Skip to main content
hong_kong_protesters001
Up Front

Backing out of Hong Kong’s Crisis

Richard C. Bush

In my October 1st blogpost, I suggested that good crisis management and crisis termination requires each side to preserve for its adversary a way out. Putting one’s adversary in a corner raises the prospects for escalation. And for the adversary to take the way out, it itself (not the party creating the exit) must believe that it is a reasonable, or even honorable, course of action. (I understand that it is easy for me to state this but very difficult for those who are trapped in the crisis to do it, particularly as the number of sleep-deprived days increases.)

In the current Hong Kong crisis, we see a couple examples of an unwillingness to create a way out:

  • For the authorities in Beijing to suggest that the Hong Kong protesters are lawbreakers who are mounting a “to challenge the supreme state’s power organ,” as it did today in an authoritative People’s Daily commentary, is probably not a good way to get them to climb down. Nor is the threat of heavy-handed police tactics. Among other things, such threats only stimulate average citizens to rally to the side of the protesters, as they have done repeatedly over the last week.
  • For the protesters to demand the resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung may not be the best tactic, because it requires Beijing to accept that it made a mistake in facilitating his selection in 2012. True, his “voluntary” resignation might improve the atmosphere for an exit from the crisis. But the question of how to terminate the crisis still remains.

More promising, at least on the surface, are the proposals of individuals who argue that some sort of mutually acceptable compromise is possible. These include political scientist Sonny Lo, who put forward some ideas before the crisis began, and Lawrence Lau (a prominent economist and business executive) and a colleague, who offered similar thoughts in the last few days. Each is absolutely right that in theory there are ways to engineer the Nomination Committee to allow greater competition among candidates and ensure that the public has some choice when it goes to vote.

Politically, however, the issue here is the range of choice with which voters are likely to be presented. Would it be between two members of the establishment who may have legitimate differences on policy but whom the public would regard as a choice between Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee? In the most representative elections in Hong Kong (for members of the Legislative Council selected from geographic seats), the pan-democratic forces win between 55 and 60 percent of the vote. Will that part of the electorate be happy with an election in which one of their own is not running? Will the winner of an intra-establishment contest have legitimacy, even if he is elected on a one-person, one-vote basis? (Note in this regard that the White House statement on September 29th came down on the side of a broader range of choice: “We also believe the legitimacy of the Chief Executive will be enhanced if the election provides the people of Hong Kong a genuine choice of candidates that are representative of the people’s and the voters’ will.”)

The other problem with well-intentioned proposals for compromise is that after years of a long-running political struggle, the democrats, even moderate democrats, won’t want to enter into negotiations without having some confidence that, whatever concessions they make, the end result will meet their minimum requirements. They believe that they have put their faith in promises before and have gotten little or nothing. They have asked repeatedly for some sort of timeline that would give them confidence that an incremental concession now will actually lead to the ultimate goal that they seek (a real democracy). To make matters worse, moderate democrats have been criticized before by their radical colleagues for “betraying the cause” by settling for too little, and they are wary of exposing themselves to such criticism again.

Author

As I noted at the outset, each side must itself regard the “way out” that its adversary creates as at least a reasonable exit.

Get daily updates from Brookings