Having spent the past couple of months in America as a visiting democracy fellow, I have been struck by the huge gap in perception between progressive Americans on the left and Donald Trump’s supporters on the right. A similar divide was evident over Brexit in the UK last summer and has been lifting its ugly head in elections in France and Italy. Such gaps have appeared in the past – from Carter to Reagan, from Bush to Obama – but somehow the institutions of democracy eventually work to moderate the divide.
This observation has caused me to reflect on the growing divide between the more radical localists and the establishment camp in Hong Kong. As candidates step forward with claims to fill the soon-to-be-vacant office of the chief executive, it may be time for a change of tone. Whoever wins will have to deal with this political divide.
One can only despair at recent government attempts to dismiss multiple legislators elected by a popular mandate that the chief executive himself lacks. Will the new chief executive candidates offer a path to reconciliation or will the divide between the establishment and the pan-democratic camps grow into an insurmountable chasm?
It is widely understood that the radical independence advocates are pursuing an impossible goal. This is not because a city state of Hong Kong’s size is impossible but simply because the mainland regime they face will not allow it. Practically, a city on the edge of a large country can divorce itself from that country and still thrive; Singapore and Malaysia are testimony to that. If China for some crazy reason would not want the services of Hong Kong’s vast pool of talent, the rest of the region and the world would. The reason the independence movement is a non-starter is simply because China will not allow it.Perhaps the argument for independence might be that you hang on until China reforms and becomes more willing to let its peripheral communities go their own way. But when that level of political reform arises in China, the reason for opting out would have gone.
This brings us back to the problem of polarisation. Most mainstream democrats have distanced themselves from the independence calls, knowing such to be a non-starter. Even practical members of the “localist camp” have pragmatically shifted to the language of “self-determination”.
These calls by youngsters are clearly expressions of protest and outrage because of the failure of the Beijing and Hong Kong governments to deliver on their very clear promises in the Basic Law for universal suffrage. These protesters see a Hong Kong government very beholden to Beijing with no capacity to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy – an autonomy upon which the rule of law in Hong Kong depends. With it, they see their identity as Hongkongers in danger of erasure.
So what is the government to do? Our new chief executive candidates need to answer this question. Tough love is surely not the answer. Instead, there is a need to stop bullying Hong Kong into submission. It is obvious to anyone who knows the common sense of Hong Kong people that reopening the reform debate and allowing the universal suffrage promised in the Basic Law would bring any support for independence to an end.
The burden will be on the future chief executive to explain the reality of Hong Kong concerns to leaders in Beijing. A leader who fails to do so may win points in Beijing but will surely continue to polarise Hong Kong politics, encouraging more and more expressions of discontent.
The thing about polarisation in the West is that democratic institutions will eventually sort out these differences. In an open society, such differences cannot be bullied away. The voter’s right to speak is ultimately on the path to moderation, even as difficult struggles will always occur along the way.
If the government succeeds in getting the four democratically elected legislators removed, perhaps this would be the time for any principled member of the Election Committee to withdraw support from a candidate who fails to offer a better path forward.
Professor Michael C. Davis specialises in constitutional law and human rights