Opinion: Truth, the Forgotten Casualty of Hong Kong Protests

Occupy has politicized Hong Kong. For a movement espousing the democratic ideal and fighting for democratic reform this is not a bad thing.

Neither is it for the people of a city who may question the protesters’ tactics but not their political leaning. It's sometimes easy to forget that the anti-Occupy Alliance proclaims to stand for democracy as well as peace.

Hong Kong politics has become more polarized. However, this is not because of occupy alone. The protests may have created a situation, but it is the reaction and the politics behind it that has widened the divide. This political division, and the protagonist and antagonist that tread the political stage, each appealing ever more loudly to the audience, have brought the politics of division to the street.

In the fight for public opinion one of the core values of Hong Kong was an early victim: honesty.

In politics as in life, truth is bent to varying levels. Only those who feel unchallenged in their authority, who believe they not only frame the truth but define it, may deal in outright lies. There is a divide to cross both in our conscience and in our understanding of authority. This has always been a distinction between Hong Kong and our motherland.

Judicial independence and press freedom have helped assure the state does not have a monopoly on the truth. The values that they embody, of rule of law and free enquiry, has taught a generation of Hong Kong people to trust in our authorities in a way our countrymen on the mainland cannot and do not. Today, for the generation that will inherit this city, this trust is close to breaking.

Trust is built over generations. Institutions may continue, but public confidence is learnt through experience. Like any relationship there will be challenging situations. These do not challenge trust in itself, but rather create a situation in which we ourselves may compromise this trust. It is extremely worrying that so many people who claim to care about Hong Kong and who describe themselves as defenders of civil society not only overlook the increasing dishonesty of our politics, but actively disseminate lies.

There are the stockbrokers who spread tales that media mogul Jimmy Lai orchestrated the whole protests in order to make billions trading in futures, though unprofessionally fail to provide any evidence to support their opinions. A woman I meet on the street during the Mongkok disturbances last week when police sought to clear demonstrators told me with complete conviction that protestors had been paid HK$1,000 a day by the US and UK governments. When I asked her if she had any evidence she accused me of taking money as well. I have in fact seen money changing hands at anti-occupy rallies, and have even overheard a conversation between two people complaining that they were not paid what had been agreed. They were not pro-democracy protesters.

A few weeks ago I did an informal survey asking people who were strongly against the protests on what their position was based. These were the top five reasons:

1. Foreign Interference - that the U.S. and possibly the U.K. had instigated and provide material support to the protests in the hope of weakening China.

This despite there being neither any evidence of such direct interference or support of the protest movement, nor a compelling motivation for the US or UK to do so. Both countries have far too much invested in China’s economic rise to risk damaging relations with Beijing. Beijing, on the other hand, not only has the motivation to make such unfounded claims, but has done so consistently whenever faced with any form of internal dissent.

2. The Economic Argument - that the protests have damaged HK's economy and hurt small businesses.

While Hong Kong’s economy at large has, according to the government’s own figure and those of the World Bank, not noticeably suffered, there is certainly a case to be made that small businesses, especially in the Mongkok area, have suffered. But two shop owners on Portland Street who were happy to see the Mongkok protest cleared said it wasn’t just a case of business being down but that having built up a business over 35 years they find themselves in a position today where running a small business is just about survival. With high rents and having to operate to such tight margins just to survive, let alone earn good money, any small effect on business hurts them directly. If the protests have brought hardship, they have done so by tipping a scale that we have allowed to become so off-kilter.

3. Illegal and a threat to the Rule of Law.

The protests are illegal, but there is a long tradition of civil disobedience not only tolerated but forming an integral part of the Rule of Law. This is a point made by several of our leading legal scholars, from Michael Davis to Surya Deva. It is worth noting that many lawyers who have been most vocal in opposition are in fact political rather than legal actors. While injunctions must be respected, to declare the entire protest as a clear threat to the Rule of Law is an overstatement.

4. Disorderly and Violent.

The protests have probably garnered most acclaim in the world press for setting new standards in orderliness and non-violence. While there have been isolated cases to the contrary, it is telling that the police, who have by-and-large been exemplary, have more often been recorded losing their composure and lashing out than those protesting. Both sides are tired. Both sides have been provoked and are emotionally exhausted and have reason to feel hurt. And yet, on the whole, both sides have conducted an operation with the kind of consideration and professionalism for which, rather than point accusatory fingers,

By contrast those with blue ribbons identifying them as opponents to the protest have revealed the most ugly and criminal elements that still pervade this city. They have provoked and assaulted, not only protestors but also journalists. I have heard protesters call policemen “Black police” (black being the color associated with triad gangs), and chant “Don’t hit” or “Do you not support democracy?”. But these words are very different to what I have heard chanted by those in blue: “Kill these rubbish”, “Traitors, go to America”, and, most disturbing, “Rape them”.

And yet, what one side provokes and escalates to violence, it is the other side that is blamed. This despite having yet to hear from a journalist on the street who have found those in yellow a threat.

5. Not Realistic - that the protests could never achieve anything as Beijing will never listen.

The issue has been raised, and Beijing has been forced to publicly address it. Behind the scenes much has been discussed. The assumption behind this point is that Beijing will never listen, let alone consider acting on the wishes of its people. This frankly gives Beijing even less credit than is due. Even dictatorships must keep a close eye on what its people think, and also note what they are prepared to do. If the students are idealists, those who stick by this point lack neither the imagination nor principle ever to move forward. In a city that prides itself on an entrepreneurial spirit such defeatism may be suggestive of in whom we are really seeing the death of the spirit of Hong Kong.

While many people may question the protest tactics, and many more are tired of its perceived effect on day-to-day life and the general intransigence and lack of leadership shown on both sides, it is a negative and reactionary position. No one actually supports the alternative reality, peddled by Beijing, that there is no problem with Hong Kong's relationship with China, and that there is no reason for discontent. Hong Kong has changed since 1997, and for the overriding majority it has not been a change for the better.

It is not just in public that the rumor mill has spun wildly out of control. Such gullibility to falsehoods and rumors, to be expected to a degree, if still disappointing, among the general public has not ended there. If the last two months has revealed the level of ignorance and lack of the most basic critical skills that still exists in our society, it has been more painful for me personally to see how those who should and sometimes do know better are willing to stoop to maintain a delusion.

Chief Executive CY Leung, who has like many legislators and government officials promoted the line on foreign interference, and claimed to have "evidence" of it, must be held to account. Not because he got it wrong, which I suspect he knows given the more general terms in which he now couches this accusation, but because it is a falsehood that continues to be promoted.

The police, who given the size and conditions of their deployment have performed admirably if not with distinction, should measure self-praise with an acknowledgement that mistakes have been made, that these were regrettable, and the protestors have also shown restraint in their reaction. Stick to the truth, and interpret it in a light to build bridges and heal divisions.

Even if the protestors, fanning the fires for a dying occupation, bend the truth to their narrative, it does not give those who oppose them the right to deny the truth. We must resist the temptation to promulgate an official lie. From those who speak for institutions on which the life of this city is rightly built, the people should demand and expect more. Under challenge public trust should be re-enforced, not with smears but with greater honesty and integrity.

Evan Fowler is a Hong Kong-born essayist.

This is an edited extract from a longer essay entitled Wind Mills Caught in a Storm.