Written by Daniel Garrett.

The framing by Hong Kong (HK) mainstream media (MSM), Chinese state media, and the Special Administrative Region (SAR) and Chinese governments of HK’s controversial ‘anti-locust’ protest on Canton Road this past weekend (February 16) was highly dubious and indicative of hegemonic attempts to deploy a moral panic over the dissidents and their claims.  Framing, taken as the selection and highlighting of “some facets of events or issues, and making connections among them so as to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation, and/or solution” (Entman, 2004, p.5) played an operative role in defining the incident within a larger problematic context, constructing and organizing authoritative and social condemnation, and proposing exorbitant law and order remedies that arguably threaten Hongkongers’ liberal rights of assembly, protest and speech. (Ngo, 2014; Ngo & Tsang, 2014)  One particularly egregious and unsustainable frame deployed by the authorities, and seemingly initially uncritically reproduced by the majority of HK’s English-language media, was that of an existential reputational threat posed to the HKSAR’s prosperity and relationship with the mainland over the ‘insulting’ and ‘humiliation’ of mainland tourists by the protesters.

Figure 1. “Anti-Locust” protesters returning from the march up Canton Road. Photo by Daniel Garrett © 2014
Figure 1. “Anti-Locust” protesters returning from the march up Canton Road. Photo by Daniel Garrett © 2014

Moral panic, synthesizing the seminal works of Stanly Cohen (2002), Stuart Hall et al.(1978), Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda (2009), and Kenneth Thompson (2005), is conceptualized here as “discourses engineered to exploit exaggerated, imaginary, or real fears, and typified by disproportionate state/public responses to incidents that involve the moral/social order, threats to society, or crisis.”(Garrett, 2012) Top-down panics, such as in this manifestation, include hegemonic media and official discourses inducing or (re)producing anxieties, fear or panic among the public so as to secure hegemony and to manufacture consent for specific policies or social organizations; in this particular case, the “One Country, Two Systems” (OCTS) socialist ideology of relentless development which construes HK’s dominate role for China after reunification as aiding socialist modernization.  Moreover, since the political crisis of 2003 when half-a-million took to HK’s streets against China’s mandated national security law (Fu, Petersen, & Young, 2005), and the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the HKSAR in 2007 when then Chinese president Hu Jintao called for a new generation of Hongkongers who loved China[i], Beijing has dictated HK’s rapid cultural, economic and political integration with the mainland at, apparently, any and all costs as a mode of pacification (i.e., mainlandization (S. H. Lo, 2008; T. W. Lo, 2012)) while outwardly maintaining an official semblance of ‘no change for fifty-years’ and ‘no introduction of the socialist system’ as promised in the original notions of the OCTS ideology.

This essay is based on an exploratory critical analysis of a small corpus[ii] (37 texts) of HK English-language (and translated Chinese) mainstream and Chinese state media outlets and official HKSAR and Chinese government statements about the incident, and the author’s direct observations of the event from start-to-end. In this abbreviated forum (blog) and exploratory stage, it is impossible to provide in-depth accounting of what transpired, or more importantly, why.  Yet, this initial foray will begin the discussion by tackling the most unsupportable hegemonic frame, uncloaking some salient albeit hidden actors, and contextualizing the incident in a larger context of contemporary subaltern Hongkongers resistance to perceived mainlandization and communist intrusion.

Even as this short analysis was being put to bed less than a week after the protest, another ‘anti-locust’ street action was afoot and the moral entrepreneurs and agents of social control in HK rapidly moved to forestall and constrain it (Ngo & Tsang, 2014) through the megaphone of moral panics, the media.  Though not included in this examination, suffice it say hegemonic representations of the ‘suitcase protest’ (Chan & Kao, 2014; B. Siu, 2014) in Mongkok, another major shopping district heavily trafficked by mainland tourists, reflected similar albeit less sensational moral panic and social control inducing treatment and marginalization of HK’s nativist folk devils.  In regards to the way ahead, formatting considerations demands require this essay to be presented sequentially.  Part One describes the primary hegemonic frames to be considered.  Its companion, Part Two, begins the challenge to the central and SAR regimes’ mass line on the protest and protesters.

‘Chaos’ on Canton Road

According to hegemonic accounts, a mugging of rich mainland tourists by a bunch of uncivilized bigots (A. Lo, 2014) occurred and the guilty parties were ungrateful ‘unbalanced’ (RTHK, 2014a)  ‘anti-locust’ HK nativists.  One account described the spectacle as a near “free-for-all in Tsim Sha Tsui between a group demanding limits on tourists from across the border and people standing up for the mainlanders.” (Ip, 2014)  Another pointed out that, “The protesters waved placards and chanted slogan such as “go back to China” and “reclaim Hong Kong” as they marched. Some carried colonial-era flags, a popular symbol for those who want autonomy or independence for Hong Kong.” (Ng, 2014)  A HKSAR government broadcaster claimed a scuffle between protesters and a mainland tourist occurred. (RTHK, 2014b)

Pro-regime counter-protesters confronted the anti-mainland demonstrators while waving huge nationalist and regional flags and calling the alleged miscreants “tourism spoilers” and “traitors.” (Ip, 2014)  These regime collaborators were portrayed sympathetically but soon disappeared in later accounts of the protest. This is problematic as based on direct observations by the author[iii], some of them played a more active (and aggressive) role in creating ‘chaos’ and confrontations during the event than was accorded them by most media accounts.[iv]  Likewise, the alleged striking and injuring of two ‘anti-locust’ protesters by unknown actors in the crowd was backgrounded at the end of one report that mentioned it in contrast to the repeated reporting of accusations of protesters accosting shoppers in other early media accounts. (Siu & Lo, 2014) Several of those emphasized that shoppers had to seek cover in stores and some shops were said to have closed.[v]

In the above hegemonic imaginings, only subaltern anti-locust forces are typically associated with transgressive behaviors like assaulting, insulting, swearing or obscenely gesticulating.[vi]  Subsequently, local and mainland officials condemned the protesters, demanded severe punishments for accosting, insulting, and humiliating the shoppers and decrying the sullying of the city’s reputation as a tourist hub and damaging its relationship with the mainland.  These last claims were some of the most dominate frames observed and were frequently showcased them in headlines, story leads, or front pages albeit some frames are highly suspect.  Yet, only the most dubious claim – that of serious damaged to HK’s reputation – is discussed below due to the tyranny of brevity.

Reputational Damage Claims

Chinese and HKSAR media and governments deployed significant resources to (re)present the ‘anti-locust’ protest as damaging to HK’s economy and national development. This was reflected in framing by government and regime-friendly media outlets as the Region having been sullied, tarnished, and criticized as arrogant, extremist, insolent, spoiled and uncivilized Chinese citizens with respect to its relationship with its sovereign. (Global Times, 2014) Statements by HK’s Chief Executive and four members of his cabinet and the spokesman from the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) added ‘authoritative’ weight to the damage claims.  Reports like the one headlined as, Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office joins backlash against ‘locust’ protest, constructed a sense of consensus and solidarity between the local and central regimes with them joining in “a growing chorus of condemnation” against the “‘anti-locust’ protest’.” (Siu & Lo, 2014)

Five of thirty-seven English-language text’s headlines contained assertions of reputational injury. These texts encompassed news commentary, editorial, hard news, and press release genres. Exemplar headlines include: Anti-mainlander protest urging curbs on visitor numbers tarnished city, say top officials (P. Siu, 2014); CS condemns damaging behavior (Information Services Department, 2014); Shameful ‘anti-locust’ protest a blot on Hong Kong’s image (Lin, 2014); Protests targeting mainland Chinese visitors put Hong Kong to shame (SCMP Editorial, 2014); and, Anti-mainlander protest tarnishes Hong Kong’s image (Global Times, 2014).  Overall, observed stories appeared in eight different HK and Chinese English-language media or publicity outlets: China Daily (HK edition), Global Times, HKSAR Information Services Department, The Standard, SCMP, RTHK, and Xinhua. The People’s Daily also carried Xinhua bylined stories about the protest.

Recurrent hegemonic statements on the value of tourism to Hong Kong’s economy and workforce and the importance of HK’s integration and economic cooperation with the mainland as part of national development were pervasive, and constitute an important yet contestable frame. To wit, HKSAR claims and uncritical media repetition that HK’s tourism sector’s contributes 4.5 per cent to GDP and creates 230,000-plus jobs (Hong Kong Tourism Commission, 2013) – many of them for “lower skilled workers in Hong Kong” (HKSAR, 2014) which HK’s chief executive implied were like those involved in the anti-mainlander ruckus.  However, this intentionally eludes more damming social facts like HK’s inequitable distribution of tourism windfalls: tycoon first and foremost, proletariat last and least.  Or the situation of HK’s pole position among developed nations in economic inequality (Chen, 2012), with a fifth of Hongkongers in poverty. (Ngo, 2013) A situation aptly summarized by the former head of the colonial government’s Central Policy Unit, Leo Goodstadt (2013), in the title of his recent book on HK, Poverty in the Midst of Affluence.   Likewise, additional framing depicting HK as welcoming to mainland tourists with the majority of Hongkongers rejecting anti-mainland (or anti-communist) sentiments may be questionable but less so.  In addition, the protest was implicitly characterized as an exceptional occurrence by virtue of the omission of salient facts and actors that are discussed in the following section.

End of Part One:

In this first section, the notions of hegemonic framing and deployment of moral panic in HK over a transgressive nativist contentious performance were proffered.  In the sequel to this prevue of a much broader moral panic story, the distortion and exaggeration of the social problems of relentless OCTS development and integration are embarked upon.  Subsequently, the ostensible anti-mainlander strain is situated in the larger context of OCTS and the rising protester insurgency and resistance movement within HK.

Continue to Part Two here.

Daniel Garrett is a PhD. Candidate in the Department of Applied Social Studies at the City University of Hong Kong and CPI blog’s emerging scholar.

References

Chan, S., & Kao, E. (2014, February 24). Few turn up for protest in Hong Kong against mainland Chinese tourists, South China Morning Post.

Chen, T.-P. (2012, June 19). Hong Kong’s Wealth Gap Gets Larger, Wall Street Journal.

Cohen, S. (2002). Folk devils and moral panics : the creation of the Mods and Rockers (3rd ed.). London ; New York: Routledge.

Entman, R. M. (2004). Projections of power : framing news, public opinion, and U.S. foreign policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fu, H., Petersen, C., & Young, S. N. M. (2005). National security and fundamental freedoms : Hong Kong’s Article 23 under scrutiny. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Garrett, D. (2009). One Country, Two Systems’ in the 21st Century: A New Policy? Paper presented at the China’s Rise and Its Impact on Asia’s Democratization, Development and Culture, University of Louisville. http://www.academia.edu/1065395/One_Country_Two_Systems_in_the_21st_Century_A_New_Policy

Garrett, D. (2012). (Abstract) Moral Panics and their Consequences in Post-Handover Hong Kong: A Study of the Contestations over Sovereignty, Patriotism and National Identity. (Ph.D.), City University of Hong Kong. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/1470489/Moral_Panics_and_their_Consequences_in_Post-Handover_Hong_Kong_A_Study_of_the_Contestations_over_Sovereignty_Patriotism_and_National_Identity

Global Times. (2014, February 19). Anti-mainlander protest tarnishes Hong Kong’s image, Opinion, Global Times. Retrieved from http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/843373.shtml#.UwRSrPmSySo

Goode, E., & Ben-Yehuda, N. (2009). Moral panics : the social construction of deviance (2nd ed.). Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Goodstadt, L. F. (2013). Poverty in the midst of affluence : how Hong Kong mismanaged its prosperity.

Hall, S. (1978). Policing the crisis: mugging, the state, and law and order. London: Macmillan.

HKSAR. (2014). Transcript of remarks by CE at media session before ExCo meeting (with video).

Hong Kong Tourism Commission, H. G. (2013). Hong Kong: The Facts.  Hong Kong: Information Services Department Retrieved from http://www.tourism.gov.hk/resources/english/paperreport_doc/fact/2013-09/tourism_2013_eng.pdf.

Information Services Department. (2014). CS condemns damaging behaviour.

Ip, K. (2014, February 17). Face-Off Turns Ugly, The Standard.

Lin, A. (2014, February 18). Shameful ‘anti-locust’ protest a blot on Hong Kong’s image, Opinion, China Daily.

Lo, A. (2014, February 20). Bigotry is bigotry as some Hongkongers tell mainland tourists to go home, Opinion, South China Morning Post.

Lo, S. H. (2008). The dynamics of Beijing-Hong Kong relations : a model for Taiwan? Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Lo, T. W. (2012). Resistance to the Mainlandization of Criminal Justice Practices: A Barrier to the Development of Restorative Justice in Hong Kong. Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 56(4), 627-645.

Luk, E. (2013, October 10). Rise of ‘new Hongkongers’ lauded by state newspaper, The Standard.

Ng, K.-c. (2014, February 17). Scuffles break out as protesters hurl slurs, abuse at mainland Chinese tourists, South China Morning Post.

Ngo, J. (2013, September 28). 1.3 million Hongkongers live in poverty, government says, but offers no solution, South China Morning Post.

Ngo, J. (2014, February 20). Hong Kong may amend its race hate law to protect mainland China visitors, South China Morning Post.

Ngo, J., & Tsang, E. (2014, February 22). Police fears over second anti-mainland protest, South China Morning Post.

RTHK. (2014a, February 21). HK people ‘unbalanced’ – mainland paper, RTHK. Retrieved from http://rthk.hk/rthk/news/englishnews/news.htm?englishnews&20140221&56&986502

RTHK. (2014b, February 17). Rowdy protest over mainland tourists, RTHK.

SCMP Editorial. (2014, February 18). Protests targeting mainland Chinese visitors put Hong Kong to shame, Editorial, South China Morning Post.

Siu, B. (2014, February 24). Fake shoppers in Mong Kong protest, The Standard. Retrieved from http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_detail.asp?we_cat=4&art_id=142820&sid=41654332&con_type=1&d_str=20140224&fc=1

Siu, P. (2014, February 17). Anti-mainlander protest urging curbs on visitor numbers tarnished city, say top officials, South China Morning Post.

Siu, P., & Lo, C. (2014, February 18). Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office joins backlash against ‘locust’ protest, South China Morning Post.

Thompson, K. (2005). Moral Panics (Key Ideas) P. Hamilton & M. Keynes (Eds.), Key Ideas


[i] See Garrett (2009) describing China’s frustrations with Hongkongers’ political intransigence, and more recently, Luk (2013) which describes Chinese media efforts to dispute the ‘locust label’ and anti-mainland sentiment.
[ii] Thirty-seven English language (or translated Chinese) texts published between 17 and 22 February 2014 including sources such as: China Daily (Hong Kong), Global Times, RTHK, South China Morning Post, The Standard, HKSAR Information Services Department, and Xinhua.
[iii] The author’s observations of the rally/protest, in the context of having observed more than 100 similar street actions in Hong Kong in recent years, contradict many of the media and government frames of the event.
[iv] As observed by the author, this included instances of possible infiltration among the ‘anti-locust’ protesters parade route by counter-protesters where the latter confronted, heckled, or jeered the nativists thereby leading to minor confrontations – some of which may have been mischaracterized in hegemonic media accounts..  Once near the protesters, small placards or signs were brandished by the clandestine counter-protesters as the procession passed by so as to provoke them.  Both sides “gave the finger” to each other with much gusto, but a good time was not had by all.
[v] Reporting on the closing of stores was inconsistent with only one owner of a jewelry store saying he closed for ten minutes (yet claiming fantastically having lost nearly half-a-million Hong Kong dollars in sales.(P. Siu, 2014)) Most shoppers observed by the author seemed variously amazed, amused, entertained or annoyed but no one appeared scared.  The protesters were forced to march on moderately sized sidewalk that was congested with renovations, security barriers, and police cordons ‘protecting’ the store fronts and keeping protesters from surging into the street.  At the same time, the sidewalk was filled with shoppers and tourists dragging luggage and trollies. Though the protesters were shouting and making chants and occasionally involving in arguments with counter-protesters or ostensible bystanders, the scene of chaos was produced more by the physical setting and numbers of people attempting to squeeze into the same spaces rather than an out of control protest. A similar (yet much more chaotic) situation occurred in 2013 when the government allowed anti- and pro-government protesters to stages dueling rallies next to one another in HK’s most congested shopping district, Mongkok.
[vi] Though some pro-regime ‘civil society’ groups and supporters like the VLHK and others have been involved in several incidents of physically disrupting pro-democracy or Occupy Central meetings and/or aggressively confronting religious dissidents (Falun Gong), this history was not mentioned in any media coverage of the “anti-locust’ protest.  The implicit message was that the anti-mainland forces were responsible for any confrontations and were the only parties taking transgressive actions.