will be remembered not only for its political and civic bickering; it will also go down in history as the one event that caused a great schism in Hong Kong society.
In the past, irrespective of anything that transpired, the people of Hong Kong stood together. Now, we have an intolerant community where people are not only standing opposite each other, they are fighting one another. It has been an emotional and stressful period for the Occupy protesters, the Hong Kong government and the police – indeed for all citizens.
Many are debating how a world-class city could be held hostage for more than a month, and almost everyone, including the protesters, are questioning whether the occupation can end peacefully.
While ideas and strategies are being discussed within all camps, from the demonstrators and government, to the pro-Occupy pan-democrats and pro-establishment groups, there appears to be no way to avoid a physical confrontation. What is clear is that the government is running out of ideas and is determined to clear the protest sites. The demonstrators are running out of time and public goodwill as they remain steadfast to their principles.
A purported 1.8 million people have signed a petition asking for the streets to be returned to public use and in support of the police to uphold the rule of law. The public has come out in force, but the student leaders have been quick to denounce its legitimacy. The petition has had little or no effect in changing their minds and the stalemate is now not only with the government but also with a majority of the public.
Backed by High Court injunctions , the clearances have begun. There was little resistance from demonstrators as some barriers were removed in Admiralty. Yet if violence were to break out in the future, such confrontations could provoke more people to come out onto the streets in support of the protesters.
Even if the government and police do manage to clear the sites, the rift in society will remain. While the clearing will, in the short term, open up the roads and enable citizens to get back to their normal lives, the demonstrators could very well start another occupation elsewhere in the future. It would then become a vicious cycle.
Where does the rest of society stand in all this and what can the wider community do? This stalemate requires going beyond signing a petition; it is time for people to step forward and speak to the demonstrators, to help reunify society. Unless ordinary citizens find their voice and assist in bringing about dialogue, the schism may never be healed.
The students are the most passionate among the demonstrators. Instead of speaking to them in anger or lecturing them, the community could put questions to them, to help them consider the consequences of their actions and what their plans will be to assist those who have suffered as a result of the protests.
Expressing tough love while not judging or blaming the students will require tenacity and mindfulness. The students must be made aware that they had the momentum and power at one point, but, by not ending the occupation, they have lost sight of their original intent. Ask them what the best way is to regenerate interest in and commitment to their original intent, which was to gain awareness and recognition of an injustice.
It is important to have principles, but they serve no purpose if they go nowhere and do not help anyone. The protests over an alleged injustice have now led to other injustices; further violence will only add impetus for even more demonstrations. The students’ intention to raise awareness has been achieved, with worldwide recognition of their cause. Now is the time for the protesters to change tack and evolve.
Knowing when to stop and producing a clear and practical plan for how and where they envisage future reforms will be key to securing public backing. It is all about expressing views and achieving positive change through genuine influence rather than coercion.
While a peaceful end may appear difficult, the movement can still end on a high note, if the demonstrators willingly cooperate and end the occupation themselves. It will, however, also take help and support from the wider community, with people speaking, writing and discussing without judgment, criticism, anger or blame.
If, for example, 50 citizens from all walks of life speak to the protesters, without politicising the situation, it would certainly have a tremendous impact. But that cannot happen if there is silence and ongoing passiveness from the community.
The rest of the world must be bemused at how Hong Kong can have such a high tolerance for the protests. Most people prefer to go about their daily lives while secretly hoping the movement will disappear. Yet the students came out in the first place to stand up for an important issue when the rest of the community would not.
The “umbrella movement” is not simply about achieving genuine universal suffrage now. The seasoned protesters include workers who are also resolute in wanting a fairer and more equitable society. They are frustrated with the worsening rich-poor divide and the decades of high property prices that exclude the majority from home ownership. They are worried that Hong Kong’s individualism and identity as a magnet for all things Chinese and Western are being eroded, due to the government’s emphasis on developing the city as an international financial centre and shopping metropolis. This is an ongoing issue that the government will need to address.
By starting from a point of acceptance, genuine dialogue with the student protesters can take place. Expressing an understanding of their situation will allow trust to be established. Where there is trust, there is openness, and ideas and suggestions can be shared more easily. It is not too late to speak to the demonstrators to help them understand that the only way to regain power is to take the high ground; that is, to cease the protests voluntarily.
While this has been a dark period for Hong Kong, the movement can still produce a positive outcome. If that is achieved, then the occupation will go down as one that showed the world how a civil demonstration can go from chaos to order, and the young protesters will have shown their maturity. The outpouring of support will be key to mending the rift and will sow the seeds for future progress. This could well form a new identity for the city, an accepting and mature society that is united in wanting Hong Kong to become the best it can be for all citizens.
Yvonne Li pioneers social innovation and investments in Asia. She is also the founder of the International China Ageing Industry Association.