Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity
“Excuse me, sir,” the police officer began as he tapped me on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, but your group’s organizer reserved a different location….” Being an American, I didn’t know that “protest” groups in Hong Kong reserved locations. Would a group be put on a waiting list if all the available places were taken? What if the corner of King and Devonshire Streets in Boston hadn’t been available on March 5, 1770?
“I’m not exactly with this group. I’m more of a tourist,” I hedged and stepped back to the spectators’ side of the orange plastic ribbon which a little while ago I’d stepped over. At that time an equally polite officer had informed me that where I was standing needed to be kept clear for moving pedestrians. But it was okay if I wanted to move in with the group queuing in line and holding protest signs. I think he may have even held down the ribbon to make it easier for me to step across. But that might be my memory playing tricks under the disorienting influence of the civility of Hong Kong dissent.
What does politics have to do with sustainability?
The goal of the United States Green Build Council’s LEED program is to create sustainable buildings that maximize the “triple bottom line” of economic prosperity, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. Or more pithily: prosperity, planet, and people. This follows from the generally accepted definition of sustainability as “[d]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That definition first appeared in the 1987 United Nations report Our Common Future, Chapter2: Towards Sustainable Development. The report sets forth a blueprint for global sustainability including the assertion that “the pursuit of sustainable development requires a political system that secures effective citizen participation in decision making….”
What is “citizen participation in decision making” like for the average person in Hong Kong and how does the government along with its official and unofficial representatives respond to it?
Hong Kong switched from British Colony to Chinese Special Administrative Region on July 1, 1997, and since then July 1st has been the date of an annual self-rule rally organized by the Hong Kong people. The government organizes separate “unification” events. This year’s rally was called “the biggest July 1 protest in a decade” by Hong Kong’s relatively balanced South China Morning Post newspaper. Note the word protest; not march, commemoration, festival, rally, or even demonstration.
Hong Kong’s press, like most media the world over, tends to dramatize things. But beyond the press, that proclivity seems to be endemic to not only China’s Central Government and Communist Party, but also to Hong Kong’s government and business establishment. Listening to those groups you’d imagine Hong Kong as a hot bed of radicalism that might be just a step or two away from social breakdown. To their way of thinking, if citizens don’t get with the program and accept what the government proposes (for issues like how lawmakers should be chosen or public land developed) all hell could break loose.
This past January, because of the Occupy Central movement’s announced plans for non-violent civil disobedience to block street intersections if public nomination and election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is not planned for 2017, Hong Kong Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen warned that such action might endanger Hong Kong’s economic standing and specifically cited the Heritage Foundation’s free enterprise rankings. In response to Secretary Yuen’s comments the Foundation set the record straight: “You cannot achieve higher levels of economic freedom by imposing or sustaining restrictions on political freedom.”
Hyperbolic pronouncements from current and former Beijing officials about Hong Kong’s public activism or possible activism are frequent. A typical example is this: “Occupy Central… is illegal and violates Hong Kong’s rule of law. This has demonstrated that a portion of the anti-China forces inside and outside Hong Kong are conspiring to usurp the jurisdiction of the city…” by Zhou Nan, a former Chinese Central Government Vice-minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s and Asia’s richest individual, advised: “The move to occupy Central does not benefit Hong Kong. If this happens, it will give a bad impression to outsiders… it will be harmful to the city.” By outsiders, does he mean the rest of the world or just mainland China?
A joint newspaper ad by Hong Kong’s four largest accounting firms somewhat overheatedly stated, “We believe that once the Occupy Central movement takes place, commercial institutions… will inevitably be affected… which will in turn give rise to market instability and chaos, resulting in [severe] economic and social damage that can hardly be quantified.”
There are formal and, this being Hong Kong, highly structured procedures for soliciting public input for initiatives the government is considering. But once all the public input boxes have been checked, the forms filled out, and the plans announced by the essentially non-elected executive branch for initiatives that it wants to move forward, the attitude of most unelected and many elected government officials seems to be that the public and the directly and indirectly elected Legislative Council (Legco) should get out of the way. Just let the executive branch, the real government in Hong Kong, get on with things.
For example, in response to vigorous public opposition, Legco twice postponed scheduled votes on initial funding for a controversial government proposed land development plan. This led acting Chief Executive Carrie Lam to warn that further delay could “dash the hopes of millions” because the government would not give in to “radical and violent” protestors and modify or withdraw its proposal. Apparently until Legco voted on the proposal, action on all remaining government programs would be blocked. With the rapidly approaching end of this year’s Legco session, the implication was that many desired programs might not be funded for the coming fiscal year. It seemed like the problem could have been solved with a simple agenda change. But perhaps Hong Kong government is even more hidebound than my Hong Kong bank because that option was not discussed. Or maybe Hong Kong politicians can be just as irrationally obstinate as their American counterparts.
“Radical and violent” isn’t consistent with my impression of the typical Hong Konger, and I was curious to see the development protestors with my own eyes. So when an acquaintance emailed about a demonstration against a proposed solid waste incinerator at the Legco building on June 27, the same Friday as the next scheduled vote on the controversial land development, I decided to observe Hong Kong protest first-hand.
When Friday arrived, I worried a bit about finding where I needed to go since I hadn’t been to the government complex before. I shouldn’t have been concerned. In typical conscientious Hong Kong fashion there were signs printed on A4-sized paper pointing the way to the Legislative Council and the “Public Activity Area”. Further along I followed the sound of amplified speech and came to a wide area of sidewalk outside the Legco building filled with audio-video equipment, photographers, spectators, police, and the group I was looking for. They were patiently waiting their turn while the spokesperson for another group addressed the press and audience. Since my Cantonese hasn’t yet progressed much past “Excuse me, I want to get off the bus,” I couldn’t tell if he was speaking about the development project. If he was, he and his group were certainly much more civil and calm than the press and Carrie Lam had led me to expect.
Unrealistically hoping to figure out what was being said, I listened carefully to the speaker while the polite policeman led the incinerator group to its reserved location. But after accepting that in ten minutes I wasn’t going to learn more Cantonese than I’d learned in over a year of language study, I moved on to find the others. I walked for about a hundred yards in the direction the group had gone, turned a corner, and looked up a walk that ran past more helpful A4 signs taped to temporary barricades stating that “This Designated Demonstration Area is closed.” That direction didn’t seem promising, since it would be unusual for a group in Hong Kong to go somewhere a sign warned them not to go. But I circumnavigated the signs and continued another hundred yards to find the incinerator group at the back corner of the government complex’s expansive grassy knoll. The group was beyond sight of the press, the Councilors, and anyone who wasn’t looking for them. But it was watched by three police officers, one of whom was writing in the proverbial policeman’s pocket notebook.
The group was sorting itself out. Group members appeared to be mainly mothers, children, some possible grandparents, and perhaps a music teacher. The music teacher was handing out drums while the genial leader with the megaphone said hello and inquired if people thought they could chant a little bit. When the people replied that yes, the leader called out “2, 4, 6, 8, please do not incinerate,” and everyone followed along. From my perspective as an American, chanting please seemed quaint and admirably polite for a “protest”.
But that’s the way things were at ground level on that Friday and then again the following Tuesday as the marchers from Victoria Park began arriving where I was at the highly produced ending event of this year’s July 1st rally. Everyone I saw was good-natured, civil, and calm. A woman handing out political flyers gave a little bow whenever someone accepted one. There were families and elders and lots of youth. There were plenty of police but other than their uniforms the young officers looked much the same as the young marchers and had equally stylish haircuts.
From what I saw, it appeared that civic engagement by Hong Kong’s average people (those who aren’t politicians, party patricians, or modern day patroons perhaps performing for their patrons) is respectful, restrained, reasonable, and rational and society moves along efficiently with everyone playing their parts.
The other side is watching but I don’t know if many are listening. Initial funding for the controversial land development was approved. The Legco Public Works Subcommittee recommended approval of the incinerator and a new “public service announcement” advocating for it has been released. The government has just begun the official five step process that in two years may result in an election reform proposal that ultimately must be submitted to Beijing for approval.
Note: Set your browser to “private” to avoid problems with South China Morning Post quantity limits on free viewing of its stories. Additional video from the July 1st rally can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVmelYy7mgM.
Dante Archangeli moved to Hong Kong from Tucson, Arizona, where he focused on sustainable construction and development. He is an MIT and USC educated project manager, entrepreneur, and builder.