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PERSPECTIVE

It's time for Hong Kong to make an attempt to heal

District Council poll results provide an opening.

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Do US legislators have the will to rein in or penalise errant Hong Kong radicals? This appears to have been overlooked by the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 signed into force on Nov 27.

THE US-sponsored Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 is remarkable as much for its Quixotic attempt to champion a once-fair city far across the Pacific, as its unprecedentedly bipartisan nature. It is ironic that Hong Kong - with its sharply polarised society - has wrought such profound political unity in a country riven by righteous red-blue rage.

Seen as a champion for the protesters' cause, the Act may have limited positive effect on Hong Kong's fortunes, but it will certainly drive an ever bigger wedge between Washington and Beijing as a damaging trade war ripens.

Worryingly, the tariff bludgeon is a blunt instrument though presented as a precision tool. The implied threat that with any further erosion of human rights and democracy, Hong Kong may lose its special freewheeling trade status to deny China an economic lifeline runs the risk of transforming a weakening territory into a non-asset for both China and the West.

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If Hong Kong lost its lustre as a bargaining chip for trade, Taiwan and capital inflow, it would hasten the end of "One Country, Two Systems". This would be devastating for the embattled territory.

Rule of law is what enables the "high level of autonomy" and freedoms in the city (far superior to those enjoyed by citizens in many Asian cities and indeed in China).

As Henry Litton, a former judge of the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong, has rightly stressed, Common Law is the glue that holds the territory together and makes it such a valuable player on the financial stage. He argues that strengthening, not weakening, One Country Two Systems might encourage Beijing to extend the Common Law lease post-2047.

The genesis of the current American legislative brouhaha goes back to the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. Signed by President George H W Bush in October that year, it ensured that given Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, the city would be viewed as a separate entity from China in matters of trade and international economic discourse.

The Act inserted support for democratisation as a "fundamental principle of United States foreign policy", and went on to link this with human rights, which it said, "serve as a basis for Hong Kong's continued economic prosperity".

Sharper teeth

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 is a reaffirmation of this policy with sharper teeth. It introduces sanctions for those "undermining fundamental freedoms and autonomy" in the territory and throws its full support behind the "democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong" for the "selection of the Chief Executive and all members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage, as articulated in the Basic Law".

The Act claims to offer a mantle of protection for demonstrators with its intent to punish anyone involved in the "actual or threatened rendition, arbitrary detention, torture, or forced confession of any individual in Hong Kong".

While this may be a small, albeit irksome, pebble in Beijing's shoes and remains to be seen how this writ can be usefully enforced, US-flag-waving radicals on Hong Kong streets would do well to heed repeated references to upholding the law.

It is Hong Kong's freedoms that have enabled demonstrators to make their point so forcefully over six savage months. But arson, vandalism, doxxing, thuggish behaviour and the inability to listen to alternative voices are not in congruence with democratic aspirations or the spirit of the law.

If Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam has been accused of having a tin ear, the same could be said of many of the city's youth; they had set out with huge support for their peaceful civil disobedience action, but have since lost their way and disintegrated into robotic violence.

Ms Lam must take full responsibility for the city's slide into what has become an unspoken civil war. Yet, with her inaction, there is no recourse but for civil society to step into the vacuum to moderate, assuage and direct student frustration. It is time for all on the sidelines to do their bit to end the deep polarisation of a city and build bridges.

A start to the healing came with the Nov 24 District Council elections, which offered residents a chance to express their views using the ballot box rather than bricks. It resulted in a resounding victory for the democratic camp that grabbed 17 of 18 districts, winning 347 of 452 seats, with the pro-establishment group winning just 60 and independents picking up the rest. Despite the seemingly one-way outcome, it was a very close vote with the two opposing camps pulling in almost the same number of votes.

Yet, while the city remains divided and protests and marches continue, this could release sufficient steam for the city to go through a cooling-down period, with much needed rest for cleaners, commuters, emergency services, students and the police. Any attempt to derail the healing process by weak-kneed politicians fearful of straying from the tough Beijing line must be strongly discouraged.

A chastened chief executive said she would reflect on the results, but has not yet come up with any useful plan to bring the city together or restore the economic machine. The root problems remain unaddressed.

To tamp down rumours in the prevailing febrile atmosphere, the press must do its bit to address fake reports. Mature media operations, for all their faults and foibles, unlike many blogs and online posts, run their information through a robust process of verification before it is presented in print or on the web.

This policing is entirely lacking on the Internet, where algorithms serve ever-increasing quantities of similar material to viewers based on what is deemed their preference based on clicks. This technical cleverness has deeply divided society. It has resulted in the young being exposed to ever more incendiary material and rumour (reinforcing fears and further radicalising them); meanwhile, others have been inundated with quite-contrary text and images, much of it doctored.

In August, Twitter scrambled to act after it found "936 accounts originating from within the People's Republic of China (PRC)… deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong" by undermining the protest movement. Twitter had already suspended 200,000 other accounts. Facebook followed suit to eliminate several posts referring to Hong Kong demonstrators as "cockroaches". Conversely, while police excesses have been well documented, fake posts and insinuations against the men in blue have taken on a life of their own.

A tipping point

With the city at a tipping point, will the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 make a difference? Protesters may take heart at this timely succour and set upon the streets with renewed vigour. Do US legislators - transfixed by the Donald Trump impeachment show - have the will to rein in or penalise errant Hong Kong radicals? This appears to have been overlooked by the Bill, signed into force by an apologetic President Donald Trump on Nov 27. Already chafing at the slur and convinced the US is behind the street upheavals, Beijing is unlikely to have a sudden change of heart though trade realpolitik may temper its actions.

If sensibly phrased by pan-democrats, this Act could provide a grand opportunity for protesters to walk away with a seeming moral victory in hand. The hustings result can cool tempers further and move solution-seeking discourse from muscle to mind.

And, more hearteningly, it may pave the way for a rebuilding of leadership. Universal suffrage is something HK's Legislative Council (Legco) needs to urgently revisit in a bipartisan manner. It has been a while since the June 2015 walkout fiasco.

For Hong Kong, there is still time to bring in an independent commission of inquiry (not a blame-apportioning tribunal) to examine structural weaknesses in the system. A city upended for six months by paralysing citizen protests is a frightfully poor report card for any government. And so the citizens have spoken. It is time to move beyond "five demands" to a visionary map for the future for this battered city.

  • Vijay Verghese is a Hong Kong-based journalist, columnist and the editor of AsianConversations.com and SmartTravelAsia.com.