So begins the ENDgame

Hong Kong is in turmoil. What would the trajectory towards the final scenario be like? Can the whole affair come to a good end? Influential Hong Kong political commentator Leung Man-tao believes that possibility has evaporated completely.
How would the way towards the end be paved? (Mohd Rasfan / AFP)
How would the way towards the end be paved? (Mohd Rasfan / AFP)

Everyone knows that Hong Kong’s unique international standing is extremely important to China. 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. In other words, Hong Kong could lose its status as a separate customs territory, its linked exchange rate system could be scrapped, and the SAR’s passport might become only as good as the Chinese passport. “Trivial” matters like the need to bypass the Great Firewall when we access the Internet would, of course, be a given by then. But what would the trajectory towards such a final scenario be like? How would the way towards the end be paved? I did not know the answer two years ago; but now, we can finally see its course. 

Most shockingly, a group of feverish citizens gathered in a shopping mall even declared themselves a provisional government.

It began when, even after Chief Executive Carrie Lam held a Community Dialogue session, our streets continued to boil over with action and the police grew more aggressive by the day. Along came unfortunate incidents of protesters being seriously wounded by gunshot, which effectively rendered all “dialogues” null and void. Subsequently, the Chief Executive invoked the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to ban face masks, but what she got in return was nothing short of a massive riot by any international standards. Most shockingly, a group of feverish citizens gathered in a shopping mall even declared themselves a provisional government. With this, the “computer gamer’s mentality” I spoke of years ago finally took the first real steps towards independence for Hong Kong, officially elevating the situation to the level of a colour revolution. 

Conversely, everything that is the worst, most capable of aggravating the situation and most likely to trigger a disaster become incredibly easy.

Having come to this, can the whole affair possibly come to a good end? I’m afraid that the possibility has evaporated completely. One of the reasons is a strange phenomenon I have pointed out before: that the pro-establishment camp is devoid of central leadership. It is never clear whether these people really want to take a hard line or go soft. The moves they make are as badly timed as they are mutually contradictory. Another reason is that both sides are too far apart in terms of how they understand and interpret the present situation. Each has its own logic, which is conveniently applied to all the factualities that go against what each believes.  

I remember writing the following words a month ago: “The most bizarre thing about everything that has been happening in Hong Kong this summer is this: every solution that could have been most ideal, most suited to alleviating the situation and most capable of solving the problems at hand have somehow become incredibly difficult. Conversely, everything that is the worst, most capable of aggravating the situation and most likely to trigger a disaster become incredibly easy.” 

To me, truly responsible politics must not—assuming that a revolution does break out—fail to ask: “What shall we do the day after the revolution?” What’s most unrealistic about the kind of proposition being tossed around as mentioned above is that everything is wagered on the international community, especially the US.

I-Want-to-Laam-Caau (“burn together”), whoever first advocated “mutual destruction”, went so far as to put me on par with China’s State Council, as seen in the fact that he wrote in response to both the State Council’s public statement and my writings. In arguing energetically for his proposed course of action, he declared: “We think nothing of emergency laws and the People’s Liberation Army at all. The so-called great power is all talk and no action. Where now is the majesty of its totalitarian rule? Isn’t there no greater loss of face in the world than the defeat of 1.4 billion people at the hands of 7.5 million? The whole world is waiting to see who it is that will rise up again from the ashes after the mutual destruction of both sides. ‘If we burn, you burn with us.’”

Perhaps I am too realistic, but every time somebody talks about “revolution” or makes heroic statements like “If we burn, you burn with us”, I would always ask: “What comes next?” 

After all, which is more important for China’s interests – Hong Kong as a window to the world, or the stability of the regime and the dignity of its political leaders?

To me, truly responsible politics must not—assuming that a revolution does break out—fail to ask: “What shall we do the day after the revolution?” What’s most unrealistic about the kind of proposition being tossed around as mentioned above is that everything is wagered on the international community, especially the US. Get this – there are people who actually think Donald Trump will be the saviour for Hong Kong’s protesters. Do we not see in the recent news that Trump intends to say nothing about Hong Kong in the China-US trade negotiations? Indeed, many also neglect what Richard C. Bush, the former Chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, said recently. He suggested that our protesters should “simply accept that they have achieved as much as they realistically can and retire to struggle another day”. Clearly the worsening of Hong Kong’s problem is impairing American interests. They cannot possibly play along with everything our protesters are doing to the end. 

More critically, the believers in “revolution” or “mutual destruction” seriously underestimate the price that the Chinese government is willing to pay in order to maintain its authority. After all, which is more important for China’s interests – Hong Kong as a window to the world, or the stability of the regime and the dignity of its political leaders? Anyone can guess what Xi Jinping will choose. Nevertheless I know that such discussion is futile, because even when faced with signs that do not fit well with their own logic, the believers can still use them to explain the past, reinforcing their conviction that their pressure on the government is still not strong enough, that they should kick their manifested resolve up a notch. Do these people still believe at the present point that escalating the militant movement will bring about a desirable outcome? 

Do these people still believe at the present point that escalating the militant movement will bring about a desirable outcome? (AFP)
Do these people still believe at the present point that escalating the militant movement will bring about a desirable outcome? (Philip Fong / AFP)

The pro-establishment camp, on the other hand, has its own logic too. These people labelled the ongoing movement as one of “independence for Hong Kong” right from the beginning, so every action against it was deemed to be correct beyond a shadow of a doubt. Consequently, when observers in the Mainland cheered Hong Kong’s police on and I questioned if that would truly help them resolve the actual problems they faced in Hong Kong, a host of the Mainland’s netizens accused me of speaking for the pro-independence movement. The reason could not be simpler. Since they believed that all of Hong Kong’s protesters were pro-independence, and the police were acting against these people, ergo all doubts cast on whatever the police were doing would automatically be equivalent to pro-independence talk. 

I do not think this represents only the emotional response of certain netizens. It is probably also the very line of thought that the entire pro-establishment stratosphere subscribes to. In other words, whenever someone strongly puts forth a remedy to “stop the violence and rebellion”, no one can question its effectiveness. “No one” means not anyone from outside their circles, of course; but it also means that no one on the inside can have a different opinion either. Conversely, any proposal from their opponents can never be accepted. Even when accepted, such proposals are to be proven misguided in the end. 

Here’s the simplest example. Right from the start, many in the pro-establishment camp doubted that the government’s withdrawal of the contentious extradition bill could be of any good. They believed the opposition would not back off so easily, so the matter dragged on and on. Eventually, withdrawal was announced officially, but the focus of the whole movement had long shifted away. By then no one could put the brakes on the protesters anymore, which goes to show just how much foresight these politicians possessed to begin with. 

The passing of the anti-mask law is yet another good example of how the said stratosphere functions. Anyone with the slightest understanding of what’s going on in Hong Kong on the ground should be able to tell that the law will only spark off more intense resistance. No wonder the stock market, typically more in tune with reality than anything else, took a serious plunge of 500 points on the day it was passed. Why, then, could the pro-establishment politicians not foresee this? While it is true that there are similar laws in quite a number of Western countries, but as pointed out by many, the whole political context and social climate behind their enactment are very different from what we have here. More realistically speaking, the ongoing movement is presently at a point of sliding into severe aggravation. From the viewpoint of the pro-establishment camp and the government as a whole, the foremost issue is how to protect the authority of the system and the law enforcers. They should give adequate consideration to whether or not the anti-mask law will help to achieve this goal. 

One must not carelessly enact a law which one has no confidence to uphold successfully. Is this not the most basic of common sense?

As I recall, Professor Lui Tai-lok noted very early on that Hong Kongers’ psychological threshold against breaking the law was unconsciously lowered at the beginning of the protest movement. The example he gave to illustrate this was how several lawful assemblies turned into an occupation of the roads in the end. Hong Kongers at large, normally a law-abiding people, failed to be aware of how problematic such a trend was. Even the police missed the warning signs. In the later stage, the following sequence of events became more frequently seen: a gathering of people in a shopping mall or the streets was declared an unlawful assembly by the police; the police dispersed the crowd; they managed to nab a few of the participants who did not run fast enough, but there was no way to arrest every single citizen recognized to have broken the law. Imagine this: if every gathering of hundreds or thousands of citizens is unlawful, and on every occasion, there is no way to enforce the law completely, how will the words “unlawful assembly” deter anyone eventually? No wonder more than 100,000 citizens took part in the grand procession of October 1 even though they knew very well that it was illegal. 

Already assembling unlawfully, why would anyone in the march feel jittery over breaking the anti-mask law? (AFP)
Already assembling unlawfully, why would anyone in the march feel jittery over breaking the anti-mask law? (Mohd Rasfan / AFP)

Now imagine the protesters, already used to unlawful assemblies, taking part in yet another illegal procession in the streets today with their masks on. Can anyone be confident about arresting every single one of them? Already assembling unlawfully, why would anyone in the march feel jittery over breaking the anti-mask law? In a way, passing this law is like stipulating that no one shall criticize the government in the privacy of his or her home. Such legislation that cannot hope to see thorough enforcement will only tarnish the authority of the law and the dignity of our law enforcers. One must not carelessly enact a law which one has no confidence to uphold successfully. Is this not the most basic of common sense? 

And yet so many in the pro-establishment camp believed that the law would work. The doubters on their side were either unwilling to speak up or too daunted to do so, especially when they all had to do something towards “stopping the violence and rebellion” no matter what. As expected, the law drew an even stronger reaction, such that the protest movement blew up into a widespread riot overnight. In spite of this, these people up there will probably still not recognize that they have made a misjudgement. Instead, they will feel that those they are dealing with are simply too unruly, that the anti-mask law alone is not tough enough. 

Given that the whole movement has evolved into something else, the unchanged logic of our politicians will launch them into a downward spiral from here on. They will think that they should implement a curfew, cancel the District Council elections … and so on and so forth. 

(Originally published in the Apple Daily)