A Normcore Manifesto: Volume 1

Please read the Introduction if you haven’t already.

Claim #1: The ‘Left Plastics’ Failed

Not only during Occupy, but we are to believe that the entire pan-democratic movement has been nothing short of an abysmal failure to deliver anything of consequences for twenty-five years. In the colorful words of one pundit, we have been chasing a “mouldy carrot.” Historically, this simply not true.

The pan-democratic movement was responsible for all the liberal democratic promises and guarantees into the Basic Law when it was negotiated. Do you enjoy weekends off from work? Thank the labor movement. Do you enjoy Hong Kong’s high degree of civil liberties – like your right to protected speech and protest? Thank the ‘old school’ Pan-Dems that added the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights into the Basic Law.

The pan-democratic movement was responsible for all the liberal democratic promises and guarantees into the Basic Law when it was negotiated. Do you enjoy weekends off from work? Thank the labor movement. Do you enjoy Hong Kong’s high degree of civil liberties – like your right to protected speech and protest? Thank the ‘old school’ Pan-Dems that added the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights into the Basic Law.

What was lost in the dispiriting confusion of Occupy’s End was the fact that social movements had, in fact, worked before. Most people under 35 were not yet adults when protests halted Article 23 legislation and pushed our first Chief Executive out of office. Joshua Wong arrived in the final day of the Class Boycott with the lessons and tactics he learned during the anti-Moral and National Education protests. A social movement that led to the government shelving an extremely contentious policy proposal less than two years earlier.

As to Occupy, a fact that I rarely see acknowledged is that it was not a monolithic bloc of people from beginning to end. The students I met during the Class Boycott, which kicked Occupy off, were not the people I saw sleeping in the streets months later. I saw no ‘shield boys’ the night that Joshua Wong led students into Civic Plaza. The discussions I had with the students who organized the Class Boycott told me that they knew the prospects for success were dim but that they couldn’t stay silent. It was the same rationale that had me drive 10 hours to Washington, DC in 2003 to protest a war I already knew was imminent. I can, and will, support a loud idealism tethered to political realism.

In my opinion, the single biggest reason Occupy failed was because it was leaderless. With no one calling the shots, and hostility towards Benny Tai for even suggesting a poll to figure out where to go, there was never an ‘exit strategy.’ This was something I warned students of during the first weekend: it was crucial that protesters leave on their own terms. Without a clear exit strategy, I warned, the likelihood of Occupy becoming a Bangkok-like waiting game was high. And that’s exactly what happened.

We must also confront that the ‘left plastics’ did, ultimately, give in to the demands of the ‘shield boys.’ Recall Joshua Wong rallying the charge to block the government offices at Tamar in the final week of Occupy. It was led by the hardened ‘yungmo’ from the recently cleared Mong Kok occupation. It backfired. Badly.

It provoked a police response vicious and strong enough that they could have cleared out the entire Admiralty occupation that night. I still don’t know why they didn’t. It was the night the tables had turned. Months earlier, crowds grew larger with each volley of tear gas. People were unafraid and walked towards the tear gas. That night, we ran for our lives through an unlit Tamar Park as an anti-terrorism unit from the airport chased us with batons and flashlights.

I believe any honest and reasonable accounting of accomplishments and setbacks would show that the Yungmo and pro-independence Localist factions have delivered only abysmal failure. It is tempting to believe that they are so ‘off script’ that they are playing some game of 4th-dimensional chess. That they have some larger strategy, playing a very long game, to deliver not just democracy but self-governance within the next decade or two. Their staggering incompetence at merely ‘coloring inside the lines’ enough to take seats they legitimately won in elections should dispell anyone of such fantasies.

They fielded candidates for LegCo that were disqualified before and after the election. Through their stunts, even less militant Localists now risk losing their seats. By prizing incendiary language over deliverable results, and intentionally playing the role of ‘splittist’ CCP boogeymen, they are bringing Hong Kong closer Article 23 legislation than at any point since 2001. The irony is that they have so mishandled electoral politics that, though elected, they will not be able to cast votes of filibuster to prevent its passage. There is no strategy, only stunts that go viral. To imagine them negotiating ‘self-determination’ for Hong Kong with China, the UN, and international stakeholders is an absurd joke.

That people are talking about independence does not mean they have moved even an inch closer to that goal. Building solidarity around a riot – over fishballs – is worse than no solidarity at all. I am not intrinsically opposed to picking fights, especially with the Chinese Communist Party. I am, however, deeply skeptical at those who want to pick fights that they no plausible chance of winning. Insomuch as their tactics and strategies make Hong Kong less safe and less democratic, they should be seen as rivals.

That the bar is so low for political groups and parties in Hong Kong should blunt some of this criticism. Pan-Dems have been playing defense for so long that they have almost no tangible progress to show a younger, more activist, generation. While it might be true, “it could be so much worse” does not inspire confidence or win as many votes as it once did. Though the Pan-Dems have not delivered much progress, they have not been responsible for the retrogressions Yungmo Localists have concocted in their short political lifetime.

The political decay doesn’t end with Pan-Dems and Yungmo Localists. Perhaps no political party in my experience has been as short on ideas and talent as the pro-government United Front parties. They could inspire some degree of loyalty in society were they, like Singapore’s People’s Action Party, to show any talent or interest in good governance. Despite being handed one of the highest functioning bureaucracies in the world and having their thumb on every political scale, there is almost no political task they cannot spectacularly fail at.

I chide Yungmo Localists for stunts that prevented them from taking their LegCo seats. But they have never done something quite as insanely embarrassing as picking a fight with half of Hong Kong over electoral reform, provoking one of the largest social movements in Asia in recent memory… and then walk out of the vote for the reform they spent a year fighting for. Accidentally. There is a categorical difference between them: ridiculous and stupid.

It’s time for the ‘normcores’ to take the center stage of resistance again. Who are the normcores? The cosmopolitan liberal democrats with a realist view of politics that want to make a bad situation better. People who believe in the value of respectability politics, who choose pragmatism over theatrics. Those of us who think independence advocacy is neither fruitful or wise (at least at this point in Hong Kong’s history), but will fight like hell for the civil liberties that protect their speech.

I implore other political normcores to cease and dissent from the masochistic self-flagellation we have subjected ourselves to since late 2014. We let the Hong Kong Federation of Students disband with nary a fight for our suppose Occupy Sins. We let the Localists ‘win’ an argument that somehow the ‘real problem’ with HKFS was that it ‘pan-China.’ As if the annual 6/4 Memorials and maintaining the Pillar of Shame at HKU were something we needed to apologize for.

The truth is that Hong Kong Indigenous will not disband because they let their protest turn into an anti-police riot. Nor will Youngspiration disband for badly miscalculating how Oathgate would play out. That’s within their rights, but they are playing by different rules. We too easily let the Lester Chow’s, Joshua Wong’s, and Yvonne Leung’s slip into obscurity for failing to bring Beijing to heel. That might have made sense when we were willing to clear the way for new political entrepreneurs, but it makes no sense in a context where we know that know that Sixtus Leung’s and Yau Wai-ching’s will face no similar ostracization for abject and complete failure.

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