Six reasons for Hong Kongers to persevere: Let's do the LONGgame

Rather than an endgame, Simon Shen sees the current protests as part of a long game. Factors such as the milieu of the internet age and a growing Hong Kong identity will keep the die of Hong Kong’s future from being cast just yet.
Wearing their hearts on their sleeves ( Philip Fong / AFP)
Wearing their hearts on their sleeves ( Philip Fong / AFP)

As the protest movement in Hong Kong rages on, many people are constantly asking, “What next?” With that thought, negative feelings would typically start to bubble forth. After all, what is it in the mainstream media that lodges itself most deeply in the minds of the general populace? Discourses of a realistic bent.

They say that China is strong, Hong Kongers are too powerless to resist it, and foreign forces will not actually help us; that if the defiant Hong Kongers continue to fight and refuse to disperse for good, Beijing will have no qualms about sacrificing the SAR – that is to say, more high pressure measures will be rolled out towards establishing ‘one country, one system’, so as to maintain the stability of the country. Mr Leung Man-tao’s much-discussed essay “So Begins the Endgame” is representative of such talk.

Meanwhile, there is a different ‘roadmap to the end’ envisioned by many moderate members of the pro-establishment circles, one by which they hope to buy time for reaping success before they retire. These people believe that Beijing will make a series of concessions to the protesters’ ‘five demands’ after weighing its options. Carrie Lam will, accordingly, step down. The next Chief Executive will set up a commission of independent inquiry (albeit not with full capacity), leading to limited amnesty for both sides of the protesters-police conflict.

Focused close up of Chief Executive Carrie Lam
In the Eye of the Storm: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam ( Aly Song/ Pool / REUTERS)

Some of the policemen who crossed the line – such as Lau Cha Kei – will bear punishment as sacrificial lambs. The electoral reform will start again. Since all these will still not solve Hong Kong’s real problems, the authorities will also speed up on ‘taking down the landowners’, divert attention with the housing issue, step up on introducing new immigrants and specialised talents from the mainland, promote patriotic education and social credit rating, as well as employ “dark tactics” to incite grassroots conflicts and infighting, so that those who have other ideas may lose heart. The traditional elite will be allowed to emigrate and leave as the intention is to have them be replaced by new blood as quickly as possible, saving Hong Kong as a whole sans the undesirables. Once the switch-out is complete, the issue of true universal suffrage will be smoothly resolved.

To true Hong Kongers, the final outcomes as given above are all tragedies, differing only in how much time they each take to play out. The analysis looks so unshakeable that many people feel overwhelmingly helpless.

Yet, we must ask: is the realists’ framework flawless? Let’s bear in mind that the world is constantly changing. Every paradigm gets revised because of the progress of the times. Take communism for instance. Once upon a time, numerous left-wing intellectuals used to truly believe in it. They eventually woke up, not only because they witnessed the various problems communist regimes ran into, but also because the underlying theory failed to keep abreast with the times.

Psychology statistics has shown that common ownership of assets in the total sense as suggested by communist ideology is impossible for humans to accept, while the quantum theory of randomness subverts Marxist concepts of social structure.

The Hong Konger identity is being rapidly bolstered through the ongoing movement, and has radiated itself beyond our shores.

Frankly speaking, having made my observations over the past few years, my own perception of the world has changed a lot. Our senior commentators who think of the current movement as entering an endgame with a pessimistic outlook are mostly grounded in realism. They neglect the fact that ‘revolution of our times’ in the broad sense has been breaking out around the world in recent years.

Hong Kong's protest march
A protest march in Hong Kong (Umit Bektas / REUTERS)

Of course, we are not saying that our citizens’ demands will be met tomorrow, next year or the year after. It will probably take more than that for the endgame to be a success for us. Now, what exactly do Hong Kongers hope for? While what we want deep inside differs from one person to another, the greatest common denominator is discernible from our initial mentality behind the opposition to amending the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance.

In whatever form it may take, it is simply about this: reinforcing the firewall between the ‘two systems’ (mainland China on one side, and Hong Kong on the other), i.e. reducing unreasonable intervention from Beijing and the state’s capital in Hong Kong’s internal affairs and everyday life. We can see that a succession of black swans has occurred since 2016. Assumptions taken for granted in the past – for example, that an unconventional candidate can never be elected, or that globalisation will never be reversed – have been overturned. But why are there reasons for true Hong Kongers to persevere to the end? Let’s look at the six trends below: 

Hong Kong protests
University students clad in Guy Fawkes at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the face of Hong Kong's face mask ban (Noel Celis / AFP)

(1) Power of Disruption

Although the Internet 3.0, dominated by Big Data and algorithms, is being used for authoritarian governance, it has also given rise to new economies that break away from authoritarian governments. In some sense, this represents a more meaningful form of high-level autonomy than guaranteed by our Basic Law.

The removal of intermediaries in a supply chain, in what is known as ‘disintermediation’ has superseded traditional industries and empowered countless new-generation adventurers to be ‘slashies’, a term used to refer to multi-hyphenates in the gig economy. In the new power structure, all they have to do is respond to the opposite ends of point-to-point demands, form integral entities by means of technology (as seen in, for example, the currently emerging network of ‘yellow businesses’ or shops that support the protests), connect to associates abroad, carry out their own independent transactions with cryptocurrencies, reduce the tax revenue that would otherwise have flown to the government directly – and they would be able to greatly reduce reliance on the ossified establishments that have lost credibility in the eyes of the people.

Take, for example, the 2 million Hong Kongers who took part in the now-famous, record-breaking march. They constitute the base of the “pan-yellow” camp. No matter how these people feel about the ongoing aggression in the streets, as long as each of them is willing to pay an average of HK$20,000 (in the form of cash or labour) annually to support their fellow activists, right there we would have a very impressive sum of HK$40 billion. Add to that contributions from overseas Hong Kongers, and the result would be a world-class economy somewhere between intermediate and large scale. Who knows? A Hong Kongers’ Fund similar to Temasek Holdings might even take shape over time.

Man in front of 5G display
5G and opportunities for the next generation (Hector Retamal / AFP)

(2) Confirming, Rather than Seeking Truths

While the traditional realists believe that ideals must bear reality in mind, technology today not only turns ideals into reality, but also alters our perceptions of reality itself. We used to believe in black-and-white factualities, but with the emergence of 5G technology and the pervasion of deepfakes, everyone is deeply convinced that he or she knows the “truth”, and there is no thought of venturing outside of one’s safety net.

Commercially driven algorithms will always be conducive to polarising ways of thinking; measures like ‘patriotic education’ will only be counterproductive; and under the onslaught of ‘little pinks’ (young nationalistic activists) from all over the country, the Hong Kongers’ identity will stand steadfastly like a boulder. For movements that require hearts and minds to overcome overpowering opponents, new technology constitutes a major driving force. Herein lies the spirit of the new-generation fighters who live and die with their smartphones at all times. The tenacity with which they cling on to their convictions exceeds what we imagined in the past.

(3) The Role of Non-State Actors

To the realists, the only recognised unit actors are sovereign states. However, as globalisation stimulates the birth of non-state actors (NSA) of increasingly significant clout, the chess game of international dynamics has long become three-dimensional, as it were. The counterpart unit to Hong Kongers on the international scene is neither Beijing nor Washington, but any of the different NSAs around the world.

The support of national governments for the Hong Kongers is naturally bound by the limitations of inter-power gameplay. Entities like Facebook or NBA, on the other hand, are beyond the control of the American government. Corporations of the world at large may be swayed by the ‘sharp power’ of the coercions and enticements of the enormous Chinese market, yet they are not deprived of room for bargaining like Cathay Pacific, and they also function under the constraints of trade unions, NGOs, as well as other NSAs.

As long as Hong Kongers master the art of NSA diplomacy, they have an unlimited number of allies globally. We are reminded of the one business entity in the SAR that has the most impressive international outlook – the CK Hutchinson conglomerate, which had locked on to investing in ports around the world decades before the Belt and Road Initiative was launched. It is such breadth of vision that is the forte of true Hong Kongers.

(4) A Growing Hong Kong Identity

The Hong Konger identity is being rapidly bolstered through the ongoing movement, and has radiated itself beyond our shores. Unlike the Chinese patriotism that is emphatically defined by blood, this identity is a great melting pot defined by a series of core values. Although we used to feel that the notion of ‘Hong Kong’s core values’ is greatly lacking in concreteness, true Hong Kongers have come to realise through the local protest movement that they are standing on the faultlines of a clash of civilisations.

We need only ask ourselves some questions: Do we accept the mainland’s system of social credit ratings? Do we support the resolution of political issues via shooting at people à la the June Fourth Incident (or the SAR government’s reliance on the police force to deal with the current ‘violence and rebellion, which is a fundamentally political problem)? Do we approve of the crackdown on cultural diversity as embodied by the Xinjiang re-education camps? By performing this check, it will become very clear what Hong Kong’s core values are.

The integrative capacity of this set of values is astonishing. Twenty-two years after Hong Kong’s handover, we have already taken in a tremendous number of new immigrants, and yet there is still no fundamental shift in the general sentiments of our people – in fact, they are actually showing more resistance to China than before 1997. Even the new-generation localist leader Edward Leung Tin-kei is a new immigrant. Minorities such as ethnic South Asians similarly take pride in being Hong Kongers. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s core values can easily garner support from foreigners, so the category of Hong Kongers is not an absolute minority limited to the 7 million people residing in the SAR.

Once overseas Hong Konger communities form up and give rise to little Hong Kongs in different places, the result will be something different from the inward-looking  retirees’ paradises of the Chinese dama ( 大妈, middle-aged aunties). These will be global communities that go hand in hand with discourses of core values, blend people of different ethnicities together, and draw strength from genuine industries, spreading “Hong Kong” itself far and wide. The entity that is the Hong Kong SAR will enjoy greater leverage, and the concepts of ‘immigrant’ and ‘non-immigrant’ will cease to exist by then.

skyline of HK
Little Hong Kongs could sprout up (SPH)

(5) Creative Resources will Determine the Future

The realists believe that the great powers wield influence over everything on the strength of their economic resources. The fact is: the global economy has long moved on from the age of resources. For one thing, as countries practise quantitative easing (QE) to defer crisis, salary increments in traditional employment can never catch up with the appreciation of physical assets, and the gap between the two keeps widening. This leads to certain global consequences, one of which is that political issues like those faced by Hong Kong can never be resolved through economic means.

In the age of unlimited QE, economic inequality will continue to be an irreversible megatrend even when there is full employment and housing becomes affordable for everyone. Over half the population of any economy will always perceive themselves as the losers in the unfolding times. Social polarisation is thus further aggravated. In other words, even economic problems can never be solved on the economic level, thus the mass protest movements in the US, Britain and Chile are only symptoms of the same illness, so to speak.

For the powers that be strive to maintain stability, land reforms and ‘taking down the landowners’ are just a facade. Ultimately, creativity that is based on true liberty and free from ‘white terror’ has to be released. Only then can the discontent of the self-perceived losers be reduced.

We see, for instance, how the Nordic countries are experimenting with using artificial intelligence to maintain basic economic operations while distributing to their people a universal basic income. The point is to set free the creativity that can never be replaced by machines. Without this, upon reaching a developmental bottleneck, a regime that is experiencing the simultaneous maturation of both political and economic problems may face an unimaginable crisis. Viewed from this angle, Hong Kong’s resilience over the long run may not actually be inferior to mainland China’s.

Candy Shop on Cheung Chau Island in Hong Kong
Preserving a way of life: A candy shop on Cheung Chau Island in the waters west of Victoria Harbour.(Isaac Lawrence / AFP) 

(6) Irreplaceable Hong Kong

Leung Man-tao says, “Everyone knows that Hong Kong’s special international standing is extremely important to China in general. Even so, I made a bold prediction here two years ago that the day would come when, from Beijing’s point of view, this gateway to the world could actually be slammed shut.”

However, the world has officially entered the new Cold War. To have this gateway “slammed shut” would incur a higher cost as compared to two years ago. As a very useful financial window to China for financing, money laundering and helping to launch domestic products overseas, especially given that the co-existence of the “two systems” is recognised by the international community, Hong Kong is intrinsically difficult to replace.

As bipartisan consensus is gradually formed in the US in the way of antagonism towards China, the decision to break up the ‘China-US economic community’ could easily be made if an ideologically motivated president (à la Ronald Reagan) is elected instead of a deal-making Trump. Contrary to the clear-cut oppositions of the old Cold War, the interdependence of different economies have deepened in the age of globalisation, making absolute separation an impossibility. Hong Kong’s importance as a window will become all the more a precious rarity to bank on. Beijing understands that it cannot fully duplicate Hong Kong, so its strategy is to replace it partially with Shanghai, Shenzhen, Macau etc and complete the supersession with overseas ports under the Belt and Road Initiative.

This would possibly have worked with a time frame of 50 years, but time is not on China’s side in the shadow of the new Cold War. To put it plainly, even if the day comes when Beijing sees Hong Kong as out-of-control, mobilises even the People’s Liberation Army and hopes to empty out the essence of what the SAR is, China will still find it difficult to let go of the shining banner of ‘one country, two systems’. As long as Beijing has need of the SAR’s international status, true Hong Kongers in all their wisdom will still secure ample room for manoeuvre, no matter how much the noose tightens. 

Regardless of who Hong Kong’s future Chief Executive will be, how the conflicts in the streets will develop, and what Trump or Solomon Yue will tweet tomorrow, the ongoing movement has made Hong Kong structurally different from before. Any crisis – big or small – that goes against the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ as true Hong Kongers know it, will necessarily spark off resistance; while those in high places do not even dare to name the true root cause, as if it is Voldemort.

In view of how the ‘revolution of our times’ as discussed above rectifies the shortcomings of realism, true Hong Kongers will just need to stay true to their original sentiments, maintain a blend of peacefulness and militancy in their homeland, stand in unity with overseas Hong Kongers, as well as ride on the prevailing megatrends. In doing so, they will be able to learn from the wisdom of Chairman Mao, and fight a long-haul war. The only constant there is is change itself. With this, the negative question of “what next” shall turn into an abundantly positive exploration. And let us remember: every exploration of value always comes with rays of hope for the new generation.

Leung Man-Tao on So begins the ENDgame