Posted: Sept. 7, 2011
Nothing better illustrates the political distance that still exists between Beijing and Hong Kong than the August 16-18 visit of Vice-Premier Li Keqiang. From the 1980s when they had to begin thinking seriously about Hong Kong’s return, mainland officials were guided by inherited assumptions in Hong Kong itself about the colony being “an economic not a political city.” Those were the officials’ words. Local conservatives liked to call it “the administrative absorption of politics.” Together officials and conservatives convinced themselves that all sectors of the community would make a relatively easy transition from British colonial prosperity to its Chinese-ruled counterpart and everyone would live happily ever after.
The anti-national security protest in 2003 and the 2003/04 election cycle that followed put an end to such thinking. Afterward, Beijing began to respond if not more tolerantly at least more realistically to the political interests and concerns that had grown during Hong Kong’s pre-1997 transition to Chinese rule. Today, 15 years later, those differences may not be any greater than before 1997 but they are more clearly defined as mainland pressures for political integration increase. And despite the never-ending struggle for universal suffrage, the differences that provoke the most instinctive response are not about electoral reform but perceived threats to Hong Kong’s freedom of political expression.
The visit was not billed as a major public event but it is not every day that a vice-premier comes calling and all the usual arrangements for an important guest were made well in advance. Le Keqiang is slated to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao when he retires next year. Highlights of Li’s visit included his attendance at the University of Hong Kong’s centenary celebrations and at the formal opening of a modernistic new Hong Kong government complex. Li also put in an appearance on the floor of the stock exchange, saw how ordinary neither-rich-nor-poor families live in a middle class housing development, and had dinner with Legislative Councilors.
The distance between Beijing and Hong Kong was illustrated by the security arrangements surrounding Li’s every move or more accurately the uproar they provoked. Those were mainland arrangements not ours, railed the critics, during protests that have only just begun to subside. Reverberations seem set to continue for weeks while various panels and commissions conduct their inquiries and investigations. Tensions have risen here during the past year with frustrated demonstrators growing more disruptive and the police responding in kind. The fear now is that the unprecedented security arrangements laid on for Li Keqiang’s visit may signal a change in the government’s treatment of journalists and protestors generally
Most dramatic was the large contingent of uniformed police who converged on the HKU campus with an unannounced mission to block all entrances to the assembly hall and keep all uninvited guests well away. This led to the revelation afterward that some 3,000 police officers or one-tenth the total force had been deployed to protect Vice-Premier Li during his three-day stay. Hong Kong’s new no-nonsense police commissioner, Andy Tsang, suggested the numbers were needed to prevent terrorism — no hint of which has ever been detected here.
The Laguna City housing tour went well until a resident, Wong Kin, and his daughter ventured too close to police lines. Wong was arrested presumably because of the T-shirt he was wearing. On the back was printed in very large red and blue Chinese characters: “REVERSE THE VERDICT ON JUNE FOURTH; the Revolution Has Not Yet Succeeded; BUILD DEMOCRACY; Comrades Must Still Persevere” (Standard, photo, Sept. 2). June Fourth refers to the 1989 removal of protestors from Tiananmen Square, Beijing, after their movement was officially designated subversive. Hong Kong democrats’ favorite rallying cry is to reverse the 1989 verdict and remove the subversive label that justified the crackdown.
Wong was not shouting slogans or protesting in any other way except for his shirt, but he was physically picked up and carried away by several plainclothes members of the VIP protection team. One of the men reportedly told the daughter that it was “rude” to wear such a shirt. Police later said they arrested the man because he moved in too close to their security zone, and then subsequently fined him for an old jaywalking offense. Police also prevented a TV cameraman from filming the whole scene (Apple, photos, Aug. 31). Later they claimed they mistook his camera for a “black shadow” and reacted instinctively.
Local journalists actually nursed a range of grievances. Vice-Premier Li was present at over 20 events but Hong Kong journalists were allowed to cover only half that number. Photographers and media people were kept at a distance throughout. Chief Secretary Henry Tang called their protestations “rubbish.”
Legislators were fed well enough at the dinner party but the democrats among them said they had no appetite. No one was allowed within earshot of the main guest and at least 20 black-shirted security guards, roughly one for each democratic legislator, hovered among their tables watching them while they ate. The man assigned to Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho stood so attentively just behind his chair that the guard might have been mistaken for an overly solicitous waiter had he not been dressed from head to toe in basic black (Mingbao, photo, Aug. 18). Diners were not allowed to leave their seats until the guest-of-honor had departed. Radical rabble-rouser “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, known for shouting out slogans at such events, was invited but not allowed in the door even though he had traded his Che Guevara T-shirt and jeans for a proper jacket and trousers. Reason: no tie. Lucky he didn’t wear one or they might not have had another excuse and he would have disrupted the proceedings for sure.
During an August 28th TV interview, legislator Tsang Yok-sing tried to put matters in perspective but only succeeded in making them worse. Tsang is a founding member of Hong Kong’s main pro-Beijing political party and currently the Legislative Council’s chief presiding officer. He was answering a question from Newsline program host Michael Chugani about who was responsible for the security arrangements. Everyone had been heaping blame on the pugnacious new police chief. Tsang said, in effect, blame mainland officials not the Hong Kong police. They must have been under orders to guarantee “complete peace and total security,” he said, since that is the customary demand whenever Beijing officials come to town. The aim, he continued, is to ensure that they do not “see or hear” anything they do not want to see or hear.
Tsang’s younger brother was, as usual, less diplomatic. Tsang Tak-sing heads the Hong Kong government’s Home Affairs Bureau and his August 28th post on the bureau’s website chided Hong Kongers for not focusing on “more important issues.” He was referring to the basket of economic gifts that Li Keqiang brought with him. This practice extends back to pre-2003 days when mainland officials believed Hong Kong’s only interests were economic. The gifts are always presented as favors designed to benefit Hong Kong by allowing closer integration with the mainland’s burgeoning economy. But such ties inevitably anticipate greater political integration. They also benefit the business community first, and are responsible for the pro-Beijing tilt of its influence on the Hong Kong government, none of which is likely to score points with the democratic opposition in its present mood. The Tsang brothers reportedly hold their posts at Beijing’s behest. Both men have roots in Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing community extending back to their student days in the 1960s and both are generally assumed to be members of Hong Kong’s unacknowledged communist party branch.
HONG KONG-STYLE RESPONSE: Theatrics with a Purpose
Pan-democrats scoffed at the attempt to lecture them on what was and was not important and Li’s economic gifts were lost amid the upsurge of protest over mainland-style security. The head of HKU, known as its vice chancellor, apologized repeatedly for the on-campus police presence, which had apparently been beefed up at the last minute without his knowledge in response to a Facebook flash by radical alumni to stage something dramatic in the vicinity of the convocation hall. Vice Chancellor Tsui even took out Chinese-language newspaper ads, in his own name, declaring that faculty and students are masters of the campus, HKU is a bastion of free speech, and so on (Mingbao, Apple, Aug. 23). Students did likewise; 1,500 put their names to a full-page proclamation declaring August 18th the “darkest day in the history of the university” (Mingbao, Aug. 23).
Dean of the Law School, Johannes Chan, said that three students confined by police in a stairwell had grounds to sue for false imprisonment and he himself was willing to act as their legal counsel. The Bar Association issued a statement calling on the police to explain their legal basis since Hong Kong had no law authorizing the creation of “core security zones.” Police had used that concept to explain their heavy-handed treatment of students who ventured too close. A thousand students and faculty members gathered in the quad for a candlelight vigil while speakers discussed the violations of free speech and their freedom to protest on hallowed campus ground.
News media protestors were equally indignant, saying they had never been kept so far away from visiting mainland dignitaries. Government officials insisted that adequate media arrangements had been provided for all of Li Keqiang’s appearances. Head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Mak Yin-ting, said those arrangements were mostly for the official media and others did not relish working as government mouthpieces. She later called on colleagues to boycott handouts from the government’s Information Services Department.
Usually the media covers other people’s demonstrations but on this occasion they organized one of their own. Mak led 300 journalists and photographers to police headquarters where they tore up their petition rather than hand it over to the low-ranking officer assigned to receive it. The photographers carried placards with their motto “Pictures Tell the Truth” (Sing Tao, photo, Aug. 21). They also returned to Laguna City where an unrepentant Mr. Wong posed for many pictures in his famous T-shirt. Finally, after more days of agitation, Police Commissioner Tsang agreed to meet journalist representatives to receive their complaints in person. “The police have become a political tool for suppressing demonstrators,” thundered one of Ming Pao Daily’s many editorials. The police adopted high-handed mainland public security methods and the chief secretary said our protests are rubbish. “Freedom of the press and freedom to gather news have never been so threatened” (Aug. 23).
The police commissioner may eventually wish he had shown a little less bravado when he said apologizing is for wimps — a dig at his predecessor’s habit of saying sorry when officers stepped out of line. Last Saturday, September 3, 500+ young people turned out in a show of defiance with a black-themed protest march mocking police for the August 16 Laguna City incident when they claimed they mistook a camera for a “black shadow.” Those were actually the words of Commissioner Tsang answering qustions at a hastily called panel meeting of Legislative Councilors on Aug. 29. Special meetings can be called during the council’s summer recess. Commissioner Tsang is the black shadow hanging over Hong Kong’s freedom of speech, said protestors.
The significance this time was that the Facebook flash demo was illegal and all 500+ marchers could have been arrested for unlawful assembly in a public place because they did not notify the police in advance. Organizers said they did not follow police procedures on purpose because freedom of assembly is a basic human right. But protesters were inspired in their defiance by the police themselves who had — with the arrest of a man for wearing political slogans on his shirt — introduced mainland criteria of political security in practice without any legal authority for doing so. Li Keqiang’s visit was billed as a goodwill gesture intended to mark another step in Hong Kong’s long journey of accommodation with Beijing. Instead, his visit had the opposite effect by reinforcing old fears and reaffirming political distinctions between Hong Kong and the mainland that show no signs of easing.