What began as a protest against a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong has rapidly spiraled into one of the worst political crises to confront the Chinese city. As the movement enters its fifth month, violence has continued to escalate in the streets of what once was a bustling cosmopolitan city.
It is difficult to not feel disillusioned as a Hong Konger. To watch one’s city descend into flames and chaos through belligerent confrontations between law enforcement and the public is an experience that is surreal for many amongst the 7.4 million inhabiting one of the world’s leading financial centres. Animosity that once felt confined to seemingly distant corners on Earth has now become a recurrent, daily fixture in our politics.
The polarisation is beyond extreme; some would say it is irrevocable. On one side are protesters, oppositional forces, and large swathes of the general public who are disenchanted and infuriated with what they view as inept governance, unaccountable enforcement structures, and socioeconomic inequalities. To more radical individuals, there is a tragic but also disturbing tendency that seeks total, nihilistic annihilation. On the other side are individuals who conjoin for a multitude of reasons. Some are deeply perplexed by the damage the ongoing protests have had on their businesses and livelihoods. More are simply of the view that these protests reflect a fundamentally misguided objective– one that is unjustly dealigned with Hong Kong’s status as a part of China.
I have been thinking about why such polarisations are so seemingly intractable and came to a few preliminary conclusions. The first is that the ongoing tussle is a matter over identity and self-identification. Consider distributing a basket of apples between two squabbling hawkers: both hawkers see taking the whole basket as aligned with their interests, and that any and all benefits accrued to the other hawker actively damage their own interests. Such zero-sum logic means that once one has “picked their side,” it is hard to see any further gains and losses through the (ostensibly) objective lenses of what would perhaps do the aggregate economy the most good.
Likewise, a large number of those embroiled in the ongoing conflict in Hong Kong are locked up in a zero-sum identitarian struggle. For those who sympathise with or are from the mainland, any and all concessions – including the ones for which there was avid campaigning from even the politically apathetic – are viewed as capitulation to “Western forces” and an alien population whose values diverge from their “national interest.” In contrast, for many Hong Kongers who have found the Chinese identity difficult to grasp, this ongoing movement is a definitive and ardent expression of their identities. It is only logical – if not poignant – that both sides view the total elimination of each other (at least within Hong Kong) as the strategically and instrumentally wise course of action to adopt.
The second reason is the important role played by socialisation – the processes that govern and underpin imagined communities. Through socialisation, individuals connected come to coalesce around social norms and rituals. Online echo chambers have convinced extremists on both sides that any dissenting opinions must be eliminated and silenced “at all costs.” It was particularly chilling to witness some of the most denigrating and dehumanising language employed to describe the city’s youth, the generation who will rise to lead our city into navigating its future with the Central Chinese government. On the other hand, the abandonment of facts and embracing of emotive discourse have emerged as the most expedient way of accruing social capital, media salience, and public recognition in one’s camps. This is particularly the case for the small but virulent minority on all sides who view the ongoing struggle as a political exercise for power acquisition.
The final reason why polarisation seems to dominate is the innate divisiveness of violence. It is easy to identify and distinguish the use of force from non-force. However, it is less clear where force becomes violence, legitimate defense becomes illegitimate and abusive. The entry of violence into the protests has not only divided political communities, but also torn apart personal relations. Hong Kong is becoming a desert of broken friendships and families, consigning camaraderie and pluralistic tolerance to the status of relics of the past.
The conventional narrative that this is a David vs. Goliath fight is all understandable yet unconducive towards a pragmatic resolution given the empirical realities governing Hong Kong’s status as a part of China. There is a difficult but necessary third path ahead of Hong Kong. This city’s future cannot be built upon mutual blame, premature judgments, and vigilante distortions of justice. This city cannot continue down a path of irreconcilable polarisation. This city will live and thrive – or die and fizzle out – in accordance with whether a peaceful and sustainable settlement can be found for this summer’s crisis.
While my city is burning in flames, I do not believe that through incandescent rage and self-destructive nihilism can we find productive solutions. Similarly, the rally against the establishment in states across the world is long overdue, but there must be more that we could do than the somewhat futile (albeit valiant) belief that anyone and all working within the system must be expelled and excommunicated for their failure to be radical.
More generally, however, what this these protests have shown is that Hong Kong, if not the world at large, needs a new model of triangulation. Such triangulation is not policy-centred or ideological (so let us do away with the blind fetishisation of centrism that the likes of Blair and Cameron conveniently championed in the UK). It is instead a triangulation in the amorphous, ambivalent political middle, who could speak to all sides, hear from all sides, and forge a compromise that, whilst frail, is the only hope forward.
Triangulation is neither easy nor always the appropriate modus vivendi. There are times when obstinacy and inertia render the exercise futile – if not distracting from more proactive and radical solutions. There are also times when its attempts to depoliticise or de-escalate conflicts ends up suppressing and inhibiting, as opposed to facilitating, genuine crisis resolution. Yet with all dialectical contradictions, there must be a synthesis, and synthesis comes only through attitudes of ideological flexibility, rooted upon integrity and devotion to the genuine greater good.
The views expressed in this article do not reflect the department, the blog, or University’s opinion