Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong must now heed the lessons of Occupy, and move on

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Gary Cheung

Gary Cheung says we should learn from the collective failure to bridge the political divide, rather than looking for heroes where there are none

Hundreds of people gathered outside government headquarters in Admiralty on September 28 to commemorate the first anniversary of the Occupy Central protests. Yet, supporters of the civil disobedience campaign and pro-democracy movement should move beyond commemorating the event and chanting slogans demanding “genuine universal suffrage”. Lessons need to be learned if Hong Kong’s democracy fight is to move forward.

As Spanish philosopher and novelist George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With these words in mind, all those concerned about the development of our city should reflect on how the historic talks between top officials and student leaders, at the height of the protests last October, became a missed opportunity.

Indeed, the outcome may have been different had officials delivered what was expected. During the talks, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told leaders of the Federation of Students that the government would submit a report to the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office to reflect the public sentiment since the protests began. The government would also consider setting up a multiparty platform for talks on constitutional development beyond 2017.

However, Professor Joseph Chan Cho-wai, a political scientist and one of the middlemen involved in bringing the two sides together, said that during preparatory meetings, officials were positive about their suggestion the platform should also cover methods for electing the chief executive in 2017.

Chan said Lam “backtracked a bit” during the talks. He and Gloria Chang Wan-ki, another intermediary, regretted that students had not pressed Lam for more details. Worse, student leaders failed to adhere to a prior understanding of giving a “mixed response” to the proposals, that is, not rejecting them outright while maintaining they would not fully meet their expectations. Instead, they lashed out at the government when they spoke to protesters that night. Some criticised officials for “playing tricks” and “fudging the issue”, effectively burning their bridges. No further dialogue was held.

Government officials meet council members from the Federation of Students last October. Photo: Sam Tsang”What if?” is a favourite question of historians. What if students had reacted less militantly or stuck to the “mixed response”? What if there had been further dialogue? While it is unlikely that Beijing would have made substantial concessions on how to elect the chief executive by “one man, one vote” in 2017, there was a chance for students and pro-democracy groups to fight for a more democratic blueprint on the basis of the government’s proposals. Even if Beijing had still rejected all room for amendments, a positive response by students to Lam’s olive branch could have avoided playing into the hands of hardliners in the central and Hong Kong governments.

In times of uncertainty, many Hongkongers look for heroes and have condoned the misjudgments made by the students during that momentous period in the city’s history.

History will remember the efforts of Chan, Chang and others who came forward. The role of University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson, who joined Lam and the middlemen for a meeting at his residence on October 16, should also not be forgotten. That meeting helped pave the way for the talks five days later.

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, lamented: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

Huxley will be proved right if we do not bother to learn from the lessons of our history.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor

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Playing at politics: Student leader’s tell all of HKU council’s rejection of Johannes Chan’s appointment was a poor decision

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Alice Wu

Alice Wu says by disclosing what he heard behind closed doors on why Johannes Chan was rejected for a senior post, student leader broke his own pledge but failed to further the academic’s cause

The University of Hong Kong’s pro-vice-chancellor saga became a witch-hunt the moment the news media got involved. And once that happened, what has always been an internal university matter and process was thrown into the public domain. All gloves were off at that point – and the wish to keep that process inside the university became absolutely “wishful”.

Academic politics doesn’t have a reputation of playing nice to begin with – think Columbia University professor Wallace Stanley Sayre’s famous quip: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Throw into that mix the increasingly ferocious and vindictive nature of the news media and its love for stoking and exploiting fears, and there was very little chance of a happy ending.

The pro-vice-chancellor appointment has been politicised. And it is tragic. But however monstrous the process, no one can take away Johannes Chan Man-mun’s international standing and his achievements as an academic, professor and counsel.

All politics could do was take away Chan’s pro-vice-chancellor seat, which measures meagerly against what he has already accomplished. We can be sure that his crucial work in public law and human rights and stimulating public debate over Hong Kong’s legal developments will continue, regardless of whether he manages staff at HKU. His words will continue to carry weight.

But consider what politics has taken away from the university’s student union president Billy Fung Jing-en. Perhaps he felt justified in not respecting the council’s confidentiality pledge since the body had already gone against the usual practice of rubber-stamping the search committee’s recommendation. Perhaps he felt compelled to disclose who said what due to the “ludicrousness” of their comments. Whatever his reasons, his future is now at risk.

Johannes Chan’s crucial work in public law and human rights and stimulating public debate over Hong Kong’s legal developments will continue, regardless of whether he manages staff at HKU. Photo: Sam Tsang

Deliberative privilege is there to foster free and frank debate, to protect those who participate in the debate from harassment, censure and recrimination – regardless of whether what they say is ludicrous or not. By outing who said what and openly speculating about who voted which way in a secret ballot, Fung is participating in the very things he is standing up against. There are reasons for rules and practices. Fung proved that things were nasty, which we already knew; why else would Professor Yuen Kwok-yung quit after the students’ storming of the council meeting in July? Yuen did not reveal what was said in the council meeting; he considered that the politics was beyond his faculty and he would be better off returning to his work in infectious diseases and mucor spores instead.

If the students’ storming of the meeting was not conducive to solving the problem, the breaching of confidentiality was of no help to anyone, especially Fung. He has tarnished his integrity, and his action did not help Chan get appointed. Nor did it prove that there was any academic interference, which is at the heart of the appointment controversy. “He said/she said” serves little purpose, in fact.

What Fung did gave him media attention, but he paid for it with giving away his “word”, which closes doors and will strip him of opportunities in the future. Any breach of confidence, in a whole list of professions, cannot be justified where confidentiality is required. No matter how “ludicrous” he may find the rationale, many people, including potential employers, would be worried – and rightfully so – about when Fung might be next “compelled” to risk others’ right to nondisclosure.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA

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Is the pressure being put on the University of Hong Kong payback for being a political troublemaker?

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Timothy O’Leary

Timothy O’Leary says HKU, not unlike Socrates the ‘stinging fly’, plays a vital role in society by nurturing young minds, and should not bow to political pressure

Speaking as a professor of philosophy, I am very encouraged to see the strength and occasional virulence of recent attacks on the University of Hong Kong. This is a sure sign that the university is carrying out its true mission in society.

Last year, during the events of the Umbrella Movement, the university played a key role in the most important social movement this city has seen in recent decades. The streets have now been cleared, but the recent events at the university suggest there is still one piece of work the government wants to conclude. HKU, it would seem, needs to be shown that harbouring, encouraging and educating troublemakers will not go unpunished. And it is particularly the Faculty of Law that has drawn the anger of the establishment.

As a philosopher, I might be envious at this focus on that faculty. After all, philosophy is the original troublemaker. Socrates, in ancient Athens, described himself as a stinging fly who would bite the citizens of Athens to try to wake them from their thoughtless sleep. And, in the classical Chinese tradition, Zhuangzi mocked, provoked and harangued his fellow citizens to make them question their rigid, traditional ways of thinking.

Recent events in Hong Kong, however, show that this role of stinging fly is by no means limited to the discipline of philosophy. It is, in fact, the role of the university as a whole – humanities, social sciences, law, natural sciences, even medical sciences. The mission of the university is to provide a place for the free and open pursuit of knowledge. Its mission is to nurture young minds, to open them to new horizons of possibility. If those new horizons encompass new forms of government and society, that is something of which the university should be proud. If those visions bring young people peacefully onto the street, then the city, despite the inconvenience, should be grateful.

To provide a place in which this can happen is not something for which a university should be punished; it should be praised. Socrates was condemned to death by the pro-establishment parties of his city on a charge of “corrupting the youth”. In accordance with legal practice in Athens, he was offered the chance to suggest a lesser penalty. He suggested that he should be offered food at the city’s expense, like the Olympic athletes, in recognition of his contribution to public life. For this blatant arrogance, he was executed.

Nobody is about to be executed in Hong Kong. For that we should be thankful. But, in a way, something just as serious is happening. HKU, as the flagship university in the city, is being subjected to political pressure. Public discussion in Hong Kong often appeals to the value of rationality. Well, is there any other rational explanation for the recent actions of the HKU council? How else can we explain its continued stalling in the appointment of Professor Johannes Chan, former dean of the Faculty of Law and therefore the former “boss” of the much-maligned Benny Tai Yiu-ting? The explanation given by the council chairman, that we must wait until a new provost is appointed, is absurd in the extreme.

This is not just a matter that affects HKU. It affects all the universities in Hong Kong, it affects all the schools in Hong Kong, and it will affect all the people of Hong Kong. If the university is forced to bow to political pressure, the whole city will suffer. The only question facing the people of Hong Kong is, do we want our leading university to be an institution that does the bidding of its political masters, or do we want it to be independent of such short-term political demands? Do we want a university that bows to political pressure and toes a party line, or a university that nurtures a new generation of independent, creative and critical thinkers? Members of the HKU council should consider these questions when they next meet. They should be aware of the potential damage they will cause the university they serve if they continue to refuse to follow established practice and approve this appointment. Before they swat the stinging fly, they should think of the invaluable service that the fly performs for our city.

Timothy O’Leary is professor of philosophy and head of the School of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong

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Hong Kong’s stark choice: gradual integration or slow decay

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Dan Steinbock

Dan Steinbock says the city’s social and economic challenges can only be addressed through more cooperation with the mainland

Hong Kong’s lingering turmoil suggests that its economic future is not assured. Recently, the People’s Daily accused Washington of colluding with Occupy Central protest organisers to try and foment a “colour revolution”. In the West, the charge has been downplayed.

Nevertheless, today, Hong Kong must cope with political, economic and external risks.

Chinese media has claimed Louisa Greve, vice-president of the National Endowment for Democracy, met Hong Kong protest leaders months ago. This has since been denied. But the organisation has long supported pro-democracy groups.

Some pro-democracy leaders have tried to “internationalise” the Hong Kong turmoil for months. In April, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the convener of Hong Kong 2020, and Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, met Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives. At the White House, they told Vice-President Joe Biden that Beijing has been “tightening its controls” over Hong Kong.

The two asked for “a clear assurance that members of Congress are watching developments in Hong Kong closely”. Afterwards, Senator Sherrod Brown, chairman of the Commission on China, warned that Hong Kong’s democracy was “under threat”. The commission has called on the US State Department to revive congressional briefings on human rights in Hong Kong.

In July, Chan and Lee had a similar agenda in Britain, addressing Parliament and meeting Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Similar claims surround other protest leaders, including law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s alleged links with the National Endowment for Democracy, reports of donations to Joshua Wong’s Scholarism group and media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying’s business dealings and payments to neoconservative leader Paul Wolfowitz.

Perhaps efforts at foreign interference are not entirely unfounded. Yet, Hong Kong may have to cope with darker clouds abroad. As a small and highly open economy, the city is heavily influenced by global developments, particularly China’s economic transition. Also, since the Fed is expected to hike policy rates by mid-2015, Hong Kong stands to benefit from tapering, as in the past, but only if the latter is associated with a recovery in US demand. And that is no longer assured.

The external risk is only part of the story. Hong Kong’s retail sales, particularly of luxury items, have been hit in the past six months and the civil unrest has dealt another blow to the economy. The city is critically dependent on China, its largest export and import partner. More than 75 per cent of foreign investment and visitors are from the mainland.

The downtrend in retail sales is likely to continue. Hong Kong firms have underperformed for months amid perceived threats in key sectors, including retail, tourism and property.

Since 2008, cheap mortgages, constrained supply, gross domestic product growth and demand from overseas have pushed up property prices by 135 per cent, which far exceeds the rise in rents or wages. Sharp falls are to be expected.

Hong Kong remains the main offshore renminbi centre, but it will thrive only as long as it remains attractive to the mainland companies’ fund-raising activities. As China’s economic reforms expand and Shanghai evolves into the mainland’s global hub for trade and finance, Hong Kong’s role as a “gateway” is diminishing.

Hong Kong’s greatest threat is not that of “becoming just another Chinese city”, but fading into irrelevance. Most worrisome is the discrepancy between Hong Kong’s economic gains and its eroding social fabric. Despite all the wealth it has reaped from China’s economic reforms and opening-up in the past three decades, its income inequality is worse than in Zimbabwe, as measured by the Gini coefficient. But this polarisation is not the result of economic integration with China, but of inadequate social cohesion in Hong Kong. Nor will it get better by severing ties with the mainland. What Hong Kong needs is more cooperation with the mainland.

Through further integration with Guangdong, the city can greatly alleviate the challenges associated with its maturing economy, ageing population and entrepreneurial innovation.

Before the long hot summer, Hong Kong’s growth was projected to be 2.8 per cent this year and less than 2 per cent in 2015. That was then.

In the short term, the protests are likely to have had a minimal impact on credit fundamentals. But if the situation continues to deteriorate, the probability of a negative impact will increase.

What Hong Kong desperately needs is responsible political development, adequate social policies and truly inclusive economic growth. It is time to choose between gradual integration and slow decay.

Dr Dan Steinbock is research director of international business at India China and America Institute (US) and visiting fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Centre (Singapore).

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Our youth want a say in their future, not crumbs from tycoons’ dinner plates

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Albert Cheng

Albert Cheng says by their words and deeds, Hong Kong’s old guard show they haven’t really understood the yearning for equality and social justice

At 77, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa is trying to pick up the political pieces the old-fashioned way. He has assembled his allies and former aides to launch a think tank to talk about ways to, among other missions, improve the housing and economic conditions for the young and furious.

Like Tung himself, some of those he has enlisted were either caught in controversies or bowed out in disgrace. The local Chinese press has coined a name for them – used batteries. Tung has also recruited some of the second and third generations of tycoons in town.

However, none of the democratic activists have been invited. This is not surprising; after all, Tung’s Our Hong Kong Foundation has been billed by some as a vehicle to promote his former financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung as the next chief executive.

Leung, 62, delivered the keynote speech at the launch of the foundation on Sunday. His speech was reminiscent of a campaign manifesto. He sees Occupy Central as a manifestation of three destabilising factors: a generation gap, conflicts between Hong Kong and the mainland, and a widening wealth gap caused by low taxes and high land prices.

He said Occupy had exposed problems in social governance, economic transition and youth development. In his view, the solution lies in improving upward mobility for young people by building more affordable housing for them. Another way is to set up a government fund to supplement initiatives to support young entrepreneurs. These measures would supposedly put the frustrated young people on the track to hope and harmony.

This diagnosis is way off the mark and reflects how out of touch Leung and the other old guards are. Asking the vested business interests to plough back a little portion of their huge profits can hardly make an impact.

Nobody will dispute that the crisis is related to youth issues. Offering them better housing and careers will, of course, help ease the tension. However, the core of the so-called youth problems has transcended the immediate want of social stability and personal prosperity.

Just look at the recent commentary in The New York Times by Joshua Wong Chi-fung. As he put it: “The people of my generation want more. In a world where ideas and ideals flow freely, we want what everybody else in an advanced society seems to have: a say in our future.”

The youngsters’ frustration is not confined to a bleak economic outlook for themselves. It is about justice, equality in political right, fair use of social capital, cultural liberation, environmental conservation and possibilities of alternative ways for growth. In the parlance of social psychology, they are after self-actualisation.

The youth-led movement has been labelled the Umbrella Revolution. It is indeed a revolution in many senses. Those in government and Tung’s think tank are not even speaking the language of the youth, let alone addressing the real issues.

The old guard have been repeating the theme that our future is intertwined with that of the motherland. Their mentality is, as captured in Tung’s often ridiculed refrain: “Good for the country, good for Hong Kong.” It wasn’t appealing 15 years ago. It is even less so today.

The psychological gap between Hong Kong and the mainland has been widening since reunification in 1997. This is evident in the slogans and motifs used in the protests. Many young people are ready to make financial sacrifices to, for example, drastically cut the number of mainland tourists. One of their worst nightmares is a Hong Kong dominated by mainland interests and downgraded to just another Chinese city.

In fact, most occupiers are not students or less-educated, jobless youngsters. According to a survey by the pro-government Sing Tao Daily, about half the protesters in Admiralty are between 21 and 30, but only one-fifth are students. Most have a full-time job. Employers and professionals from the finance sector are among those still at the occupied sites. Occupy is more complicated than a conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

The old dogs have failed to learn any new tricks to tackle the sentiments of discontent. Young people want equal opportunities, not just opportunities on the mainland. To achieve this, we need a complete overhaul of the electoral system to recognise that everyone is born equal, at least politically.

Tung and others have said the students’ message was loud and clear. Yet, they have not made any concession to accommodate their demands for change. Our Hong Kong Foundation will not make much of a difference if it does not even accept the students’ demand for an equitable electoral system to start with.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.