Posted:  Jan. 7, 2016

 

Whatever its faults and failings, there’s one thing about Hong Kong’s democracy movement that no one is likely to contradict: its partisans never say die. When someone stands aside or drops out, someone else always steps forward to carry on. The fighting words were those of retired teacher James Hon Lin-shan 【韓連山】, a champion of many causes who was announcing the first protest march of the new year.

James Hon began his political life as a member of the Professional Teachers’ Union that was founded by the late Szeto Wah 【司徒華】 and going for a long walk on New Year’s Day was another tradition Szeto began. He liked to stroll along some busy street with whoever wanted to join him carrying whatever banners they chose. Over time, as political controversies multiplied, the walk became more focused. That led in turn to inflated predictions and let-downs when turn-outs didn’t match expectations for what has always been just an “extra” demo day among so many others.

Last year was a perfect example of how not to plan the day. It was less than a month after the last tents and blockades had been cleared from the streets, in December 2014, following Hong Kong’s 79-day Umbrella-Occupy protest movement. One of its strongest promoters had been the Civil Human Rights Front, famous since 2003 for organizing the big annual July First protest marches that mark the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule.

The Front took charge of the 2015 January First march and promoters have obviously grown accustomed to thinking big. They aimed to boost flagging spirits with enthusiastic predictions of a massive turnout that didn’t materialize. It was actually a well-organized good-natured event with plenty of symbolic yellow ribbons and yellow umbrellas and springtime weather all along the route. But instead of celebrating the 10,000 or so who marched, organizers said they were “shocked” by the low turnout and lamented their failure to inspire more.

The year before, 2014, campaigners were looking forward to the universal suffrage reform debate but the 2014 march didn’t meet expectations either (Jan. 6, 2014 post). So this year Front organizers bowed out … and the tradition carried on without them, reverting to the ad hoc event it used to be.

THE “WHITE ELEPHANT” MARCH

An Alliance for New Year’s Day Protest 2016, was formed by 43 activist groups and “moderately radical” political parties. The parties: “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hong’s 【梁國雄】League of Social Democrats, People Power, and Neo-Democrats who defected from the Democratic Party in 2010 and emerged surprise winners in last November’s District Councils election. Others marched to promote their special causes: Keyboard Alliance, Umbrella Parents, James Hon’s Defense of Hong Kong Freedom group, students, women, Christians, New Territories activists, and many others.

Their gripes and grievances: the most controversial issues of the day including a copyright amendment ordinance intended to curb piracy that activists fear will also be used to curtail their freedom of political expression; the government’s sorry substitute for a long-discussed universal pension plan; the much-maligned assessment exam for all third grade elementary school students; plus the high cost of cross-border bridge and rail projects that Beijing insists must be built. Activists say the projects that Hong Kong must pay for are just another means of erasing the border in furtherance of Beijing’s relentless quest for integration.

A huge white elephant paper float … mocking the white-elephant bridge and rail projects plus a couple of others thrown in for good measure … led the march along with a loud-hailer recording of Long Hair’s familiar chant. He’s been calling on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying 【梁振英】to resign at just about every march since he became Chief Executive in 2012. The paper mock-up of a devilish-looking Leung was decorated with a giant red lobster … in deference to his wife, Regina Tong, who was quoted recently as saying she loved to eat them. Organizers were happy to claim credit for the 4,000 who turned out; the police said more likely 1,600.

But that was only Day One.  Two more demonstrations followed on Sunday, January 3, one even more hastily organized, the other completely impromptu. Both were variations on the now pervasive theme of Hong Kong’s ongoing pushback against ongoing mainland-style political interventions here.

Responding to unexpected events, the January First complaints were upgraded overnight into fears for the fundamentals of Hong Kong’s “one-county, two-systems” guarantees under mainland rule. At stake are promises written into Hong Kong’s founding Basic Law document: academic autonomy (Article 137); freedom of political expression and publication (Art. 27); freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention (Art. 28).

ACADEMIC AUTONOMY

Probably the delay was deliberate … held off for as long as possible in order to deprive January First marchers of yet another cause that would surely boost turnout. After procrastinating for months, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying took the final plunge by naming his pick and political ally Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung 【李國章】 to chair the University of Hong Kong’s governing council. The news release, scheduled for New Year’s Day when no one would be paying much attention, “mistakenly” appeared online the day before (Ming Pao Daily, Dec. 31; SCMP, Jan. 1).

Trouble has been brewing for most of the past year within HKU’s council (Aug. 31 post ) Underlying the controversy is the old colonial custom whereby the governor was titular head or chancellor of all local universities. This custom continued after 1997, which means Beijing-approved Chief Executives inherit the post of chancellor and also the right to name both a significant number of council members plus the council chair.   None of this seemed to matter much until last year when a ranking administrative post at HKU needed to be filled and the university’s nominee for the job was a former dean of its law school, Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun 【陳文敏】.

At first this didn’t seem to matter either, until last spring in the wake of Umbrella-Occupy, when Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing press orchestrated a vitriolic media campaign against Chan. Much of the alleged incriminating evidence against him was derived from leaks and illegal computer hacking … none of which has ever been traced or investigated. But the crux of all the insinuations and innuendos was that Prof. Chan had allowed one of his law school professors, Benny Tai Yiu-ting 【戴耀廷】, to spend two years organizing the Occupy Central campaign, which led to the 79-day illegal street sit-ins, and ultimately to the Legislative Council’s veto of Beijing’s mainland-style universal suffrage electoral reform directive.

Reigning in eager young activist faculty members is not an unknown practice on the part of university department chairs here. But not only did Chan not try to stop Tai, Chan actually sympathized with pan-democrats throughout the two-year political reform drive. His law school was also the most active of all Hong Kong’s academic institutions in sponsoring open-to-the-public forums and debates. Prof. Chan also kept bad company, associating as he frequently did with the likes of ranking colonial era civil servant Anson Chan and Civic Party barristers. His own political reform proposals were nevertheless so moderate that campaigners ignored them and he played no part in Tai’s campaign.

Still, someone had to be punished. It was rumored that Beijing was insisting. Certainly, the local pro-Beijing press was demanding. Prof. Chan became the fall guy for want of any other easily approachable target. Firing Benny Tai would have produced international headlines. Embarrassing Chan and blocking his final pre-retirement appointment would minimize the damage.

The strategy was carefully plotted. Last March, CY Leung appointed Prof. Li to the HKU council where all his past academic and government positions made him its ranking member. His strange abrasive personality also made him the ideal hatchet man to serve as council whip. Despite constant campaigning by students, faculty, and alumni trying to block Li’s influence and save Chan’s appointment, Li succeeded at what he was presumably sent to do.

Chan’s appointment was formally rejected by the council in late September (Oct. 2, 2015 post).   Because a new council chair was due to be rotated in last fall, the anti-Li campaign continued in an effort to block his expected appointment … to no avail. He will be leading the council for the next three years.

Turnout for Sunday’s mid-day protest … organized by the campaigning coalition of HKU students, faculty, and alumni … was almost as big as the numbers who came out on January First. Organizers said 3,000; police, 830. Benny Tai was there. So were members of the Professional Teachers Union and Legislative Councilor Ip Kin-yuen 【葉建源】 who represents the education sector. He’s also convener of the HKU Alumni Concern Group, organizer of the protest.

It was only a short walk up the hill from Hong Kong’s central business district to the Chief Executive’s residence. But the issues now are much bigger than a simple university appointment. Demonstrators are pursuing the demands they began raising last year: academic autonomy; allow the universities to become self-governing; and especially deprive Hong Kong’s Chief Executives … who must now answer to Beijing rather than to London … of the right to intervene so directly in university management.

PUBLICATION AND DETENTION

For once, “Long Hair“ Leung Kwok-hong was not leading the chants but his League of Social Democrats couldn’t be everywhere at once.   His group, along with the Democratic Party, was over at the Liaison Office, Beijing’s fortress-like headquarters here, where they were trying to outsmart the police who were trying to keep protest handbills from being plastered all along the outer wall.

The second big story to break over the holiday weekend was about the disappearance of Lee Bo 【李波】, a Hong Kong book dealer who “went missing” on Wednesday, December 30. He had gone on an errand to the company warehouse, a few subway stops up the Hong Kong Island line from his Causeway Bay bookshop. But Lee didn’t make it home by dinnertime as planned and has not been seen since. His wife reported him missing after receiving a number of phone calls from him, evidently made from across the border in Shenzhen, and evidently under some duress (Ming Pao, Jan. 1).

How he got there or even if he was actually there remains a mystery. He had avoided traveling to the mainland for many years and was not carrying his cross-border travel permit when he left home. The police claimed there was no record of any such person having departed via any border check point.

The background to this story is as easy to trace as Lee’s fate is difficult to discern. In recent months there have been several stories about a Hong Kong specialty under threat. The specialty: books about mainland politics and leaders that are banned across the border. Nothing new about this product. Some of the publications are potboilers, others not and they’ve been a local stock-in-trade for decades.

Only now times have changed. Hong Kong is part of China and most of the customers for these forbidden books are mainland tourists who smuggle their purchases across the border to read and share back home. What’s also new are the pressures being exerted on local dealers to stop publishing and selling these books, and the willingness of some dealers to comply.

Even more alarming is the nature of the pressure being exerted. Lee is one of five book dealers to disappear in the last three months. All are associated with the same Causeway Bay Books enterprise and its Mighty Current publishing company. One of the owners disappeared while vacationing in Thailand. Three others were last seen travelling in China. Only Lee disappeared from Hong Kong.

No doubt they are all being held in some mainland lock-up “helping police with their inquiries,” as the saying goes. But these cases also represent Hong Kong’s greatest fear, one that was born in the 1980s when the colony learned it was returning to Chinese rule.   Elected government is new to Hong Kongers, which is why they still seem to struggle with the disciplines needed to make it work for them. In contrast, the freedom of political expression … reading, writing, publishing, protest, access to information … are among their most prized daily-use possessions. And now, for the first time, those possessions are under threat just as Hong Kong feared they would be.

But there is something else that is equally prized and also at stake: freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. Perhaps the most startling development to follow from the book dealers’ disappearance is the response of none other than that source of all evils, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

A major complaint against him … and all of Hong Kong’s leading government officials since 1997 … is that they never seem to speak for Hong Kong when talking to Beijing. Instead, the communications are always one-way: Hong Kong officials only ever speak for Beijing in Hong Kong.

But this case has brought some rare responses, first from one of Leung’s closest associates, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, Executive Councilor and Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress. She was quoted as saying that if Lee Bo had been spirited across the border and was being held there for interrogation, it would be a clear violation of Beijing’s “one-country, two-systems” guarantees to Hong Kong (Ming Pao, Jan. 4).

The Chief Executive himself almost never speaks beyond lip-service to such ideals. But this time he called a press conference to include international media representatives, and his office even provided an official English translation of his remarks.

When a reporter asked whether Hong Kong is still a safe place for publishers to publish books critical of the Central Government, Leung replied: “The freedom of the press and freedom of publication and freedom of expression are protected by laws in Hong Kong. The reason why I want to invite friends in the media to come to our office is to state solemnly the provision under the Basic Law, namely, only legal enforcement agencies in Hong Kong have the legal authority to enforce laws in Hong Kong. No other law enforcement agencies — outside of Hong Kong, that is – have such authority.” *

Everything has yet to be explained about the mysterious case of the missing book dealers. According to well-placed sources, the last straw for Causeway Bay Books was a manuscript that’s ready to go to press about President Xi Jinping’s love life.  If so … and especially if there is some truth to the tale …  that would be enough to explain all.

No doubt Beijing word-smiths will find many ways to parse the Chief Executive’s brave declaration. One possibility stands out right away: it’s true that the Basic Law guarantees freedom of the press, publication, and expression. But the Basic Law doesn’t actually say anything about the police or those who might be working with fraternal cross-border agencies to further the all-important cause of national political security. The booksellers would be seen as a matter of political security and the Hong Kong public since 2003 has refused to permit passage of Basic Law Article 23 legislation on political security.

The Basic Law also seems to offer no protection at all against a strong national leader, such as President Xi Jinping, who appears determined to tighten the security around his political system by any means possible. If Hong Kong’s Basic Law stands in the way, will Leung Chunying have the courage to resist? Up to now, he has followed Beijing’s mandate in every detail.

*     CYL cyl@ceo.gov.hk , Jan. 4.

 

Posted by Suzanne Pepper on Jan. 7, 2016.

 

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