Hong Kong Apostasy
Lester Shum (岑敖暉, 1993-) is an activist and a former student leader of the pro-democracy protests — the ‘Umbrella Movement’ — in Hong Kong in 2014. From April 2014 to March 2015, he was deputy secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS). In October 2014, he was one of the five-member HKFS delegation involved in ‘Dialogue’ with government officials under Carrie Lam, then Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary for Administration. He was subsequently detained for participating in a a sit-in that July and, on 26 November 2014, he was arrested for failing to comply with an injunction to clear a protest site in Mong Kok. In 2018, he pleaded guilty to accusations levelled against him but he was eventually handed suspended sentence. He currently serves as an assistant to Eddie Chu Hoi-dick (朱凱廸, 1977-), a prominent pro-democracy lawmaker.
On 18 August 2019, the day of a mass anti-government rally of some 1.7 million protesters, Carrie Lam-Cheng Yuet-ngor, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, declared that:
‘Work will start immediately to build a platform of dialogue. We hope this dialogue can be built upon a basis of mutual understanding and respect to find a way out for Hong Kong.
‘I sincerely hope this is the start of society returning to calm and turning away from violence.’
In this chapter of ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’, a series devoted to the 2019 Hong Kong Anti-Extradition Bill Protest Movement, Lester Shum discusses the political significance and potential of ‘Dialogue’ 對話 today.
In the Chinese political lexicon ‘Dialogue’ is a term with a range of particular, mostly odious, associations that have more to do with obfuscation, manipulation and prevarication than with anything related to meaningful and substantive exchanges over issues of mutual interest. As a strategy deployed by the authorities to confound and diffuse protest, ‘Dialogue’ is achingly familiar to Hong Kong activists, as indeed it is to participants as well as observers of the 1989 Protest Movement on the Mainland.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
22 August 2019
- Leo Shin, moderator, ‘Alex Chow and Lui Tai-lok — Hong Kong in the Age of the Chinese Dream’, University of British Columbia Hong Kong Studies Initiative, Youtube, 25 March 2019
- 周永康 Alex Chow, ‘給香港的家屬’, 臉書 FB, 16 July 2019
- Yi-Zheng Lian, ‘The People’s War Is Coming in Hong Kong’, The New York Times, 21 August 2019
- 李怡, ‘世道人生: 五大訴求缺一不可’, 《蘋果日報》, 2019年8月22日
The Five Fundamental Appeals of
Hong Kong Protesters:
1. Completely withdraw the Extradition Bill (the ‘Fugitive Offenders Ordinance Amendment Bill’).
2. Retract the declaration that protests on the 9th and 12th of June were riots.
3. Withdraw criminal charges against all protesters.
4. Thoroughly investigate the police for abusing their power.
5. Dissolve the Legislative Council by administrative order, and immediately implement Dual Universal Suffrage.
I’m One of the Students Who Engaged in
Dialogue with Lam-Cheng Five Years Ago
And All I Want to Say Right Now Is:
Auntie Carrie, You’ve Done Your Darnedest,
High Time You Just Gave It a Rest
Lester Shum 岑敖暉
Translated and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé
1. ‘Dialogue’ Is About Doing Away with The Questioners, Not About The Questions
I am one of the students who engaged in ‘dialogue’ with Carrie Lam-Cheng Yuet-Ngor five years ago. At the time ‘Auntie Carrie’ put on quite a display of familiarity by making a point of addressing us by our English names — I was ‘Lester’, and my co-negotiator was simply ‘Alex’ [Chow]. (Just thinking about it makes me want to puke.) In reality, what lurked behind the government’s gestures of dialogue was their real aim: to put us in an indefensible position so that it would be easier to obliterate us.
‘Dialogue’ is always a tactic used by the power-holders to embrace Those on the Middle Path — that is, the people occupying the undecided middle ground. They are offered this conciliatory gesture [somewhat akin to the inane ‘listening tours’ of politicians] but in effect it is a gross deception aimed at discombobulating the protest movement. Their ‘Dialogue’ is forever but a vacuous gesture with no substantive content much less any hope of speeding up meaningful reforms to the system itself.
The crux of the matter is that when the authorities propose ‘Dialogue’, it is never really about political negotiation.
What I mean by ‘political negotiation’ is a situation in which those involved bargain or negotiate over substantive issues on the basis of positions of relative advantage and, in the process, discover where there might be room for practical concessions on either side. What the power-holders are proposing in Hong Kong at the moment, at least as it relates to the Five Appeals of the mass protests, is tantamount to a blanket refusal to make any concessions. In fact, the chance that the government is willing to make even the slightest substantive concession is Zero.
To satisfy the Five Demands, to bring about thoroughgoing systemic reform, allowing the people meaningful political rights — these are things that enjoy an extremely strong consensus uniting both those decried by Auntie Carrie as ‘extremely violent protesters’ as well as peaceful-rational moderates.
[Note: On the two camps — the ‘courageous-militants’ 勇武 and the ‘peaceful-rational moderates’ 和理非, see Yi-Zheng Lian, ‘The People’s War Is Coming in Hong Kong’, The New York Times, 21 August 2019]
At no point has it been particularly difficult for the authorities to set up some kind of ‘Platform’ for the resolution of political contestation. The crucial point is about whether such a ‘Platform’ is designed to resolve substantive issues or rather to silence the people who have raised those issues?
Looking at the makeup of such ‘Platforms’ and the rhetorical approach taken by the power-holders, it is fairly obvious that this strategy is about dealing with the questioners rather than the questions.
This much-vaunted ‘Platform’ is not there for an open discussion about how to address the Five Appeals. It’s not about confronting the issue of escalating police brutality and their ever-expanding powers with the aim of holding violent members of the police force to account for abusing and breaking the law and vitiating the constraints on them. Even less is it about how the National People’s Congress ‘31 August Resolution’ can be rescinded so that a viable political electoral system [for both the office of chief executive and for the make up of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s formal governing body] can be achieved.
[Note: The ‘Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Issues Relating to the Selection of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by Universal Suffrage and on the Method for Forming the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the Year 2016’ 全國人民代表大會常務委員會關於香港特別行政區行政長官普選問題和2016年立法會產生辦法的決定, known as the ’31 August Decision’ 八三一決定, made by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on 31 August 2014 set limits for the 2017 Chief Executive election and 2016 Legislative Council election in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The decision stated that a Hong Kong Chief Executive candidate has to ‘love the country and love Hong Kong’. For the 2017 Chief Executive election, a nominating committee, similar to the present Election Committee system, would be formed to nominate two to three candidates, each of whom must receive the support of more than half of the members of the nominating committee. After popular election of one of the nominated candidates, the new Chief Executive ‘will have to be appointed by the Central People’s Government’.
The process of forming the 2016 Legislative Council would be unchanged, but following the new process for the election of the Chief Executive, a new system to elect the Legislative Council via universal suffrage would be developed with the approval of Beijing. The decision was deemed by the pro-democracy activists as a violation of the principle of free and fair election and led to the large-scale occupation protests which was internationally known as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’.]
In other words, this newly proposed platform will offer no space for the discussion of the Five Demands, nor will it allow any room for their resolution. Furthermore, the authorities are steadfast in completely ignoring the issue of establishing an independent commission of inquiry [into police brutality] something that has absolutely nothing to do with the above mentioned systemic political reforms [that are part of the protests].
Given that is the case, then what is this ‘platform for dialogue’ going to do? It will respond to garbage matters like making a show of adding a few pan-Democrat representatives to the Police Oversight Commission, or pretending to address some popular grievances — gestures that are little better than silencing disruptive children by bribing them with a few choice treats.
None of this has anything to do with what the people of Hong Kong are concerned about. When you set up a dialogue like this, what actually is there to talk about?
They know full well that it’s just a waste of time. So why then are they doing it? It’s simple: it’s a show being put on for the delectation of those who regard themselves as occupying some ‘middle ground’ as well as the ‘social elites and superior classes’ in order to gain their support for the official policy announced by Beijing to ‘bring an end to the rioting and crack down on chaos’.
Two: ‘Dialogue’ is a Show Staged for People Willing to be Duped
All in all, to my mind ‘dialogue’ or ‘political negotiations’ can only be undertaken from a position of strength. As long as we remain a formidable force, the power-holders will not be able to cope with the pressure, they will have to contemplate finding a way out, whether that be in the form of a bloody crackdown or as the upshot of meaningful concessions. Only when faced with the latter situation can political negotiations really be possible.
If, however, the government remains unwilling to relent in any regard whatsoever, it must inevitably concoct a vacuous ‘solution’ that makes a great pretense of coming from a place of sincerity. In reality, they don’t give a fuck about listening to you. Rather, it is in the pretense itself that they aim to discombobulate wishy-washy middle-of-the-road defeatists who lack the internal fortitude to continue taking up the cudgels against the entrenched power holders, injustice and authoritarianism. The government hopes they will lend their weight to swaying public opinion in the effort to undermine the movement.
Take, for example, what happened during the formal ‘Dialogue’ of five years ago [on 21 October 2014]. On that occasion, the government availed themselves of the services of a notable middle-of-the-road figure — a ‘professor’ from a globally recognised tertiary institution [that is, Leonard Cheng 鄭國漢, president of Lingnan University] who claimed a particular familiarity with Lam-Cheng — to propose to us two so-called political undertakings:
- In the first place, to aid the Hong Kong government in preparing a report on popular opinion in relation to the ‘31 August Resolution’, which would be personally delivered to the premier of the State Council in Beijing or to Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People’s Congress. It would be a fundamental document that would help kick-start the reworking of constitutional arrangements as they relate to Hong Kong; and,
- Secondly, to establish a platform for multi-faceted dialogue which would focus on reforms relating to the 2017 election of a new Chief Executive and LegCo.
[Note: On 21 October, the government and the Hong Kong Federation of Students [HKFS] held an initial round of talks, broadcast as an open debate on television. The student representatives were HKFS secretary-general Alex Chow, vice secretary Lester Shum (author of the present essay), general secretary Eason Chung, and standing members Nathan Law and Yvonne Leung. They were in dialogue with representatives of the Hong Kong government: Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, secretary of justice Rimsky Yuen, undersecretary Raymond Tam, office director Edward Yau and undersecretary Lau Kong-wah. The discussion was moderated by the president of Lingnan University, Leonard Cheng.
For details, see ‘OCCUPY CENTRAL — THE DEBATE: Full coverage of student-government talks’, South China Morning Post, 21 October 2014; and, ‘The Hong Kong government-protester sit-down finally took place—and nobody is satisfied’, South China Morning Post, 21 October 2014]
At the time, everyone knew full well that these two undertakings had absolutely nothing to do with withdrawing the political framework generated by the ‘31 August Resolution’, or for that matter with the introduction of meaningful elections on the basis of universal suffrage. Among the powerful and influential members of Hong Kong society there were those defeatists who felt that it was ‘high time the things were brought to an end’, and ‘that was the best one could expect’.
Or, to put it another way, the reason the government proposed ‘Dialogue’ in the first place was not so they could address the immediate issues with which they had been confronted by the demonstrators, rather it was a device that would allow them to garner the support of those influential non-committed individuals of note who enjoyed substantial economic and social influence; people who could help sway popular opinion in favour of the authorities. This was a group that, from the start, was ever-ready to surrender to the government; now they played their role in aiding and abetting the authorities in their efforts to undermine the movement despite the fact that no concessions had been made.
Of course, even at the time we didn’t accept those two garbage proposals and that’s why we appealed to everyone simply to withdraw from further ‘Dialogue’. It was at precisely this point that the Influential, Prominent and Socially Significant middle-of-the-roaders had the status to help the government in its attacks on and efforts to splinter the movement.
As a matter of fact, [Leonard Leung,] that noteworthy Middle Path academic silvertail who claimed considerable familiarity with Carrie Lam-Cheng, claimed in numerous media interviews what an extraordinary effort they had put into the process and how profoundly misunderstood their exhaustive contributions had been. Furthermore, they claimed that we the students were unreliable negotiating partners who were devoid of sincerity and who fielded shifting and contradictory demands.
Just thinking about it now literally makes me want to throw up. Despite the fact that that fellow was so obviously a henchman of the authorities participating in their various noxious undertakings, they nonetheless congratulated themselves in the most oleaginous and extravagant manner. And that’s exactly what such advocates of the Middle Path of Moderation, the Defeatists, are really all about. Of course, among their number there is no lack of ‘useful idiots’, men and women who sincerely believe that they are ‘contributing to a positive outcome’.
Following the ‘Dialogue’ session of the 21st of October [in 2014], it would seem that there are always such talents at the ready. The question is: Will we be hoodwinked again?
I very much doubt it.
Three: And Just Whom Will They Be Speaking With?
Although there is no identifiable negotiating partner with which the government can have a ‘Dialogue’, that doesn’t mean there is no platform and no organisation. At the present moment, as the movement has evolved, popular forces have constantly adapted according to changing circumstances and in the process a consensus has been reached and this has happened in the context of a formidable environment of self-correction.
As long as you can formulate a means by which you will respond meaningfully to the Five Significant Appeals [made repeatedly during the protests], our popular forces have both the wherewithal and the strength to engage with you and to respond effectively.
That is to say, the People of Hong Kong themselves are the negotiating partners in this movement.
Yet again it must be emphasised, however, the premise is that your government must have a conceptual plan about how to implement the Five Significant Appeals.
Four: Address the Five Appeals
Moreover, and more importantly, the People of Hong Kong have witnessed for themselves the shameless behaviour of the Hong Kong government and what amounts to its effective collapse. This was recently patently obvious during the events of the night of the 21st of July when the police conspired with local thugs and gang members to break the law and abuse their power. In response to that the government not only failed to act but through its inaction it effectively offered protection [to criminal behaviour] and encouraged further malfeasance.
In the past, the authorities have availed themselves of ‘systemic violence’ by means of limited elections within functional constituencies to trample on the good will and trust of Hong Kong People. They have within their gift the power to interpret the laws according to their needs and whims; they can twist things and turn them on their head; they can sack people as they see fit and arraign individuals in court on various charges just as they please.
I would go so far as to say that as things stand at the moment, the People of Hong Kong are profoundly disappointed in the system as a whole; they have completely lost faith in it. That is why the positive turn around in public sentiment of a kind that Lam-Cheng and the police are counting on is simply not going to appear.
If mass opinion is so determined in its demand for reform to the existing system, and desirous of a profound shake up of the police force, then none of the old tricks and ploys will be effective.
Regardless of this reality, the government is responding to the present situation in exactly the same way as it did before [in 2014]. In so doing it is attempting to bring over to its side those occupying the middle ground with the aim of undermining the participants in the movement. You’ve played us all before. The game is up: the whole world has seen through you. No one is going to fall for it a second time.
If you are sincere about engaging in ‘Dialogue’, then please address the Five Significant Appeals and present us with the plan that you have formulated to respond to and satisfy those appeals.
Only if you are willing to do that will the society — the Whole Society — actively engage in a Dialogue with you and respond to your actions. Aunty Carrie, rest assured on this point.
We are the People of Hong Kong: we are constantly evolving, learning and improving.
Auntie Carrie, you’ve done your darnedest. You’ve worked so hard and so earnestly. Time and again you’ve got so many people to play a part in your little performances. You’ve put so much effort into spinning all of those lies and putting on your act. But no one in Hong Kong is fooled by any of it. It’s time you just gave it a rest!
To reiterate: All Five Appeals Must Be Satisfied.
Keep Going, Hong Kong!
This is for all of us the Revolution of Our Times;
We Must Claim What Rightfully Belongs to Us!
- Alex Chow Yong-kang wrote an essay on the subject of ‘dialogue’ some time ago. For that text, see:
- 岑敖暉, ‘我是五年前曾經跟林鄭對話的學生，我只想說一句：Carrie姨姨，辛苦曬，早點抖啦’, 《立場新聞》, 2019年8月21日