Over the years, many commentators have decried protest stunts in the Legislative Council, civil disobedience tactics and demonstrations as alarming signs of social decay. Yet, when seen in their historical context, today’s confrontations are not unusual. What actually stands out is a remarkably rule-abiding period from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s. This era of “polite politics” was the product of specific historical conditions, and its decline must be seen as a result of changing circumstances, not a decline of civic virtue.
Colonial Hong Kong was no stranger to political unrest. Riots were instigated by Kuomintang supporters in 1956, and then by Communist Party supporters in 1967. The 1966 Star Ferry Riots, which erupted over a five-cent fare increase, was fuelled by anti-colonial sentiment and anger at corporate greed. Interestingly, in the 1970s, students campaigning against Japanese possession of the Diaoyu Islands and police corruption deliberately protested without permits to assert their right to free assembly, resulting in dozens of arrests.
During the cold war, Hong Kong developed what political scientist Dr Lam Wai-man calls a culture of depoliticisation, which portrayed “politics” as dirty, underhand manipulation that decent citizens wanted nothing to do with. The colonial authorities blamed unrest on Communist troublemakers. Strikes over anything other than narrow labour issues were deemed illegitimate. Riots were explained away by youth boredom. Meanwhile, a few trusted elite were appointed to the Executive Council and Legco to present an image of social harmony.
In this climate, moderate activists attempted to gain credibility by presenting themselves as non-threatening and respectable. They often claimed to be apolitical. While sharply criticising the government, they emphasised following the rules, even if the rules were unfair. The “politics of politeness” gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s as the departing colonial government gradually allowed more political expression. In the 1980s, when functional constituencies were introduced into a previously wholly appointed Legco, moderates including Martin Lee Chu-ming and Szeto Wah were attracted to run. The introduction of directly elected seats in the 1990s further opened up the field and legitimised moderate electoral politics. For a while, the “politics of politeness” worked.
But now, demonised as obstructionists by the government and painted as sell-outs by their own side, moderate pan-democrats appear incapable of either pushing for democracy or solving Hong Kong’s problems. This has led to a proliferation of radical pro-democracy groups that find many supporters among the youth. A survey last year by Baptist University said 41 per cent of the supporters of radical pan-democratic parties – including the League of Social Democrats, People Power, the Labour Party and the Neo Democrats – are under 30, compared with just 23 per cent of supporters of the moderate Democratic Party and Civic Party.
It is not surprising that the politics of politeness is in decline. It is a wonder that it lasted so long. If the government wants to reverse the current unrest, it needs to offer compromises to show that moderate opposition works.