Hong Kong is currently facing arguably its worst political crisis since the 1950s. What began as a protest against an extradition law bill – widely perceived to be riddled with problematic loopholes – has since evolved into a gargantuan opposition movement to perceived governance ineptitude and lack of transparency, the city’s tumultuous trek toward universal suffrage, and deeply rooted socioeconomic inequalities.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently called for the establishment of a dialogue platform to resolve tensions, yet there is widespread public disillusionment toward her unwillingness to communicate openly or accede to any of the protesters’ five demands. Lam would benefit from seriously contemplating and expediently commencing a communicative process that would facilitate genuine reconciliation in Hong Kong. One potential exemplar is the “Great National Debate” held in France under President Emmanuel Macron.
Prior to exploring how the French model would play out in Hong Kong, we must consider the three main worries pertaining to the government’s current proposal.
The first worry is that the dialogue platform would likely involve a highly unrepresentative sample of the opposition to the government. This stems from a variety of factors. The government, historically type-cast as “out of touch” with the ordinary Hong Konger, seemingly lacks both the communicative channels and “human touch” to access the political extremists who take to the streets – indeed, many of the pro-establishment camp appear preoccupied with the notion that the movement is backed by foreign forces, paying no heed to the movement’s horizontal, ahierarchal organization. Moreover, a vast plurality of protesters find the government’s promise of dialogue unconvincing, given the rapidly escalating use of force by the police and repeated refusal from the administration to accede to any of the protesters’ demands. Finally, few perceive value in “compromising” and accepting an in-between solution. The meta-narrative adopted by the movement is that either all five of their requested demands are accepted or no resolution could be reached (“五大訴求 缺一不可”). The likely result is that moderates who would end up attending a dialogue are likely to be unrepresentative of the movement’s general will. Thus the discussion would be heavily skewed away from the demographics that arguably are the most important to convince in any reconciliation process.
The second worry is that the proposed model would not grant all participants equal levels in agenda-setting or crafting the evaluative and discursive rules by which the end products of deliberation are yielded. Joshua Cohen’s Rawlsian deliberative framework suggests that for just and effective deliberation to occur, participants must be both formally equal – in that anyone can put forth proposals, criticize, and support particular stances – and substantively equal – participants are not restrained unduly by established distributions of power, resources, and pre-existing norms. Whilst the latter is unlikely to be at all feasible, given the staunch stance of the administration in reprobating speech seen to cross or defy particular red lines, there also seems to be no formal guarantee of the softer former component. Most fundamentally, given the heated and polarized discourse in Hong Kong today, the administration is skeptical of the viability of sustained dialogue should it grant both radical opposition to and defenders of the establishment equal shares in dialogue. Establishment voices have expressed their worries that an unproductive “shouting match” would ensue, leading to only more inflammation.
The final worry is that the stereotypical government-led, top-down dialogue process is a nonstarter given the proliferation of deep differences amongst participants. Any dialogue process in Hong Kong, given political realities, would be constrained by principles of “one country, two systems” and Beijing’s overarching interests. While the administration’s latest statement suggests that it views any of the five demands as unthinkable concessions, for many protesters partial (if not full) acceptance of these demands is a prerequisite for dialogue. Fundamental, seemingly intractable disagreements characterize the ongoing stalemate – many among the protesters view the movement as a response to the Hong Kong government’s unaccountability and trampling of their core autonomies, whereas most amongst the establishment view the protests as exclusively the product of socioeconomic disillusionment. These first-order disagreements are unlikely to be resolvable through any ordinary dialogue, let alone one riddled with bureaucratic inertia and procedural roadblocks.
The Great National Debate in France offers a potential way out for Hong Kong. In response to the Yellow Vests Movement, in January this year, French President Emmanuel Macron initiated a three-month series of highly publicized public debates with mayors and local communities across the country, accompanied by comprehensive online surveys, with the purpose of establishing future policy directions. The collected data has purportedly been processed and collated through a combination of human and artificial intelligence, to be employed in advising and informing policymaking. There are three aspects from which Hong Kong could draw: comprehensive coverage and multi-stage dialogue, respecting and giving voice to the disenfranchised, and the careful balancing of grievance-airing and constructive dialogue in the reconciliatory process.
The first distinct feature about the French project is its expansive coverage and thoroughness. The French experiment saw 10,134 town hall meetings, 27,327 emails and letters, 21 citizens’ assemblies, and members of the cabinet partaking in extensive public dialogue with the grassroots in France. Debates took place at multiple levels – first, among randomly selected citizens residing in particular cities, towns, or regions; second, between mayors and other representatives and the cabinet (including Macron), and third, through online platforms such as YouTube. Digital technologies were adopted to ensure extensive outreach to areas with populations too sparse for their own assemblies, or too dense for assemblies to be representative.
Similarly, Carrie Lam’s administration – should she genuinely wish to embark upon the much-needed dialogue – should consider setting up “debates” in two stages. The first stage would comprise large-scale, region-based or university-based discussion assemblies with randomly selected and subsidized (constrained by concerns of demographic representativeness) participants engaging in extensive deliberation amongst themselves. That would be followed by second stage where the chief executive meets with members of the opposition (including the radicals that the administration has so quickly admonished) and representatives delivering summaries of findings and thoughts – selected from the previous stage. The city’s leader and her cabinet must do away with bureaucratic speak, and grapple with the concerns and frustrations of her own people with sincerity and open-mindedness. Online forums – such as LIHKG (連登) (the “Reddit of Hong Kong”) could serve as communicative channels for bureaucrats to directly reach the core of frontline protesters.
Furthermore, the Great National Debate is noteworthy for its ahierarchal and relatively inclusive format, with regional assemblies comprising largely small-group breakoff discussions that eventually culminate – organically – in findings and thoughts that a vast majority in attendance agree upon. Even minority views and opinions are noted and submitted for further debate and review. Procedurally just and egalitarian deliberation aids with healing social divisions through encouraging participants to find and defend common ground (in order to broker temporary or partial consensus over particularly important topics).
In Hong Kong, the administration must seriously refrain from dictating the specific agenda and flow of district-based discussions. It should also not attempt to steer discussions involving the cabinet in a pro-establishment manner. Doing so would only exacerbate the political alienation felt by the disengaged or those in opposition. In contrast, discussions should not be bound by presumptions or so-called “baselines” – proposed outcomes or policies could be ruled out, but only by arguments and justifications thoroughly outlined and robustly defended in the discussions. The reasoning is simple: why deliberate if the discussions are riddled with “no-go zones” preemptively imposed. Why would any protester wish to partake in such a rubber-stamp exercise?
The final aspect that Hong Kong could draw from is the French government’s careful balancing between empowering citizens to cathartically air their grievances and productively structuring the discussions around pressing topics on which public opinions are particularly needed. The French nationwide debates were structured into four key themes: ecological transition, the economy and public spending, democracy and citizenship, and public services. Concurrently, open-ended “grievance” books and mass surveys were offered to both capture opinions that fall outside those subject areas and provide the public with a venting outlet.
In Hong Kong, the administration must grapple with a breadth of topics that mirror the fundamental issues plaguing this city today – including the city’s accountability structures (e.g. the police and administration), political reforms (e.g., how Hong Kong and Beijing could find a mutually agreeable solution for Hong Kong’s political future), socioeconomic inequalities, youth policy, and education. The findings of such discussions must be both acted upon and held as standards against which administrations, current and future, must be judged. Concurrently, for those who harbor deep, emotive dissatisfaction toward the government, “grievance windows” – e.g. sessions where officials genuinely listen to, as opposed to defensively dismissing, dissent; or opportunities for the public to register their anger at the administration – must be provided.
Efficacious reconciliation and genuine healing in Hong Kong require a restart to the city’s governance – not just in policies or tokenistic gestures, but in the very ways through which it designs and enacts policies. More imminently, however, none of the above suggestions would be functional without at least some authentic extending of an olive branch from the administration. Lam should seriously address and respond to at least some of the protesters’ demands – particularly the ones over which there seems to be widespread consensus across the political spectrum. Both sides must take steps toward reconciliation – but unless the government acts promptly and swiftly, there can be no genuine or effective dialogue.
Brian Wong is an MPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford, specializing in political philosophy. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review, and has written for both the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.