Posted: Aug. 18, 2014
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Hong Kong’s democracy movement should be basking in the glow … except that Robert Chow’s anti-Occupy Central campaign is using imitation to mock and bait not emulate. A distinguished-looking white-haired gentleman in his 60s, Chow seems an unlikely candidate for such an exercise. On occasion when crowds gather and awkward questions are shouted out he wears the expression of an accidental hero who finds himself holding a tiger by the tail and can’t quite decide whether to hang on for dear life or let go and hope for the best.
But now that virtually the entire pro-government establishment has rallied to his cause … including Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, most of his principal government officials, the police, the main pro-Beijing political party, the main (pro-Beijing) labor federation, the Liberal Party, New People’s Party, mainland-owned companies, chambers of commerce, and all the pro-Beijing united front associations … Chow has no choice but to see it through to the end. Consequently, on August 17 he also found himself in unfamiliar territory, leading a three-kilometer march along pan-democrats’ main protest route from Victoria Park to Hong Kong’s downtown central business district.
MOBILIZING THE SILENT MAJORITY
It all began just a year ago, in August 2013, when veteran media man Robert Chow Yung【周融】and about 40 like-minded conservative professionals formed a group they called the Silent Majority for Hong Kong.* Core founding members and associates included university professors Ho Lok-sang, Francis Lui Ting-ming, and Chang Chak-yan.
Unlike many their age, they do not regard politics and public affairs as something to be avoided. Rather, Chow and his friends say they are only against the adversarial divisive variety of the sort that has produced the Occupy Central campaign. What motivated them seems to have been their initial instinctive opposition to the idea of civil disobedience and the deliberate challenge to authority that the Occupy Central campaign represents. His group said they wanted to appeal to their non-participating fellow citizens, the silent majority, and encourage them to join in what might be called the politics of compromise and consensus.
Some pro-democracy moderates have also now adopted this logic. It’s unfair, they say, for a minority to make decisions for the majority. They explain that partisan pro-democracy and pro-Beijing/conservative camps are now roughly 50-50 in terms of voter interest … leaving a majority of Hong Kongers still non-participant political by-standers since a majority of those eligible still do not vote.
Initially, at least through last year, Chow’s main practical threat was to mobilize this silent majority to come out and bury pan-democrats at the polls. Actually, this is already happening at the basic district level. But he was talking about a real upsurge at the next District Councils election in 2015. He was all over town talking to whoever would invite him and he liked to say, correctly, that Hong Kong has some 5.5 million potentially eligible voters, but only 3.5 million are actually registered and of that number, only at most 1.8 million turn out on Election Days. He was thinking about doing some serious voter-registration drives and taunted Occupy Central supporters with the millions he would turn out … to swamp their paltry 10,000 troublemakers.
Others in his group were flirting with the idea of using government handouts to promote voter interest … instead of making elections compulsory as in Australia or Singapore where failure to vote is penalized. Professor Lui said it would make more sense to pay people to vote (South China Morning Post, Nov. 2, 2013). The idea reflects a common conservative view … much favored by mainland pundits … that Western democratic elections are a straight exchange of money for votes. Or the idea may have simply been an economist’s take on the get-out-the-vote problem.
SILENT NO MORE
Somewhere along the way, however, things changed for Robert Chow and his centrist Silent Majority veterans … as if someone with more combative skills and partisan intentions realized that maybe it would be more effective to try and beat Occupy Central activists at their own game.
The turning point seems to have been reached just during the past six weeks, after the unexpected success of Occupy Central’s mock referendum held between June 20 and 29. Despite a massive negative official publicity campaign and computer attack aimed at discrediting and sabotaging the online vote, close to 800,000 Hong Kong Identity Card holders turned out to participate. Of that number, 88% said better no proposal than a phony one meaning better to reject than accept electoral reform proposals for the next 2017 Chief Executive election that do not offer voters a genuine choice of candidates. Tens of thousands came out for the annual July First protest march bearing the same message. (June 24 and July 7 posts).
For those new to this story, the Occupy Central campaign was initiated in January 2013 and is led by three friends: Professors Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. Their idea is that if Beijing does not allow an election for Chief Executive in 2017 that can pass the basic “international standards” test, then 10,000 people are preparing to occupy the streets of Hong Kong’s downtown financial district. If they do occupy, they expect to be arrested and if so, they do not necessarily expect their action to achieve the desired electoral reform objective because they will only head for the streets in earnest once all other possibilities are exhausted. But if so, they mean Occupy Central to serve as the ultimate act of protest and defiance … since it’s clear to all that the traditional marches and rallies are now being deliberately downplayed by the authorities no matter how many people turn out to demonstrate. Baring violence, which the occupiers eschew, or the ballot box, which they do not have, they say there is no other way.
Robert Chow says they must now give it up and heed the force of the silent majority he has mobilized … but not the one he started out with. In a widely-reported comment, he said it does no good to present the likes of Occupy Central people with a weak-kneed plea for compromise and conciliation. First you must hit them hard with a force comparable to their own … only then will they come around to conciliate and compromise.
He was also quoted as saying he has no political reform agenda of his own and that the three Occupy Central leaders should behave similarly. They should not be allowed to participate in any political reform talks because they themselves hold no official position and therefore have no authority to negotiate on the matterr of political reform (Standard, July 29).
TAKING SOME CUES FROM THE “MINORITY”
Robert Chow’s new persona was formalized on August 3, the launch date for a new Alliance for Peace and Democracy. His co-founder was Stanley Ng Chau-pei 【吳秋北】. Ng is chairman of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions as well as one of Hong Kong’s deputies to the National People’s Congress (China Daily, Aug. 13). As convener of the new alliance, Chow remained the man out front and Ng brought it all together.
During his speeches around town last year Chow had mocked Occupy Central for its full formal name: Occupy Central with Love and Peace. But if it was so successful, maybe a little peace was a good idea. Especially since one of its opponents’ main themes has been the potential for dark and deadly violence built into Occupy Central … plus the paralysis that would overtake the financial district, the economy and everything else. Scaremongering has reached impressive heights, with the threat of “bloodshed” and “paralysis” looming dramatically … as though the sky would surely fall if Occupy Central actually materialized. To help reinforce such images Chow’s team produced a video … illustrating just how disastrous it would surely be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEH_TdDwXjo
To prove it could match Occupy Central on the numbers front, Robert Chow and his new Alliance announced a month-long signature campaign. He didn’t try to hide the aim, namely, to best the 800,000 turnout for Occupy Central’s mock referendum. The Hong Kong government and all pro-Beijing partisans had dismissed the referendum as not representative of anything or anyone and certainly not in any way likely to influence the demand for genuine universal suffrage elections. But it must have registered an impact somewhere or the signature campaign would not have gone to such lengths to compete.
Over 400 stations were set up city-wide where people could sign a paper and put it in a box just like a vote (Wen Wei Po, July 18). There were no choices: only a signing statement which declared that they opposed violence and opposed Occupy Central, but supported peace and democracy for Hong Kong (www.sign4peacedemocracy.hk ).
Initially, Chow mimicked the three Occupy Central leaders who had been so downcast at one point ahead of their referendum that they said they might have to think about the consequences of defeat if 100,000 people didn’t turn out. Chow said if his turnout was only a couple of hundred thousand the Alliance would “accept its fate.” Then, just like the three Occupy Leaders who issued a progress report when early turnout figures eased their fears, Chow did the same. He called in the press to report on an initial signature count of almost 400,000. He was quoted as saying it was a “shocking record” because it showed Hong Kongers were angry at having heretofore been “misrepresented” (Standard, July 21).
Pushing up numbers was nevertheless his main objective and the Alliance wasn’t fussy about who could sign. Everyone was welcome … whether or not they were Hong Kong Identity Card-carrying residents. Consequently, Western tourists joined in the fun and mainland visitors, too, as well as foreign domestic helpers. Age was no problem … children could sign as well … and who was to prove how many people actually signed more than once? Robert Chow said variously that they were relying on an honor system, that duplicates could be sorted out later, and signatures would be divided into separate categories to distinguish locals from non-locals.
But what to do about those who signed outside Hong Kong? This led to more awkward questions because the pro-Beijing press was just then in the midst of its campaign against foreign forces specifically targeting Alliance for True Democracy convener Joseph Cheng for holding a foreign passport. Such a person, it was said, should not be allowed to have a voice in Hong Kong’s political reform debate (July 28 post).
And yet, there were the leaders of Hong Kong’s main pro-Beijing political party (the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong or DAB) … off junketeering in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York where they were drumming up support for the signature campaign. More awkward questions … to which the DAB replied that its traveling members were only asking overseas Chinese communities to support the campaign. Although, according to a local pro-Beijing headline, DAB chairman “Tam Yiu-chung Encourages New York Overseas Chinese to Sign the Anti-Occupy Central Petition” (Wen Wei Po, July 31). A San Francisco TV station contributed its clip of the DAB contingent handing out the signature forms with people signing on the spot at a July 23 meeting：
Still, if foreign passport holders were welcome to sign the petition in Hong Kong itself, why not everywhere else as well? Suddenly no one seemed to care about foreign interference one way or the other.
ANTI-OCCUPY CENTRAL DAY
Final tally against Occupy Central and for democracy: actual signatures, 1.3 million, plus 128,624 online. The signature campaign ended on August 17, culminating in an energetic schedule of activities for newly-designated Anti-Occupy Central Day. The featured event was an afternoon march from Victoria Park along pan-dems’ main protest route toward the central business district. Robert Chow was eager to compete here, too, and initially said he would be satisfied if the police provided him with a 90,000 turnout figure … the same as they had done for the pro-democracy July First march this year. That seems to be the police department’s base line full-house figure for Victoria Park (July 7 post).
He succeeded. The park was full to overflowing before starting time. But he knew it would be once the entire patriotic community threw its weight behind his effort (Ming Pao Daily, Aug. 16). Parties, unions, united front associations, native-place societies, and mainlanders in town for the occasion … everyone was present and accounted for … mostly all wearing standard-design red, yellow, or white T-shirts and carrying identical pre-printed placards for peace and democracy.
Those attracting the greatest Chinese media attention were the 20,000-strong contingent of cross-border enthusiasts who claimed that Shenzhen and Hong Kong are “as close as lips and teeth.” They were organized by the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Federation of Associations, an alliance of civic groups formed in 2003 to promote just such cross-border activities. On this occasion, they said they wanted to help protect Hong Kong from Occuy Central and promote universal suffrage (Wen Wei Po, Ming Pao, Aug. 18).
Robert Chow said pre-paid lunches and transport were O.K. becaue they didn’t count as actual cash inducements, which loyalist groups have been caught handing out on past occasions … as well as this one. He also invoked the name of Martin Luther King and said that American civil rights marches in the 1960s provided barbecues and lunches for protesters but no one complained then about pay-to-play incentives. The numbers:
Organizers’ estimate: 193,000
HKU POP: 79-88,000.
THE ART OF MASS CAMPAIGNING
Probably, if their efforts had not been overtaken by forces larger than themselves, Robert Chow’s centrist band of Silent Majority veterans would have continued to muddle along with their Occupy Central scaremongering and voter registration ideas. They have not yet said how they feel about losing their centrist innocence to the greater patriotic cause … or maybe they really don’t care … even though Anti-Occupy Day was Beijing’s success story not theirs.
Ironically, its officials are constantly indicating how nervous they are about Western-style adversarial elections. Yet they themselves are past masters at something almost as risky in the form of their adversarial mass campaigning. And the speed with which they transformed a small group of centrist professionals into a mass base strong enough to challenge Hong Kong’s democracy movement on its own turf suggests that Beijing has lost none of its old skills … honed over close to a century of revolutionary party-building and now being adapted for use in 21st century Hong Kong.
Of course, it helps to have rock-solid official backup, unlimited funding, and to have already built a dense array of friendly “associations of societies,” plus majorities of compatible allies and party members on Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils. After all that the rest is easy. But even so, the anti-Occupy campaign is an impressive piece of political improvisation … and one that pan-democrats seem ill-prepared to counter, beginning with the attacks on Joseph Cheng and Jimmy Lai (July 28 post).
In fact, that was only a softening-up exercise ahead of the real punch aimed at demolishing demands for “genuine” universal suffrage ahead of Beijing’s coming official verdict. All indications are that it’s going to offer no quarter. Instead, Beijing’s solution for dealing with its unruly Hong Kong dissidents was Robert Chow’s new alliance, symbolized by its color-coded logo: a black thumbs down for “opposition to violence,” violence being the code-word for Occupy Central; and a bright pink thumbs up “for peace and universal suffrage.”
THE REAL AIM: TAKE WHAT’S OFFERED
The Hong Kong government did its part with Chief Secretary Carrie Lam taking the unusual step of sending an explanation in English to the Wall Street Journal (July 28), in preparation for Beijing’s anticipated verdict. She said improvements in electoral methods “should be possible” at some future date beyond 2017. But Lam mentioned only possible changes in the existing stacked Election/Nominating Committee and its procedures.
And for those who didn’t get the point, a new subliminal-type public service announcement has also begun flashing across our TV screens form time-to time … shading pan-democrats’ street demonstrations in the dark colors of anarchy and betrayal … black and green. The bilingual message: “You can have universal suffrage in 2017. Your vote. Don’t cast it away.”
A catchy Cantonese phrase for Carrie Lam’s advice appeared immediately 【袋住先】… that translates roughly as “settle for what you can get and hope for a better deal later” (Ming Pao, July 29; HK Economic Journal, Aug. 1). Pro-government forces have now done all they possibly can to discourage, discredit, and defeat pan-democrats’ campaign for a “genuine” universal suffrage election in 2017. But all that’s being offered in its place is an injunction to defer to what Beijing has said it wants the Basic Law to mean.
No attempt is being made to define how that course can lead toward anything but a future of one-country, one-system, one-party rule. If protections can be built in, no one is talking about them. The constant moderate calls for “compromise” ignore the dangers implicit in Beijing’s definitions and Beijing is ignoring them as well.
Officials are due to announce their verdict at the end of the month and they are obviously preparing Hong Kong for what can only be described as a mainland-style election … meaning Beijing will determine the candidates and voters will endorse what’s on offer.
Pan-democrats are so far standing their ground. The leaders of both the Democratic Party and the Civic Party, Emily Lau and Alan Leong, say North Korea has a universal suffrage election, too. That’s not what they want for Hong Kong. But a two-thirds majority of 70 Legislative Councilors is needed to approve whatever proposal the government offers and pan-democrats have allowed their share of Legco seats to dwindle to barely one-third. Only a handful of them would be enough to swing the balance and provide the necessary two-thirds majority vote for “whatever is offered.”
* 2013: HK Economic Journal, Aug. 9; Ming Pao Daily, Aug. 13, Sept. 10; www.silentmajority.hk