Posted:  Sept. 25, 2009


Last week’s post on the coming political reform debate highlighted a growing tendency on all sides here to acknowledge reality.  Until recently everyone has kept to the official narrative that proved so successful in guiding Hong Kong’s smooth transition from colonial rule. The narrative’s “one-country, two-systems” motto meant Hong Kong accepted Chinese sovereignty but enjoyed enough autonomy from the central government in Beijing to continue living essentially as before, with all the accustomed rights and freedoms remaining intact.  The change follows Beijing’s new candor about its direct hand in Hong Kong governance and Hong Kong’s growing sense that autonomy is fading.

The renewed activism evidently derives from this perception but whatever the cause politicians and commentators seem suddenly reinvigorated in their defense of “Hong Kong values,” another of those allusive terms that allow Hong Kongers to distinguish themselves from their mainland compatriots without actually saying so.  Besides the new appetite for confrontation with the powers that be over political reform and the intrusion of bureaucratic mainland ways, another example of this rising energy level is the wave of protest that blew up suddenly over the rough treatment received by Hong Kong journalists on assignment in Urumqi.   But in this latest case, the flare-up sparked a surprising response all across the local political spectrum where agreement on mainland-related matters is rare.


Hong Kong journalists now routinely cover mainland events and, like many in the international press corps, have had their share of run-ins with the authorities.  But the incident on September 4 was different in that the three TV reporters were treated to a first-hand lesson in grassroots Chinese law enforcement.  They were forced to the ground, handcuffed, beaten, kicked, and then detained by police.  Foreign correspondents are handled more gently, but such treatment is otherwise routine whether or not Chinese suspects are armed and resisting, and whether or not they are potentially political.   In response to angry questions from Hong Kong, insult was then added to injury when the Xinjiang Information Office director came out in person to accuse the three of inciting a disturbance by gesturing to the crowd.  A few days later, five other Hong Kong TV and radio reporters were also roughed up and briefly detained by police on grounds their actions, too, were provocative.

The journalists were in Urumqi to cover fresh protests there over the government’s failure to control a novel form of street violence involving hypodermic needle attacks on unsuspecting passersby.  Urumqi is the capital of China’s far-western Xinjiang province, which has lately been the scene of serious ethnic unrest between the Muslim Uighur inhabitants and Han Chinese migrants.  The latter have long been resented but needles are a new variation on switchblade knives, which have always been the Uighur weapon of choice for street crime and revenge attacks.


In Hong Kong, however, the incident aggravated a very different but equally serious source of tension with the central government and one that local political leaders could not ignore.   In an unusual sequence, both pan-democrats and pro-Beijing politicians converged on the central government’s liaison office to register their concern and demand a probe of the Urumqi accusations.  The two camps made their representations separately, of course.  Democrats were not invited in and had to lodge their protest at the gate.  But the liaison office took note of all and stepped completely out of character by sending fruit-basket peace offerings to the newsrooms of the three reporters who had received the worst treatment.

Several senior pro-Beijing figures then issued strong statements focusing especially on the charge of incitement.  Among the opinion leaders was Miriam Lau, head of the pro-business Beijing-friendly Liberal Party who expressed her indignation as forcefully as any democrat. Controversial loyalist Leung Chun-ying, who featured in last week’s (Sept. 16) post, said the police should not resort to excessive force.  Others wrote to Beijing demanding “concrete proof” for the charge of incitement.

Equally noteworthy was an editorial comment in the Ta Kung Pao, Hong Kong’s second most important pro-Beijing newspaper.   The September 11 editorial also focused on the issue of incitement and urged clarification of the unsubstantiated charge.  Probably the Xinjiang authorities do not understand why the accusation has caused such an uproar, noted the editorial, which went on to explain.  “As people in Hong Kong see it, clashes with those responsible for keeping order are difficult to avoid when journalists go out interviewing, but that’s no big deal ….”  Certainly it is not the same thing as incitement, “a charge that absolutely cannot be casually accepted by knowledgeable circles in Hong Kong.”

Local protests included another liaison office demonstration organized by the Hong Kong Journalists Association on September 13, when some 700 people gathered to tie red ribbons on the gate and chant slogans for press freedom.  It was the largest political protest by local media workers, who usually cover such events but do not participate, since they joined Hong Kong’s big watershed march against proposed national security legislation on July 1, 2003.  Agitation culminated in a press freedom petition denouncing the harassment of Hong Kong journalists in China and demanding vindication for those accused in the Urumqi incident.  The petition together with the names of over 1,300 local journalists, journalism techers, and students, appeared in four local newspapers on the eve of National Day, September 30.


         One reader in far-away Arkansas wrote to the South China Morning Post (Sept. 17) expressing surprise at all the fuss.  He advised Hong Kong journalists, in effect, to forget about it because nothing political ever changes in China.  In fact, China is changing and so is Hong Kong and the case involves a value that commands more widespread support here than political reform itself.  The incident also occurred at a crucial moment in Hong Kong’s evolving relationship with China.

         For more than a decade after the 1989 Tiananmen protest movement, Hong Kong’s democracy activists clung to the idealistic hope that they could help inspire political change in China.  They also liked to argue that Hong Kong’s democratic values could never be secure until they had been established in China as well.  The hope and the logic have not changed.  But in recent years, as political pressures began building from the opposite direction, local perspectives gradually adjusted to focus on the threat posed by mainland ways encroaching within Hong Kong itself.  The new appetite for confrontation is part of this defensive pushback.

To everyone’s surprise, however, the Urumqi incident produced a rare real-life case of convergence.  Partisans who have been working to propagate mainland ways in Hong Kong came forward to lecture their mainland compatriots on behalf of Hong Kong’s most cherished political freedom.  At the heart of this matter is the national security legislation, shelved in 2003, which Hong Kong is still mandated to pass in accordance with Article 23 of its Basic Law constitution.  The Basic Law governs Hong Kong’s 50-year (1997-2047) transition as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) from colonial to full mainland rule.  Incitement is among the acts criminalized by such legislation. Hong Kong’s neighbor, Macau, is in similar SAR transitional circumstances and did its duty by passing its law earlier this year (See Feb. 17 Letter).

Meanwhile, press reports here regularly chronicle the experiences of people detained by mainland law enforcement authorities on charges of subverting state power, seditious incitement, and so on. The reports suggest that the Xinjiang police were simply following their own rules of procedure with the casual charge of incitement used as a crowd control measure in tense situations.  Had the three journalists been locals, they might well have been prosecuted and sentenced to prison terms since the crime is deliberately vague as stated in law, evidently by design to allow variable interpretations in practice as local authorities see fit.

One of the key demands, deriving from Hong Kong democrats’ 2003 campaign against the draft Article 23 legislation, entailed de-linking its national security and political security provisions and clearly defining the nature of both.  Since the new Macau law failed to contain any such reassuring modifications and since that “sword of Damocles,” as it is often called, still hangs in the balance, the issue remains as sensitive for Hong Kong today as it was in 2003.

That pro-Beijing community leaders identified the source of the uproar so quickly and sympathized with the “Hong Kong values” side of the argument are nevertheless hopeful signs.  Hong Kong may have made little perceptible progress in its original goal of serving as a demonstration model for mainland political reform.  But Hong Kong and Beijing values are clearly converging in Hong Kong itself and that is a prerequisite for preserving its rights and freedoms between now and 2047, and into the future beyond.

         Of course, Hong Kong democrats cannot resist the temptation to score political points whenever opportunities arise and this case offered too many to ignore.  Despite Beijing’s straight-faced denials, everyone knows that Hong Kong public opinion counts and is measured in ways that simulate elected government even though Hong Kong does not have one.  Hence Executive Councilor Leung Chun-ying is well aware that being one of Hong Kong’s least popular politicians will not help his chances when the time comes for Beijing to approve Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive.

Miriam Lau’s public protestations may have seemed a touch too effusive because she is trying to rebuild the fortunes of a party that lost all its directly-elected seats in the last Legislative Council poll.   And journalists who work for pro-Beijing publications would be the first to benefit from a possible easing of mainland rules.  These publications spend more time covering mainland events than anyone else and are rewarded for their efforts with the lowest circulation figures in town.  But democrats can be forgiven for scoring political points while they can since no one is willing to predict how long this rare confluence of public opinion and political interest will last.

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