In the street a few days ago, a young woman approached me with a simple question, "Mrs Chan, what can be done?" How I wish I had an answer or, rather, how I wish I had an answer that our Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her team of advisers would act on.
The Hong Kong government is effectively dead in the water, unable to either do what must be done to defuse the crisis, or convince its masters in Beijing that clamping down harder on the protests is not a solution. After more than five months of increasingly violent unrest, there is not one scintilla of evidence to support this strategy. On the contrary, it is clear that anger at and, in some cases, downright hatred of the police has been the trigger for protesters' more extreme reactions.
There is much talk of the need for dialogue. But just as you need two to tango, dialogue requires the participation of two parties at least willing in principle to work to find some common ground on which to build reconciliation, something that is currently sorely lacking.
The shocking escalation in violence that we have witnessed over the past two weeks underlines the urgency for both sides to step back from the brink, before further deaths and serious injuries occur. The wanton destruction of our campuses, railway stations and shopping malls, the blocking of key motorways and attacks on ordinary citizens simply trying to get to work are not just unacceptable, they are becoming counterproductive.
Because the public has, by and large, been sympathetic to the demands of the protesters, they have patiently tolerated a good deal of interference in their normal lives - much as they did during Occupy Central. But scenes of ordinary residents going out to help clear blocked roadways are an important straw in the wind that sentiment is beginning to turn.
The sudden emergence of People's Liberation Army soldiers in our streets, albeit not in uniform and with brooms rather than rifles, was ostensibly a goodwill gesture, but it was also a blunt reminder that they can be deployed at a moment's notice to support the police. Under the terms of the Basic Law, they should not have been deployed at all without an explicit request from the Hong Kong government; this marks a step down a very slippery slope.
The radical protesters argue that, after so many have risked their lives and liberty, they cannot stop without receiving some substantive response from the government to their demands. The government must act and yet, far from doing so, the chief executive seems to be clutching at straws: specifically, the misplaced hope that the anticipated interim report of the Independent Police Complaints Council - due out early next year - will placate the protesters.
An independent panel of overseas experts, established with some fanfare in September, has now stated explicitly that "structural limitations in the scope and powers of the IPCC Inquiry remain, inhibiting its ability to establish a coherent and representative body of evidence".
We are constantly reminded that our society is deeply polarised, but on one point there is close to unanimous agreement among civic leaders, academics, commentators and the general public, namely the need for an independent inquiry into how our once peaceful and globally admired city has descended into such chaos.
The recent statement by the panel of experts provides the chief executive with a cast-iron case - to take to her masters in Beijing - in favour of establishing a fully independent commission of inquiry into the protests. Why does she continue to rule this out? If all that really stands in the way is police resistance, then it is intolerable that the government and the community should be held to ransom in this way.
A crucial point is that the terms of reference of the commission should not be confined to investigating complaints against the police. They have been exploited as a tool of repression by an ineffectual government. While some of their actions have undoubtedly fanned the flames, the police didn't start the fire. It is vital to get to the bottom of what did: not just the fuse in the form of the extradition bill, but the powder keg of social and political discontent which it ignited.
An announcement, by the administration, that an independent commission will be established is urgently required. A carefully chosen impartial chairman, preferably a respected member of the judiciary with all the necessary powers to subpoena witnesses and relevant documents, could tease out how the Hong Kong government could have got things so wrong.
He or she could give guidance on a way out of the mess, including developing sentencing guidelines that, while respecting the rule of law, consider the wider societal consequences of punitive custodial sentences on the long-term futures of the many very young people who will come before the courts.
As an immediate step, we need an unconditional ceasefire by both sides. Without peace, this Sunday's district council elections will be postponed or, worse still, cancelled under emergency legislation. The elections provide a real hope of paving the way for wider constitutional reform; it is vitally important that they go ahead and that citizens feel safe to go out and vote.
At the same time, in the wake of recent horrific scenes at Polytechnic University, Mrs Lam must be replaced immediately as chief executive as she has completely lost the confidence of Hong Kong people and the ability to govern.
Despite popular belief, there are candidates for the post of chief executive in whom Hong Kong people could place their trust and who, I am certain, would be much more effective in convincing the Beijing leadership that a fundamental change of approach to stopping the violence is needed. This would not be a show of weakness. On the contrary, it would demonstrate statesmanship worthy of a great world power and go a long way towards restoring the respect of the international community.
Anson Chan is a former chief secretary of the Hong Kong special administrative region
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