It is “pointless” and “futile” for political and business elites to condemn the Hong Kong protests, to paint the protesters as “enemies of the people”, or to claim the support of the “silent majority”, as they are not “popularly elected” representatives of the people of Hong Kong, opined a Singaporean academic based in Hong Kong.
Prof Donald Low, a senior lecturer and professor of practice at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said in a Facebook post on Mon (25 Nov) that such is one of several so-called “lessons” that can be learnt from the political unrest in Hong Kong.
“When you are not popularly elected, it’s probably wise for you not to attempt to portray yourself as the defender or representative of the people.
“Far better to admit failure and acknowledge that you’ve lost the right to govern than to pretend that (the stature of) your office confers you any legitimacy,” said Prof Low.
He added that the elites “should not underestimate their capacity for self-deception”, as doing so cultivates “complacency, and a self-justifying belief that elites know best”.
Doing so also implies that “that those asking for voice and accountability are a vocal minority, and that the masses are gullible folk asking for strong leadership from those them”, said Prof Low.
Low’s comments came on the heels of the Hong Kong district council election on Sun (24 Nov), which saw a whopping 2.94 million voters — or 71 per cent of 4.1 million electors — casting their ballots across 18 districts.
Sun’s turnout, which was the highest recorded turnout of any election in the history of Hong Kong, saw residents voting overwhelmingly in favour of the pan-democratic bloc — comprising candidates in the legal and social work professions as well as veteran politicians — with 387 seats out of 452 seats being secured by pro-democracy candidates.
In contrast, only 59 seats were won by the pro-establishment — and pro-Beijing — camp as of press time.
Prominent pro-Beijing candidates such as Junius Ho — who was heavily condemned and even stabbed after a video of him shaking hands with a group of men who had attacked protesters and commuters in Yuen Long surfaced online — also lost what have been considered as “safe seats”.
Quartz, a global journalism platform focusing on the global economy, observed that the result of Sun’s elections suggest that “portraying the populace as a “silent majority” that has been cowed into submission by “violent rioters” hasn’t been particularly effective”.
Citing polls conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which showed that over 50 per cent of people distrust the police and the government, Quartz noted that pro-Beijing candidates, “who mostly ran on a platform of ending violence and preserving peace in the city, failed to resonate with voters”.
Citing political theorist Albert Hirschman’s “The Rhetoric of Reaction”, Prof Low argued that “simplistic and binary” narratives such as “the ends do not justify the means”, “democracy hurts stability and prosperity” or that the protests are “caused by foreign interventions” are characterised by “perversity, jeopardy and futility commonly used by those in power to resist changes to the status quo”.
“[O]nce the democracy genie is let out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in … You can try to suppress it, but you’ll have to resort to increasing repression and state violence.
“Of course, that doesn’t justify the violence and destruction wrought by the radical protestors. But as with the democratization of South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s, governments have as much (if not more) say in whether they introduce democratic reforms to pacify the people or they resort to (increasing) repression,” he opined.
“As for those who say that protests will achieve nothing and that they are driven by foreign interference, they will have to resort to ever more elaborate stories about foreign interference, or how the local council elections aren’t an indication of public support for greater democracy, or how the majority of Hongkongers are stupid/ingrates, or how democracy was a dastardly British conspiracy,” Prof Low added.
Prof Low also stressed that any “lessons” we can draw from “this complex, often contradictory, phenomenon are tentative and premature at best”.
Such “lessons”, he said, are also “incorrect and self-serving at worst”.
Prof Low also reminded readers that the Hong Kong protests are “a complex sociopolitical phenomenon with multiple, interconnected contributory factors”, and thus it is “often impossible” to determine a singular cause.
Focusing too much on “establishing causation”, he warned, “may lead to simplistic, self-rationalizing conclusions”.
“As human beings, we can’t help but construct internally consistent, psychologically comforting stories about the world. We love to establish “root causes”, make predictions about “how all this would end”, draw lessons for ourselves, etc.
“But often these are projections of our biases, emotion (or the affect heuristic) and stereotypes, rather than accurate descriptions of reality,” he said, adding that “we should fight this tendency and seek to understand the complexity as it is”.
“This also means avoiding judgement and not drawing lessons prematurely — all the more if you’re not from Hong Kong,” Prof Low concluded.
Pan-democratic bloc majority signals “defiant rebuke” to Hong Kong government and Beijing’s narrative of a “silent majority”
While district council elections are not typically considered a politically significant affair, given that district councils’ powers are restricted within the bounds of “hyper-local issues” such as parks, bus stops and waste collection, the pan-democratic bloc’s landslide win nonetheless sent a strong signal to both the Hong Kong government and Beijing, The Guardian and CNN observed.
The pro-democracy camp’s majority win can be seen as a “defiant rebuke” to the Hong Kong government’s narrative that “its hardline policies had the support of a “silent majority”, who had been cowed by protester violence”, in addition to planting “the seeds of greater long-term influence for democrats”, according to The Guardian.
Kenneth Chan, an expert on politics and governance at Hong Kong Baptist University, told CNN that the high turnout “exceeded many predictions”, and served as a testament to the Hong Kongers’ commitment to democracy.
Hong Kongers, said Chan, are “counting on this election to point a way out of this impasse”.
Even Hong Kongers residing abroad returned to cast their votes, some of them for the first time in their lives.
Warren Chau, a 31-year-old Hong Konger working in Singapore as an IT professional for six years, told South China Morning Post that he and his friends “have suppressed our feelings over the situation in Hong Kong for the past few months” as they “cannot discuss politics openly” in the Republic.
“The election is a legitimate way to express our voices and tell the government what we want and who we support,” Chau added.
Peter Chan Ka-hung, a 28-year-old epidemiologist residing in Oxford in England, told SCMP that the ongoing protests “revealed some long-standing structural problems of the current government and society”, and thus felt that it was his duty to contribute to the improvement of the situation by casting his vote.
“Although this election won’t solve many of these problems, I believe it will be a good start to improve the situation bit by bit, and to build a momentum for future social movements,” Chan added.
Andrew Li, a 22-year-old student who supported a pro-democracy candidate, told CNBC that the landslide win of the pan-democratic camp “will send a signal to Beijing”.
“By ignoring people’s demands, it wakes up all Hong Kong people to come out and vote,” Li added.
The special administrative region has been rocked pro-democracy protests for nearly eight months, which began as a rally against a controversial extradition Bill on 31 Mar. While the Bill has now been fully withdrawn by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the movement has expanded into rallying calls for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.
The four other demands placed by the protesters from the Hong Kong government are the resignation of Carrie Lam as Chief Executive, an inquiry into police brutality during the protests, the release of those arrested during the course of the protests, and greater democratic freedoms.