"Create an understanding amongst enough individuals
& you become a force with which the authorities must negotiate."
It is good for Hong Kong to flex its democratic muscles and participate in the political process but there are big risks in the present strategy.
I agree with China that the current unrest in Hong Kong is an internal matter of direct concern only to it and Hong Kong. In the West, we so love to assert our civilising authority when our track record in helping is somewhat questionable. Let’s not forget that it is not China now attempting to bomb ISIS, an organisation apparently formed from the Sunni security forces of Saddam Hussein, disbanded by the Coalition Forces in the disastrous Iraq War. No, it is right that the people of Hong Kong deal with this issue themselves.
So it’s not that I think we can teach Hong Kong the benefits of the democracy Britain never actually gave them but that Hong Kong is now in a position to teach the West about civilisation. The question is whether it will actually manage to get its act together.
Let us be clear about what will help and what won’t. While anger and occasionally even violence might be understandable, they are never justified. In fact they are always counter-productive and in the end the relevant parties still need to get round the table and talk. Understanding, cooperation and compromise may seem boring to the teenager and don’t play well in the media but this is the maturity now required.
No progress is going to be made until China is treated with the respect it deserves. Following a disastrous Cultural Revolution, China has come a long way very fast. It has genuine concerns about its arguably unsustainably long borders and great ethnic diversity. Its legitimacy comes not from a popular democratic mandate but solely from its ability to maintain equally unsustainable levels of economic growth.
The Internet has been as revolutionary a development in the 21st century as the printing press in the 15th. It is on the whole a benign tool that is creating greater understanding and cooperation across the world. The vital principal of compromise has been harder to learn but will be very important in Hong Kong.
So there is no point making unreasonable demands on China such as the immediate resignation of Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. Any violence, serious disruption to business or occupation of government buildings is bound to elicit a reaction from the police. After all, they are paid to keep the peace and protect citizens from potentially riotous situations.
If we are to get lessons in Civil-isation from students it will not be about violence, anger, rioting, retribution, accusation or condemnation. Real progress will require that understanding, cooperation and compromise, as well as patience, education, dialogue and respect. These can’t be delivered wearing a gas mask while cowering under an umbrella. They take time and they take commitment.
But the vital point here is that they need to be negotiated from a united front. This must not be seen simply as a student rant. The activists have to create a consensus around the simplest principle and among as many as possible. This should include individuals, businesses, social groups, NGOs and at all levels of society.
And I’ve powerful allies in this mature approach. The British parliamentarian Lord Bhikhu Parekh writes of Gandhi “As a political activist he knew that not consent, nor will, nor fear but cooperation was the basis of the state. Every state, democratic or otherwise, depends on the cooperation of its citizens.” Create an understanding amongst enough individuals & you become a force with which the authorities must negotiate. It’s so easy to blame the state for its misuse of power anywhere in the world but as he continues “The state did not exist independently of its citizens, and was ultimately nothing more than a system of institutionalizes cooperation between them. Since the state was a vast and complex organization, they (the citizens) did not notice that it was their acts of daily cooperation that sustained it and that they were morally responsible for all it said and did.” (1)
Which brings us to Dr. Gene Sharp, the author of the hugely influential ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’. He listed 198 methods by which a people could change a state without the use of violence. He maintained that using violent means against a state that has spent vast amounts on offensive weaponry was asking for a bloody nose. Also that “violent rebellion can trigger repression that frequently leaves the populace more helpless than before.” (2)
Lets hope that this important and worthy cause in Hong Kong is driven by mature individuals who are able to create a meaningful dialogue regardless of their age. This needs considerable diplomatic and negotiating skills as well as firmness and determination. But in the end only respect, understanding and most of all cooperation will progress the cause of civilisation for Hong Kong or for that matter, anywhere else in the world.
Perhaps the students of Hong Kong can lead the world in this enlightened approach, teach us how to act more maturely and make this Brit not a little proud!
(1) - ‘Gandhi and the Contemporary World’, edited by Antony Copley and George Paxton
(2) - ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’, by Dr Gene Sharp (available as a free download)