The Nearing 'Train-Wreck' in Hong Kong

Without a spirit of respect, a willingness to listen carefully, and the knowledge that only by compromise can citizens and authorities once again move forward together.

I have been following the developments in Hong Kong with growing anxiety and a sense of “we’ve seen this before.”

Even though I am now 76 years of age, I remember well the experience — and the lessons learned — from once having been both a protester – against the Vietnam war and for attaining legal and civil equality for all men and women – and a holder of public office. Above all, I learned that it is imperative to understand both the “other side’s” perspective as well as that they believe they need to accomplish, and to always seek, a “win-win” outcome. When these principles are forgotten or violated it is almost impossible to realize a satisfactory, peaceful resolution.

In public office I quickly realized that although it is the weighty responsibility of public officials to listen carefully and respectfully and to respond to legitimate grievances or petitions as best they can, they also must preserve public safety and reasonable civic order. This is also the obligation of civic-minded citizens.

From the first protests in Hong Kong this summer, I have been troubled by the ever-expanding demands of the protesters. This is one of the consequences, by the way, of the lack of clear leadership. Unfortunately, during the recent outbreak of violence employed by a small number of the protesters, a truly ominous escalation has occurred. The New York Times quoted a young female protester as saying, “We saw that violence has proved successful elsewhere in attaining objectives so we decided to use it, too.”

I have no idea who the “we” are, but whatever their numbers I believe them to be in grave error. Violence may seem “purifying” or “necessary,” but as it dramatically escalates both emotions and stakes the only thing violence achieves is greater violence.

The relative moral “high ground” that civil and peaceful protesters occupy is lost immediately when they begin to employ violence.

Violence is also hard, if not impossible, to “control,” in part because the minority employing it likely feels little, if any, responsibility to their alleged compatriots: Their very decision to employ violence attests to their belief in their own “superior” understanding and right to act.

It is also foolhardy in the extreme, for it is a gauntlet thrown in the face of civil authorities who must respond if they are to maintain the respect of the larger citizenry.

Furthermore, the police possess sufficient weaponry to suppress the protests if and when they are ordered to do so, an option that increases dramatically when they meet with violence directed against them.

Authorities should once again make it clear that they are willing and waiting to talk, but only if the violence ceases.

For the protesters, they must renounce violence, de-escalate rapidly their blocking of commerce, demonstrate respect for the police and civil authorities, and clarify what it is that they wish to see done.

Without a spirit of respect, a willingness to listen carefully, and the knowledge that only by compromise can citizens and authorities once again move forward together, peaceful and lasting resolution is unlikely.

Greg Cusack is a retired US state congressman from Iowa. He now lives in Oregon.

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