Saturday morning in Wan Chai: there’s an uneasy peace on the street, protestors taking an exhausted sabbatical after a horrendous week of bullets, terror and death. But in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, over 500 people are gathering for a public forum which will put aside the immediate crisis and wade deep into the technical minutiae of conflict resolution and dialogue.
Private and civic society initiatives to address Hong Kong’s worsening situation have blossomed in the last few months, ranging from a HK$1m “ideas” competition to Li Ka Shing’s cash handout to small businesses. The HK Forward Alliance’s Ways Forward: Let’s Talk & Listen event is one of the more cerebral attempts to get to grips with the issues, aiming not to resolve the crisis itself but to bring global conflict resolution expertise together and help participants understand more on the concept of dialogue.
And it was only a few minutes into the first presentation from international peacemaker Hannes Siebert that many in the audience realised that we, as individuals, and perhaps as a society, have very little idea of what dialogue really is, or the tremendous efforts required to conceive an effective dialogue platform. “National dialogues don’t happen by themselves,” says Siebert. “They need to be carefully designed, they need to be authentic,” he says.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (CE) Carrie Lam said in September that dialogue was the “first step” to healing the city: but while experts agree dialogue is a central part of peace processes, its design is not something which can be hashed out through a few government communiqués. In fact, after reviewing Siebert’s slides into the dialogue structures adopted in Lebanon, Yemen and Myanmar, Lam’s efforts to establish a dialogue platform for Hong Kong begin to look alarmingly amateur.
Siebert says it took a team five years just to design the dialogue platform for resolution in Yemen. “There’s no model,” he said, pointing out that even within one jurisdiction, different elements of social unrest require different dialogue platforms. “In Myanmar, for example, we found the economic, judicial and social contract dialogues were all very specific and required different structures.”
Answering an audience question about Hong Kong’s deadlock, peace expert Dr Clem McCartney said it was not helpful to demand an end to violence before talks can begin. McCartney highlighted work in his home of Northern Ireland, where framework agreements were used to hold all parties’ aspirations as valid – and then worked to deliver a dialogue which at least respected all views and promised not to force anyone into a corner. As such, the 1993 Downing Street Declaration held that self-determination was a valid view, for example: a gesture of good faith which has obvious pertinence to the Hong Kong situation.
Dialogue, according to international conflict transformation consultant Michael Frank A. Alar, is something which can inform, or be used to learn, but does not seek to persuade. “You’re not yet at the level of wanting to resolve something. It’s foundational,” he says.
There’s two tools, says Alar, for communities to begin to design an effective dialogue: conflict mapping; and the pyramid of dialogue.
Conflict mapping starts as a simple graphical representation of the actors and their relationships. But the map quickly becomes complex as the real work is done: “If you dig deeper, which is what you need to do to analyse conflict, then other actors will emerge. Bigger actors need to be broken down,” says Alar.
The pyramid of dialogue, too, is a simple concept. At the apex is Track I, the small groups with power: usually government or heads of state. At the bottom, the grassroots fill track III. In the case of the Mindanao peace process in The Philippines, upon which Alar consulted, government leaders reached agreements in Track I; religious leaders (from the Christian and Muslim communities) reached agreements in Track II; and grassroots civil society reached agreements in Track III.
Under this model, the apex – or government – is not necessarily the most essential player for a peace process to start. In fact, Alar stressed that, for Hong Kong, focussing on the apex would be the wrong move. “We’re not at the point of negotiation. We’re still trying to find our who to sit at the table, it’s too early. We need a broader conversation all over Hong Kong,” he says.
If there is no access to the government, or to the heads of a “leaderless” movement, this needn’t affect the work in the base tracks, says Alar. In these cases, society needs to work on building middle range leadership. “We need to watch out for people who are in Track II, who have access to Track I and to Track III, they need to be identified and empowered, because quietly they can support the process and bring messages across and down.
Who’s invited to the discussion table can have a profound impact on the outcome too, says Puja Kapai, Associate Professor of Law and Convenor of the Women’s Studies Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong. Kapai’s research found that homogenous or evenly-split discussion groups were less effective than a tilted mix. “Homogenous groups couldn’t come up with solutions,” she says, referring to research in Hong Kong into dialogue between Chinese and ethnic minorities. “In the 70/30 split, with 70% Chinese and 30% ethnic minorities, the minorities felt heard, there were no deadlocks and creative solutions were developed.”
A moral mandate to pick up the protestors’ baton
In summing up views on Hong Kong, Hannes Siebert concludes there is something of a stalemate in the city right now. “You need to look for the hidden messages in the CE’s [wishful thinking] statement… she’s reached the limit of what she is able to do. So there is a need for new mechanisms, both from the CE and from the students, because they have also reached their maximum power… so how do you take that to the next step?”
Siebert says the Hong Kong protestors’ “Five Demands” require three separate dialogue platforms: there’s a legal conversation around the extradition bill process and judicial reform; there’s the “existential” issues which, if not met, will see many protestors jailed. “These are not huge political issues, let’s settle them and move forward,” he says. Police oversight, on the other hand, is more complex: but opens huge opportunities for dialogue on police community relations and police reform.
“Moments like this provide us with a moral mandate to create change instruments, through dialogue. The problem at the moment is that all these conversations are with the protestors, and you will not solve them with the protests. It is now our obligation [as civil society] to take the baton from the protestors and move it forward. Because they have done their job, they have pushed it as far as they can, but we need to create a new change instrument to take it further. We’ve seen it in Nepal, in Lebanon, each change instrument has limitations: the protests will not change the constitution or reform the police.”
Ways Forward: Let’s Talk & Listen was the first event of the HK Forward Alliance, which now aims to establish a network of 20 community dialogue centres across Hong Kong.