Discourse is Power: How HK Leaders Could Win Back Public Trust
Protesters at Hong Kong International Airport. (Photo: AFP)
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Discourse is Power: How HK Leaders Could Win Back Public Trust

Aug. 16, 2019  |     |  0 comments

The Hong Kong anti-extradition demonstrations are in the eleventh week with escalating disruption to social and economic lives. The crowd size has diminished considerably as compared to its peak on June 16, 2019, but the level of militancy has increased significantly in recent days. The radicals moved around the city on August 10-11, descending on Sham Shui Po, Tai Po, Sheung Sha Wan, Kwai Chung, Tsim Sha Tsui, Tai Koo, and Quarry Bay to barricade and vandalize police stations. They paralyzed these neighborhoods by blocking off principal streets.


Then, on August 12-13, the radicals succeeded in mobilizing thousands of people to the Hong Kong International Airport and disrupted passenger operations. The airport was forced to suspend flights for the two days. The disruptions became headline news worldwide, hurt Hong Kong’s reputation as a key transport hub in East Asia, and stranded thousands of innocent commuters.  


The ability to mobilize several thousand misinformed youths to paralyze airport operations showed the mastery of the radicals to use modern media platforms to spread false or fake news to rally the crowd. They played up unverified police brutality stories in the weekend dispersal operation to make youths believe in their cause. The Hong Kong Airport Authority obtained an injunction from the court on August 14 to limit the sit-in crowds to designated areas. Hopefully, the move will work and allow regular operation of the airport.


The rallying call of the airport blockade was “an eye for an eye”, referring to the case of a female protester who was allegedly shot by policemen in close range during a dispersal on August 11. She was hit in the right eye by a bean bag gun and likely to be permanently blind, according to the doctor. The lady protester refused to file a police case in spite of her injury, and she did not allow the government-appointed doctors to examine her eye. There was an alternative story that another demonstrator accidentally wounded her eye, and she was already lying hurt when the charging policemen reached her. A proper physical examination can quickly identify the real cause and serve justice to the victim and the police.


The fact that a piece of unverified news could trigger such an emotional outburst and shut down the critical airport link reflected the deep distrust towards the government, poor communication skills of the authority, and the dominance of the radicals in the current discourse.


The press conference of the Chief Executive Carrie Lam on August 13 and that of the Deputy Commissioner of Police (operation) Chris Tang and Secretary for Security John Lee on August 12, broadcast live on television screens, revealed the innate bias and unprofessionalism of many newsmen, particularly from Apple Daily and Radio Television Hong Kong. They often asked loaded questions with dubious arguments intended to pin the government down and not looking for the truth. They also interrupted and cut short the officials’ answers, and when the shell-shocked officials mumbled, the antagonistic newsmen presented it as an admission of guilt confirming their proposition. Many journalists had broken the basic journalistic courtesy expected in a televised press conference.


The open partisanship and rude behavior not only hurt the journalistic integrity required on the profession; it damaged the dignity of the public office of the Hong Kong government and harm the public’s confidence in the government. If the government cannot defend itself in front of the public, how can the silent majority speak out?

Unless the government regains the initiative on public discourse, the silent majority will continue to be intimidated by the dominant discourse of the radicals and will not be willing to speak out against the violent behaviors of the few radicals.

The confrontational newsmen were focusing on the issue of police brutality in all the recent press conferences. They charged the Hong Kong policemen of : 1) impersonating protesters by wearing the same gear (yellow helmets, black masks, etc.) and then ambushing them on-site just as uniformed cops arrived for mass arrests; 2) using excessive force in the dispersal operations, including firing multiple canisters of tear gas inside Kwai Fong MTR station.


Secretary Lee and Commissioner Tang were not given a chance to explain that the use of an undercover agent is an accepted police operation worldwide, particularly in mass demonstrations in which the violent instigating mastermind often hides in the crowd.  Likewise, the use of reasonable force in dispersal is a part of accepted police operation as the crowd has refused to disperse peacefully earlier. Calibrating the proper level of force is an art more than science in a riotous environment.


The Hong Kong police force has a reputation for professionalism, and extensive rules govern their operation, particularly on field engagement. One cannot deny the possible infraction of regulations at this time of stress, but putting it as a systemic problem of the force is irresponsible. The hate slogan, “policemen are gangsters” is a libellous offence in most of the countries around the world and they are used extensively in the presence of the opposition lawmakers. Besides, Hong Kong has an Independent Police Complaints Council that is tasked to check excessive use of police force during operations, and many people blamed it more often on being too tough on the men in uniform than being lenient.


With the danger of Hong Kong going downhill toward anarchy, two statements of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) could be relevant to the unfolding situation today. First is “Discourse is power” and the second is, “It is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that stops crime.”


Foucauldian discourse analysis is a form of discourse analysis, focusing on what can be said and who can speak, when and with what authority. The objective of the study is to translate one’s discourse to social mobilization power. The Hong Kong government should take a crash course to win back the hearts of the city’s residents.


Unless the government regains the initiative on public discourse, the silent majority will continue to be intimidated by the dominant discourse of the radicals and will not be willing to speak out against the violent behaviors of the few radicals. The misinformed youths will continue to go to the streets to support the self-proclaimed noble goal.


The second Foucault statement must work in tandem with the first one if the government wants to use them in the current crisis. There is vintage colonial laws in the government legal arsenal to stop the radicals from violent acts such as unlawful assemblies and riots, unruly and anti-social dubious behaviors such as massive sit-ins at public places to disrupt government operations and calling the public to paralyze the banking system by queuing up at the banks to withdraw miniscule amounts to immobilize its service. The laws on misdemeanour and nuisance can work in these cases. On falsehoods spreading around the press, the libel law is always a useful tool. Carrot and stick are complementary twins in solving social problems.


The Hong Kong government is standing at a crossroad; it must act decisively to restore public order and prove to the world that it can defend “one country, two systems” and continue Hong Kong’s way of life.


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