Thursday, October 17, 2019

[EJinisght] We must prevent Hong Kong from becoming another Belfast

 It is very important to learn the lesson of history, because only by doing so can we avoid repeating the same mistakes made by people in earlier times.

Recently, at a press conference, when asked about the consequences of Ukraine's enactment of an anti-mask law, Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said she is unable to provide an answer as she is not too familiar with the situation in that country.

I was shocked by her ignorance, incompetence and recklessness.

It is because as the chief executive, Lam should have at least studied the resistance movement that followed the ban on facial covering, which came as part of an anti-protest law, in Ukraine five years ago before she decided to invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance and introduce the same law here in Hong Kong

If Lam didn’t know anything about Ukraine, nor did she ever watch any documentary on the Ukrainian revolution, I guess she must at least have heard about the three-decade-long Northern Ireland conflict, also known as the Troubles, right? After all, she used to be a top student studying social sciences at the University of Hong Kong.

Mike Chinoy, a veteran former CNN correspondent who had once been stationed in Northern Ireland and also reported on the June 4, 1989 incident in Beijing, recently published an article on YaleGlobal Online comparing the ongoing social unrest in Hong Kong with the situation in Belfast during the Troubles era.

Anyone who has read Chinoy’s article would probably begin to worry that those in power Hong Kong right now could be repeating the history seen between the 1960s and 1990s in Northern Ireland.

Despite the fact that the resistance movements in Hong Kong and in Northern Ireland have different historical context and “targets”, there is one thing in common between them: the issue of national identity was the driving force behind both movements.

For example, in Northern Ireland, the entire conflict was feeding on the different senses of national and religious identity among the local population: are you a British and a Protestant, or are you an Irish and a Roman Catholic?

Likewise, in Hong Kong, the conflicting sense of identity as to whether you are a Hongkonger or a Chinese is at the center stage of the ongoing protest movement.

While the Northern Irish people were demanding secession from the United Kingdom, the people of Hong Kong are fighting to get back the “one country, two systems” and "a high degree of autonomy", concepts of which are enshrined in the Basic Law, and genuine democracy, but on which Beijing has gone back on its word.

Sadly, the demands of both the Northern Irish and Hong Kong people were met with hostility and suppression by the authorities.

And there is one more thing in common between the ongoing resistance movement in Hong Kong and the Troubles: both were triggered by public grievances against a single policy issue. While it was the extradition bill that sparked the saga in Hong Kong, in Northern Ireland it was the fight for basic human rights under British rule that eventually gave rise to the secession push.

And when authorities responded to the people’s demands for freedom and civil rights with teargas and rubber bullets, the result would be, as Chinoy puts it in his article, citing the words written by a journalist in Belfast in 1971, teargas having "enormous power to wield a crowd together in common sympathy and common hatred for the men who gassed them."

Almost 50 years on, the same description pretty much applies to what is going on in Hong Kong.

In fact there is a universal pattern in human history: when an authoritarian regime refuses to face people’s basic demands, people tend to have more and more demands. Likewise, the more heavy-handed the regime becomes in trying to end the violence and chaos arising from people’s resistance, the more fierce the people will turn in mounting their stand against oppression.

The escalating resistance among protesters in Hong Kong after the introduction of the anti-mask law is evidence of that historical truth.

If our senior government officials and civil servants still have a shred of conscience and rationality, they should put an end to their tactics immediately and shed their totalitarian power.

To mend rifts in society, the government should allow an independent and impartial probe into all the recent events for the sake of Hong Kong's future.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 8, 2019

Translation by Alan Lee


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