Posted:; Oct. 9, 2013
To hear committed pro-Beijing loyalists tell it, Hong Kong is on the verge of insurrection … daily protests, rising tensions, politically polarized as never before. Pro-democracy forces are poised for take-over. Some have even taken to waving the old colonial British flag as a sign of their rebellious intentions. Still, it’s not the fault of most Hong Kongers. They want nothing more than to go about their daily routines in peace as part of the “silent majority.” But if the majority isn’t responsible, who is?
Beijing has a ready answer. The fault, insist editorial writers and patriotic activists, can be traced to “foreign forces,” the very same who have been trying to use Hong Kong as a base for overthrowing Chinese communism since its victory in 1949. Back in the day, of course, they really were. Today it’s a different kind of political contest but Beijing has found a new use for the old arguments. Foreign forces are still targeting Chinese communism and they are now using Hong Kong’s misguided “dissident” democratic minority to create an active front for their subversive schemes.
The story line may seem dated but it’s having an impact nonetheless. It has also grown more strident as Beijing runs out of arguments for use against Hong Kong’s mounting frustration over the erosion of its promised autonomy by seemingly unstoppable pressures for cross-border integration.
SPIES, MOLES, AND FOREIGN DIPLOMATS
The pro-Beijing press here outdid itself last month with extravagant claims about British skull-duggery in particular. The Ta Kung Pao newspaper even illustrated the online version of its much-quoted September 16th story with a darkly sinister photograph of actor Daniel Craig in the role of 007 … making it all seem far more glamorous and exciting than anyone around here ever imagined.* This commentary accused Britain of stepping up undercover efforts in Hong Kong after 1997. Unlike the United States, which specializes in hi-tech surveillance, the British have mastered the sinister art of the personnel file. They keep personal information on well-placed individuals for long-term use … buying, turning, and embarrassing … “casting a long line to reel in big fish.”
Such work is allegedly run out of Britain’s consulate-general, which opened in 1997 when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule. Even the new consulate building itself is part of the plot since it was designed by the same architectural firm responsible for designing Britain’s MI6 intelligence headquarters in London … implying that local agents must be fully equipped with all the latest James Bond-type secret service paraphernalia needed to ply their trade. Why else would the same architects be commissioned for both buildings, queried the article suggestively … while admitting that “of course, outsiders have no way of knowing in detail what the British consulate’s spy services are up to” (TKP, Sept. 16).
A companion piece in the Wen Wei Po newspaper was more sweeping. According to this account, British-run spies and moles are busy at work in all of Hong Kong’s various establishments including key government departments, the judiciary, commercial organizations, and the media. But if outsiders can’t know for sure what spies and moles are up to, the political purpose of this argument is clear enough and clearly spelled out.
It follows a barrage of attacks from official sources, both in Beijing and here. They were protesting statements made by British and American officials who have recently spoken out in support of Hong Kong democrats’ universal suffrage campaign. It’s all part of the “plot by U.S.and British forces to seize power in 2017,” that is, via the 2017 Chief Executive election, currently the focus of pan-democrats’ political reform drive. In fact, the entire democracy movement here is explained as the product of that British-American conspiracy (WWP, Sept. 17).
The offending British official is Hugo Swire, currently Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. He celebrated International Democracy Day, September 15th, with a commentary in English and Chinese declaring that “the strengthening of democratic institutions is at the core of Britain’s foreign policy.” He consequently welcomed Hong Kong’s transition to universal suffrage elections and said London stood ready to provide “support” in any way it could. What form local democracy might take was up to China and Hong Kong but he hoped people here would be given “a genuine choice” (South China Morning Post, Ming Pao Daily, Sept. 14).
The newly-appointed U.S. Consul General, Clifford Hart, issued a press release upon arrival in July saying that he felt it an honor to “be here for the next phase of Hong Kong’s democratic development and progress towards genuine universal suffrage.” That was enough to provoke Beijing and earn him an official warning. The admonition not to meddle in local affairs came from China’s Foreign Ministry representative here.** Undeterred, Hart said he wasn’t meddling, just doing his job … meeting and greeting all the key local political players both democratic and otherwise. Evidently he also aims to continue speaking out because he later made a point of emphasizing that the U.S. Government “supports Hong Kong’s progress toward genuine universal suffrage.” *** The watchwords are “support” and “genuine.” Support implies interference; genuine refers to widespread fears that while the promised one-person, one-vote universal suffrage election may be allowed in 2017, the nominees will have been chosen by Beijing beforehand.
So what’s going on here? If diplomats were really behaving badly, a few selective expulsions would presumably be in order. But as yet no James Bond-types have been sent packing. And it was an open secret, among journalists covering the story, that the entire diplomatic community distinguished itself during the last (2010) political reform debate by uniting in (not-for-attribution) approval of the compromise climb-down that caused Albert Ho and his Democratic Party so much trouble afterward. Like Beijing, the outside world values Hong Kong first and foremost for economic reasons with stability and prosperity being the prerequisites for all else. Compromise is safe; confrontation frightens investors.
It follows that the current accusations are not really about Britain or the U.S.… except as tangential reference points for Beijing’s larger narrative. The real concern is local: Chinese public opinion in the form of loyalists, silent and not-so-silent conservatives, and democrats, plus the millions of mainland cross-border travelers and others who are now coming into daily contact with Hong Kong’s political scene.
Seen in this context, the accusations are part of an old-fashioned mainland-style struggle-study campaign that has been building up here for months. It roughly parallels pan-democrats’ drive for “genuine” universal suffrage and looks set to continue at least until their current political reform debate has been concluded. It also dovetails neatly with the latest initiatives from the new Xi Jinping Administration in Beijing, which is apparently trying to regain some ideological momentum for one-party communist rule … in self-defense against demands for political reform and the temptations of Western-inspired universal democratic values.
In the past, Hong Kong could ignore these high-pitched polemical campaigns and democrats dismissed them as holdovers from the “cultural revolutionary” past. This referred to the late Mao-Zedong’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution decade when he was trying to save his grand vision from the reformist urges that ultimately prevailed. In fact, the mass campaign political style long pre-dates the extremes of that decade and will evidently carry on for many decades more … or as long as the Chinese Communist Party continues to govern in the ways it knows best and can think of no better means of getting its message across … barring outright legal and physical coercion, which cannot yet be used here.
Hong Kong in any case has experienced this sort of thing several times before: in the 1990s when the target of vilification was the last British governor, Christopher Patten and his political reform project; in early 2004, when legal experts or “Basic Law guardians,” as they were called, flew in from Beijing to read Hong Kong the riot act after its big rebellious July 1, 2003 protest march against national security legislation; and again in 2010 against the referendum campaign spearheaded by the League of Social Democrats and the Civic Party to protest the government’s minimalist political reform package.
The pattern is always the same: mainland officials and local surrogates setting the pace in somber threatening tones; saturation coverage in the local pro-Beijing press; exaggerated unverifiable accusations; and an insistent supporting cast of locals including both loyalist leaders and conservative allies. There are targets, exemplary villains, political sins, and paths to redemption … all spelled out in clear stark terms the better for all to understand. The purpose is to energize the “masses” and Mao’s logic dating back to the 1920s still prevails: excesses are inevitable; going to extremes is necessary to right wrongs; and any mistakes committed along the way can be corrected afterward.
The major episodes here of such mass-line criticism campaigns have always been about clashing political perceptions meaning Hong Kong’s demands for protection and autonomy versus Beijing’s insistence on guarding its sovereign rights. These include governing Hong Kong strictly according to the Basic Law model Beijing designed and aims to interpret as it sees fit.
Only this time Chinese officials seem more confident. Their accusations far from being confined to pro-Beijing sources have become part of local political discourse, appearing regularly in mainstream publications like Ming Pao Daily and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. The supporting cast is also coming out from the local patriotic community in greater numbers, more defiant and disruptive than before. Pro-Beijing partisans and conservatives are organizing their own groups, holding their own press conferences and public forums, disrupting democratic meetings, and vowing a popular protest of their own to counter democrats’ Occupy Central campaign for genuine universal suffrage elections that is destined to produce blood on the streets if something can’t be done to stop it.
Still, some things never change. The Democratic Party’s founder Martin Lee remains a favorite exemplary villain. He is still being labeled a “traitor” [ 漢奸 ] … this time because he said that Hugo Swire and Clifford Hart had spoken up too late and said too little in support of Hong Kong’s democratic development (Ta Kung Pao, Sept. 18).
On the face of it, Beijing’s blanket “foreign forces” argument and mass line campaign tactics seem like what they are: holdovers from another era. They worked then when Beijing had the power to enforce its will. Here and now the argument and tactics may seem dated but the logic remains and it can produce some of the same effects: defining Beijing’s aims; energizing and emboldening loyalist partisans; and cautioning democrats. Since the 1990s, these campaigns have served Beijing’s purposes here well enough. But so far they have only managed to curb and contain Hong Kong’s democratic impulses, not defeat them … meaning there are several more rounds yet to go.
A print version of this post appeared in the South China Morning Post, Oct. 21.