Coronavirus offers Hong Kong an opportunity to turn its back on protest violence and heal its political rift

Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, founder of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, is the doyen of peace and conflict studies. Resolving conflict by peaceful means recognises two parties – victim and perpetrator. It has four possible outcomes: A wins, B loses; B wins, A loses; postponement because neither are ready; and confused compromise in which neither are happy. This “cross” has two parties on the horizontal axis and peace or conflict on the vertical. To find a win-win peace solution, Galtung suggests a conciliator or mechanism must persuade both sides to expect peace is the only viable way forward.

Hong Kong was admired for its huge, peaceful protests. Until last year, most outsiders thought these non-violent protests were a sign of civility and maturity. But once violence began, polarisation rapidly escalated with both protesters and police feeling victimised, accusing each other of excessive violence. Even the courts cannot be neutral because the issue is not just one of law and evidence, but a political and constitutional divide requiring a political solution.

The real issue is under “one country, two systems”, a substantial number of Hong Kong residents believe two systems override one country, while the reality is two systems are constitutionally subsidiary to one country. It would be simple if Hong Kong was just a domestic city, but as an international financial centre, the global dimension is inextricably entangled.

In Galtung’s terminology, the Hong Kong domestic cross nests within China’s global cross, involving its relationship with the United States. Just as Hong Kong is the smaller player within the Chinese state, the United States is stronger in the global game. Both China and the US call themselves victims, but the US can inflict punitive on China because of its economic, financial and military power. Just as the Hong Kong cross cannot have a neutral conciliator, because China is the sovereign power, the United States often refuses to recognise neutral conciliators such as the WTO trade dispute settlement mechanism.
It is now clear that, with the at the ongoing National People’s Congress meetings in Beijing to enable the passage of a new national security law in Hong Kong, Beijing has decided not to allow political instability in Hong Kong to affect national security.
As identifies in his book on the US-China rivalry, both sides overestimate their strengths while underestimating the other’s. If the relationship was purely economic, the issue could be rationally resolved. But China will not accept the United States wanting to change China.

Furthermore, Beijing will not want to see Hong Kong caught in the crossfire of a US-China contest. If Hong Kong became a political chess piece, it would seriously threaten Hong Kong’s international financial centre status and jobs. Indeed, if the US proposes to delist Chinese companies listed in the US, Hong Kong’s stock market would get a boost from returning Chinese listings.

Convergence of views requires what Galtung calls “reconstruction, resolution and reconciliation”. Reconstruction could be quick in Hong Kong because it is a rich city, but rebuilding relationships that have been broken will be difficult. The underlying issues that create polarisation, such as housing and , must be identified and resolved. Finally, reconciliation, between Hong Kong and the mainland as well as between the US and China, would require frank dialogue and focus-group discussions to identify common ground.

As the blame game over the pandemic shows, verbal attacks accomplish nothing. If we are responsible stakeholders in global peace and survival, we must find the right framework for healing and reconciliation. The pandemic shows individual freedoms cannot come at the expense of society. Just as the pandemic is destroying the old order, the good news is that at the scientific, medical and people levels, there is cooperation and goodwill.

Every journey towards peace and community begins with a first step. No journey is too difficult, nor any crosses too hard to bear together. A violent road has no good endings. The pandemic has taught us to accept humility because arrogance has brought down the old order. That is the real burden of history – crisis and opportunity are not binary but one.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views expressed are solely those of the author

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