A Total Leadership Vacuum — My Thoughts After the Hong Kong Protests
(Photo Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images via ChinaFile)
I’m part of the new ChinaFile discussion:
What Does Hong Kong’s Post-Protest Report Signal For Relations with Beijing?
The full discussion is here. My contribution is also below:
Sino-Hong Kong relations urgently need one thing to salve the ills of today and ensure a better tomorrow, and that is for true leadership to emerge. And that means leadership in government, it means leadership in opposition, and it means leadership in China’s handling and understanding of Hong Kong.
What we have seen in this winter of discontent and protest is a complete and tragic failure of leadership on all sides.
China failed. The months of protest were a direct result of ham-fisted and tone-deaf writing and speaking about the city, showing no empathy for or understanding of what makes it work and what threatens that working.
The Hong Kong government failed. There hasn’t been one statement or report on the evolving political consciousness that showed an attempt to represent truly the breadth, depth, and even diversity of opinion and feeling.
Leung Chun-ying failed. Admittedly Hong Kong has never had a true leader as governor or chief executive, moving from boring bureaucrats to tired tycoons with only Chris Patton as an interlude showing—to little lasting effect—a politician’s love of media, attention, and confrontation. But Leung has seemed to have a spectacular lack of ideas, integrity, or interconnection with the people he is supposed to “execute” for.
The protestors failed. While they brought the city spectacularly and movingly to the streets, everyone involved ultimately actively eschewed taking a true leadership role, they never moved the rhetoric or thinking to a place where dialogue or negotiation could meaningfully take place, and finally they exhausted or irritated many of the very people who supported them in the first place.
What these months have showed, though, is that Hong Kong is a place with a political consciousness. It is a place where the people have a wide variety of views, desires, demands, and issues. And it has defined Hong Kong as a place that is very clearly not willing, able, or ready to move closer to China without its own identity being recognized, respected, and reacted to.
Hong Kong needs leadership.
It needs a few people willing to take the lead in saying, “This is who we are; this is what makes Hong Kong special; and these are the things that, within the context of big and powerful China next door having suzerainty, we must preserve protect and defend.” There’s no one answer to that list of things. They are what need to be brought out into the open, discussed, debated, and ultimately decided.
The argument about how the Chief Executive of Hong Kong should be nominated and elected is to me but a sideshow to the real issues of what is Hong Kong, how is its relationship to China defined, how is its special character preserved and developed, and how are its people and their beliefs given expression and representation.
Hong Kong’s relations with Beijing in the days, months, and years ahead are bounded by the relative sizes, powers, and legal statuses of the two actors. Those relations can be shaped positively by the people themselves, however, if they have the leaders with vision, courage, and integrity to make that happen.