Posted: Nov. 3, 2014
For those of us here who have been living with the people and players in Hong Kong’s democracy movement all along, what’s happening now follows naturally from all that has gone before. If a starting date needs to be identified for the explosion of popular energy that has produced the current student-led Occupy Central “yellow umbrella movement,” it would probably be 2003.
That was the year Hong Kong finally had to confront, in real life political terms, what it was going to mean to be part of “one country, two systems” under Beijing’s rule. But for an unexpected massive upsurge of protest on July 1, 2003, the first administration after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 would have forced passage of national security legislation that aimed to introduce concepts of law and loyalty alien to Hong Kong’s political way of life. The legislation was shelved but remains pending
Since that 2003 wake-up call, the political parties and activist groups that came together in protest then have gone on to win and lose many skirmishes. But the basic issue that brought them together then still looms: fear of losing existing rights and freedoms under the force of Beijing’s growing political influence.
The current cause is universal suffrage election reform. Plus there are three others that drive this fear of mainland political culture encroaching on the autonomy Hong Kongers thought they had been promised in 1997. The other three are the still pending national security legislation that almost became law in 2003, as mandated by Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution; national political education that almost became a compulsory subject for all students in 2012; and the creeping influence of mainland interests over Hong Kong’s mass media including the press, radio, and television.
For those on the outside just tuning in, however, the protest movement that has suddenly returned Hong Kong to the international media spotlight looks like something big and new. Outsiders bring their own perspectives, disinterested and otherwise, to make sense of what they see … and sometimes no sense at all … especially if there’s an alternate narrative to help unsuspecting reporters far away with deadlines to meet and others everywhere with less innocent motives.
The alternate narrative comes from Beijing and its media campaign that inevitably blames “foreign forces” for every whiff of local dissent (posts: Oct. 9, 2013; July 28, 2014). The theme has a long history, dating back to the beginning of Beijing time, in 1949 … but that’s another story …
Here and now the constant refrain is that Western money and provocateurs are directly responsible, with special focus on the United States and British Consulates. But for these alien interventions, the alternative Beijing narrative goes, Hong Kong’s democracy movement would have faded away long ago.
One current example of how this narrative can grow legs and run wild is a BBC take on Occupy Central. Another is the truly creative masterpiece delivered courtesy of the mainland media reporting on an open Civic Party discussion meeting.
SOMETHING NEW FROM THE BBC
Venerable it may be but one of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s correspondents, Laura Kuenssberg, lent her name to a spin story with a difference. According to this October 21 account, the Oslo Freedom Forum … hosting a North Korean defector, a self-confessed Serbian troublemaker, a Tiananmen Square protester, and members of the Russian Pussy Riot punk group … was part of a global effort to help Hong Kong students in their current struggle.
Continued the report, “far from being impromptu demonstrations, it is an open secret at this meeting in Norway that plans were hatched in Hong Kong for the demonstrations nearly two years ago. The idea was to use non-violent action as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ to challenge the Chinese government. Organizers prepared a plan to persuade 10,000 people on to the streets, to occupy roads in central Hong Kong …” The plans included timing, the nature of the demonstrations, and how they should be run. BBC reporters had even learned that “some leading protesters received advice and materials from Western activists.”
At least they got the main details right. As everyone around here knows by now, University of Hong Kong law professor, Benny Tai, introduced his idea in the op-ed pages of the Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal in January 2013 and it was a runaway success of an idea. He and his friends and a host of others have been busy at work preparing ever since. There have been untold numbers of public meetings, workshops, book sales, fund raising efforts, Deliberation Days, and street occupation rehearsals … with training about how to behave, how not to resist arrest, and so on.
It also had everything to do with international standards that no one ever tried to hide. On the contrary, Prof. Tai said from the start that the aim was to launch the Occupy Central street side sit-down if Beijing’s decision on universal suffrage electoral reform for Hong Kong did not meet international standards. His university hosted a forum last spring where international law experts discussed how to adapt such standards to Hong Kong’s specific situation (March 26, 2014 post).
The public volunteered many reform proposals and these were reviewed by more international law experts. The proposals that passed their test were put to another test, in the form of a mock referendum sponsored by Occupy Central and organized by HKU’s Public Opinion Program. Some 800,000 Hong Kongers took part to show their preferences (May 15 post). There followed a big anti-Occupy Central demonstration organized by pro-Beijing partisans (Aug. 18 post).
The community has been arguing openly and loudly over the pros and cons of Occupy Central since January 2013. BBC reporters must have been sound asleep all the while … only to be roused from their slumber in time to make that October 21 Oslo dateline.
Occupy Central issued a statement disclaiming all association with the Oslo Conference. But the BBC’s version remains for the edification of all. That includes the Canadian Friendship Association that posted excerpts last week under the title “HK Student Protestors Were Trained by Foreigners: BBC.”
AND SOMETHING OLD FROM WEN WEI PO
The Wen Wei Po 【文匯報】 is the leading pro-Beijing newspaper here so people take note of its exposes … not necessarily to learn what might actually have occurred but what the mainland establishment wants everyone to think occurred. The subject in this case was an English-language discussion group (ELG) meeting hosted by the Civic Party on September 5.
Beijing had just announced its disappointing August 31 decision on electoral reform and the guest speakers were university student leaders. They had decided to go ahead with their September 22-26 classroom boycott that would escalate into the Occupy Central movement on September 28, protesting Beijing’s decision.
The Civic Party seems to be the only local political group that welcomes non-Chinese members into its ranks but the informal ELG meetings are open to all comers and have been a regular feature of party activities from its founding in 2006. Barristers and academics are the Civic Party’s mainstay and their organized political life together began in 2003 when they formed the Article 23 Concern Group, in protest against the government’s proposed national security legislation.
Many expatriates are not conversant in Cantonese and local politicians don’t bother too much about English any more. The ELG meetings are a way for interested non-locals to try and keep up. The new Legislative Council office building complex has conference rooms that councilors can reserve for meetings and one or another of the party’s legislators do the honors. A couple of hours every month or so are devoted to this purpose.
Hence contrary to the dramatic claims made by the WWP in its September 17 write-up, there is nothing secret, sinister, or conspiratorial about these gatherings. Nor does the venue have anything to do with influencing political power.
None deterred, the paper splashed a photograph of the meeting plus a hacked copy of the list containing the names of all of us who signed up for the September 5 meeting. Not everyone who signed up actually attended so it was not quite as impressive a gathering as the name list suggested. Student leaders Alex Chow and young Joshua Wong didn’t show. But the headline was the best part: “United States Consulate Official Secretly Meets Hong Kong Students Inciting Them to Boycott Classes and Occupy Central.”
Lines were drawn connecting names on the list with people in the photo … to imply that Civic Party member Jennifer Eagleton, keeper of the attendance list, was the American consular official hosting the event. In fact, the consulate had absolutely nothing to do with the meeting and said so. Eagleton is Australian and a newly-minted Ph.D. now working at one of the local universities.
The article also reproduced what it said were transcripts of the minutes … except that no one had taken any minutes. Evidently the pages displayed were either the transcript of a tape recording or printouts of notes someone punched in on a laptop. There was a recording since a second follow-up article on September 19 provided a link to part of it. But whoever did the transcribing or note taking must not have understood English very well since the printed version bore little resemblance to what had actually been said.
Inevitably, however, there was a problematic case who was doubtless the one responsible for setting bells ringing at WWP and sending imaginations into overdrive at the possibilities he represented. This was American Dan Garrett who evidently wanted to be as open and above board as possible so he introduced himself at some length before commenting on the subject of the day. He said he had been in the U.S. military and worked as a defense intelligence analyst before coming to Hong Kong.
Garrett is 47 years old and currently a graduate student at the City University of Hong Kong where he is researching a dissertation on local politics (New York Times articles, Oct. 30, Western observer and HK protest, Western Observer Finds Himself a Player in Hong Kong’s Protest Drama).
But he is not, as WWP claimed, a U.S. consular official and he did not say, as quoted, that he is currently reporting back to his superiors in Washington on the progress of his mobilization work among the students. Nor did he say that Washington has assigned him to any such mission and instructed him to carry on …
Nevertheless, the Canadian Friendship Association could not resist posting what it said was a translation of the gist of the WWP articles, which had also appeared online and in a New China News Agency video link. So the whole story was translated back into English for the benefit of Canadian readers who can view the photo of Jennifer Eagleton and two British women over a caption reading “US HK Consular Officials and Intelligence Officers Recently Met with HK Student Representatives to Discuss Strike Action.” In this version, Dan Garrett is a US consulate official and “a speaker at the meeting,” who said that Washington definitely wants the civil and social movements for democracy here to continue (posts by david, Oct. 6, 9).
In all of these versions, the student leaders … who really were the featured speakers … signify hardly at all. But not knowing how the meeting might be used and for what purpose, they did what they had been invited to do: explain themselves in English to a skeptical audience of about 40 people. Afterward, these volunteered much gratuitous advice about the futility of the class boycott idea, which the students then proceeded, politely, to ignore.
Two months later after Chief Executive CY Leung himself had said there were foreign forces at work here, a Civic Party legislator submitted a question on the subject asking if the government could explain exactly what was meant by the accusation.
Hong Kong Secretary for Security, Lai Tung-kwok told the Legislative Council on November 5 that in the fullness of time, the government “would consider … how to disclose details of external forces’ involvement and influence on the Occupy Central movement.” But for now, due to issues of national and local security “as well as a lot of other complicated and sensitive information” it is inappropriate to conduct an open discussion (http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201411/05/P201411050620_print.htm ).