by Jonathon Yeung
I was barely a year old on June 30th, 1997. In the final hours before China regained sovereignty at midnight, the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, gave his farewell address on a windswept stage in the heart of the city. Amidst the pouring rain, he offered a message of hope, promising that ‘Hong Kong’s star will continue to climb’.
Twenty years on, that message couldn’t be further from the truth for many Hongkongers. Hong Kong society is unbelievably fractured: inequality is rising, politics is at a stalemate, society has split into rival camps, and cries for independence are sounding in response to what many see as Chinese government encroachment on freedoms.
Fracture, of course, is not unique to Hong Kong — all around the world, deep societal divisions are being revealed with every election and referendum. For example, in the recent Turkish referendum, 51.41% of voters supported turning Turkey into a presidential republic, granting President Erdogan more powers — more a display of deep fault lines than a resounding victory. Across Europe and the West too, with Donald Trump’s victory and Brexit, fracture is becoming not the exception but the norm. From the experience of an especially fractured Hong Kong, I hope to highlight the importance of two things that are paramount in assuaging tensions: communication and an independent judiciary.
I’ll start with communication. Reaching across the divide and speaking to those who see things differently is very important. This may be obvious, but it is easier said than done — it is so natural, especially in a world dominated by social media, to remain in echo chambers of opinion. This may not seem to be such a serious problem on an everyday level, but a consistent lack of proper communication can have dire consequences.
The animosity between Hong Kong and Mainland China is no secret. On a political level, Hong Kong is divided into pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps; both sides refuse to work with the other, causing almost daily filibusters in the legislature. On a personal level too, relations between Hongkongers and mainland Chinese citizens have reached a new low. Most young people in Hong Kong are second-generation or (like me) third-generation residents; most of our grandparents have vivid stories of leaving the mainland in search for a better life. It used to be that, in the past, Hongkongers were quite accepting of people from mainland China. The situation has completely changed post-1997: many Hongkongers despise people from mainland China, labelling them as ‘locusts’ and blaming social problems on a generalised group of ‘those mainlanders’. Fewer and fewer Hongkongers identify as Chinese. Vocal mainland Chinese citizens have responded to this animosity, with one Beijing professor calling Hongkongers ‘dogs of British imperialists’. Conflicts like these have harmed Hong Kong-China relations and have stopped Hong Kong and the rest of China from working together.
The lack of proper communication between mainland China and Hong Kong has essentially created two echo chambers, with members of each misunderstanding the intentions of the other. In Hong Kong, as in every society, we all need to reach beyond our comfort zones and engage with those who may have different views from us. It is simply not true that one side is completely rational, and the other completely irrational. By reaching out, we are actually closing an information gap — by understanding each other, we’re preventing our views from being twisted and exploited by agents with dubious intent. In the context of Hong Kong, I am sure that Hong Kong-China relations can become far friendlier, and Hong Kong can go much further, if only both sides could sympathise with the difficulties of the other, and prevent themselves from being painted as the villain in the eyes of the other.
The Rule of Law is also of paramount importance to the healing of societal fractures. In Hong Kong, an independent judiciary has become an important arbiter between different societal interests, providing a peaceful means of solving disputes. Hong Kong society itself is divided between those who support Beijing and the establishment, and those who call for greater autonomy and democracy. Differences have sharpened especially since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when pro-democracy activists and students occupied Central Hong Kong for 79 days, demanding that China quicken the pace of political reform. Since no concessions were won, the situation has since escalated, with several violent clashes between protesters and police. Recently, the government has moved to disqualify six pro-autonomy elected MPs from the legislature on questionable legal grounds (i.e, government lawyers say their oaths were not taken properly), two of whom were successfully removed. Many in Hong Kong consider the government and the bureaucracy to be thoroughly pro-Beijing, and relations between government and society have broken down considerably.
Hong Kong’s judiciary, however, has shown considerable fairness and restraint in the midst of social tensions. In September 2016, the Eastern Magistrates Court rejected a government appeal to impose harsher sentences on the student leaders of the Occupy movement. In February 2017, the District Court convicted and sentenced to imprisonment seven police officers who were filmed beating up a protester during the Occupy protests, a group which many Hongkongers assumed would ultimately escape the hand of the law. Foreign judges from other common law jurisdictions continue to serve in Hong Kong, ensuring that the judiciary adheres fairly to common law principles and practices (the President of the UK Supreme Court Lord Neuberger sits as a non-permanent judge in Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal).
Hong Kong’s judiciary has, I think, to a fairly large degree assuaged tensions that otherwise could have erupted into violence. Other independent judiciaries upholding the Rule of Law have similar roles to play. Pursuant to this, we all have a responsibility to ensure that courts remain independent. Hong Kong District Court Judge David Dufton, who presided over the trial of the seven policemen, received online threats and abuse after sentencing — this sort of attack on the judiciary is unacceptable, no matter what side one is on.
The importance of communication and an independent judiciary to healing societal divides might seem obvious. But, precisely because it is so obvious, we should be careful not to overlook it. In Hong Kong, as in other places, talking to those with different views and supporting the fairness and independence of courts can make a very big difference.