Written by Daniel Garrett.
Within the last few weeks, the political situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) has deteriorated precipitously as China’s central and local regimes began implementing the outlines of a mainland-style security crackdown against the city’s pro-democracy movement and escalated its United Front campaign against Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP). The transition from a Special Administrative Region to an emerging Special Authoritarian Regime occurred abruptly on July 2nd and was most starkly symbolized in the vivid images of the violent early morning removal by Hong Kong police of hundreds of peaceful civil disobedience democracy activists temporarily occupying a street in Hong Kong Central business district. A former chief secretary of the HKSAR government and leading pro-democracy advocate, Anson Chan, subsequently questioned why the police responded the way they did, observing that the: “Police are giving people the impression that they are treating citizens as their enemies” (Lo, Kao, Chan, & Ngo, 2014). Similarly, as a newly circulating YouTube video from Hong Kong’s 2013 New Year Day’s protest against the HKSAR government sought to remind the SAR’s police officers: “You must know this, no matter what post you are. You must remember this, you are the people of Hong Kong!”
The answer to the former chief secretary’s prescient question is found in the June 10th State Council white paper on the implementation of the “One Country, Two Systems” (OCTS) socialist ideology in Hong Kong: OCLP and elements of the broader democracy and Hongkonger identity movements have been declared enemies of the state. As described by the central authorities, under the guise of democracy and civil nomination demands, “outside forces” are using Hong Kong’s opposition to interfere in China’s affairs; moreover, “a very small number of people” in the Region were acting “in collusion with outside forces to interfere with the implementation of ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kon.” (Information Office of the State Council of the PRC, 2014). No longer the stuff of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conspiracy films (Silent Contest (2013) (Eades, 2014; Perlez, 2013)) or ominous Chinese Communist Party (CCP) directives warning of “peaceful evolution” (Party Document No. 9 (Buckley, 2013; ChinaFile, 2013; Ranade, 2013)), the incorporation of counter-democratic insurgency language in the State Council white paper partially answers the question how far up the xenophobic mainland security paranoia extends – and whether it reaches into the HKSAR. Citing the former director of the Xinhua News Agency, Zhou Nan, a June 19th China Daily commentary explains: “The central issue in Hong Kong is no longer ‘true’ or ‘fake’ democracy or technical details about electoral systems. Instead, it is a political contest between China and Western Powers, who pose a direct threat to China’s sovereign rule over Hong Kong and its national security” (Yang, 2014). According to the pro-Beijing Basic Law Institute chairman Alan Hoo, Beijing could decide to impose mainland national security legislation (Article 23) on Hong Kong to preclude subversion of the socialist system by OCLP (T. Chong, 2014). Moreover, it has alluded to by Hoo, pro-Beijing lawmakers, and argued by mainland mouthpieces that OCLP was a terrorist threat (Information Services Department, 2014b; Song, 2014). Reportedly, Hong Kong was in a “dangerous situation” because the “radical factions in the Hong Kong opposition are trying to override Hong Kong’s rule of law and make themselves the replacement” (Global Times, 2014).
Following the same rhetoric of an October 2013 Global Times editorial, HK opposition at risk of becoming enemy of the State, which criticized OCLP’s contact with Taiwan independence elements and warned about the “convergence of the forces of ‘Hong Kong independence’ and ‘Taiwan independence’,” (Global Times, 2013) the June 19th China Daily commentary identified Occupy Central, Hong Kong 2020, and various democracy movement titans as national security threats to China (Yang, 2014). Zhou Nan is also cited in claiming that OCLP was “proof that local and overseas forces, who are anti-China, have joined together to seize power in Hong Kong.” (Yang, 2014) This again parallels the October Global Times editorial: “All these opposition campaigns aim for the 2017 general election, in which the opposition tries to bring in an anti-Beijing leader as the Chief Executive” (Global Times, 2013). In an early June media interview Zhou Nan had also stated that OCLP had “… demonstrated that a portion of the anti-China forces inside and outside Hong Kong are conspiring to usurp the jurisdiction of the city, which should never be allowed” (J. Lam, 2014b). Shortly before the white paper was published, Zhou reiterated in the context of OCLP that should riots break out in Hong Kong the PLA would intervene. Notably, following nearly a year of implied and overt threats and suggestions of PLA intervention against OCLP made by mainland and local regime forces, a Hong Kong paper citing a June 2014 PLA Daily article reported on July 9th that the PLA Hong Kong Garrison political commissar had instructed the Hong Kong-based soldiers to “prepare for a battle at any time” (Chen, 2014).
Though the Hong Kong Garrison had, at one time, been one of the best examples of Chinese soft power in the region (Garrett, 2010), it has in recent years increasingly become the target of protests and legislative politics as it begun intervening in more controversial issues in the Region. In 2010, for instance, it threatened legal or other action against protesters who had projected an image of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei on the Army’s Central Barracks. More provocatively and recently, however, in January of this year, shortly following a minor trespassing incident in December 2013 where Hong Kong separatists stepped briefly inside the open front gates of the HK Garrison’s Central Barracks while waving colonial British flags and shouting slogans, the Garrison conducted an air-and-sea drill in Victoria Harbor that was widely perceived as a warning to Hongkongers and specifically to the OCLP movement. A South China Morning Post article cited a local China analyst who opined: “The PLA not only wants to reflect the army’s stern stance on the trespassing incident, but also to tell Hongkongers that they would be ready to carry out their duties if they are needed to handle the Occupy Central movement” (Lam & Chan, 2014) Another analyst quoted indicated that because the drill was held at “a sensitive time” it was clearly a message to potential occupiers. The Garrison held military exercises attacking an ‘army’ of Hong Kong separatist in 2012 (Badcanto, 2012) And, since 2013, it has been holding a series of anti-riot exercise throughout its barracks across Hong Kong perceived as intended for possible OCLP responses (Chen, 2014). Alarmingly, the minor PLA trespassing incident has been strongly hyped and sensationalized in Chinese and Hong Kong media and by officials in China and Hong Kong. Though not delved into here further, there are parallels between Silent Contest and Party Document No. 9 rhetoric, substance, and tone with that of the State Council white paper.
HONGKONGERS’ ‘DAYS OF RAGE’
The dramatic, unparalleled crackdown by the Hong Kong SAR government transpired days after nearly 800,000 people voted in an unofficial referendum organized by OCLP in favor of civil nomination for the selection of Hong Kong’s next chief executive (CE) – a symbolic action that Chinese authorities, the SAR government and local united front forces had called illegal and subversive. It also followed an estimated 500,000 Hongkongers taking to the streets with pointed demands for civil nomination, denouncing Beijing’s increasingly domineering hand in Hong Kong, and reflecting a growing minority of Hongkongers embracing calls for Hong Kong independence – three highly symbolic political gestures which signify strident defiance to the central authorities and contravened the oppressive cultural, economic, and political social order imagined for Hong Kong by China under the OCTS ideology. Public outrage at Beijing has erupted following the June 10th State Council intervention in Hong Kong affairs with the ill-advised, poorly timed, and badly received white paper which essentially threw gasoline on an already raging bonfire of severely deteriorating Hong Kong-Mainland relations and growing animosity towards Beijing (Garrett, 2013, 2014a, 2014b; Garrett & Ho, 2014).
For example, the top three identified reasons for Hong Kong residents participating in the July 1st procession were: fighting for universal suffrage without political pre-screening of candidates, discontent over the State Council’s white paper, and, dissatisfaction with the SAR government (SCMP Staff, 2014). Polls taken after the release of the white paper reflected that Hongkongers’ mistrust of Beijing has struck new highs with 43.6 per cent of Hongkongers suspicious of the central government (Fung, 2014). Following years of increasingly repressive political policing, the popularity of Hong Kong police had also dropped precariously to its lowest level since Hong Kong’s reversion to China at just 36.3 per cent. Trust of the PLA Hong Kong Garrison, the Army being an often referred to ‘stick’ to be used against OCLP and the wider democracy movements, was also at an all-time low of just 31.5 per cent (“HK people’s satisfaction with police hits record low,” 2014). It is unclear if the massive cyber-attack on Hongkongers’ online portion of the OCLP referendum and a major pro-democracy newspaper’s website supporting Occupy (“Beijing Implicated as Hong Kong Vote Sites Crash Under Massive DDoS,” 2014; O. Lam, 2014; A. Wong, 2014) – widely perceived to have been carried out by China – also contributed to the drop in Hongkongers’ trust towards Beijing. Either way, the violent crackdown likely severely undermined trust in Beijing, the HKSAR police, and the PLA even further as the early morning mass arrests were the single largest SAR government action against democratic protesters since the Handover. It surpassed the record number of protesters arrested in 2012 by police during several major anti-government demonstrations (S. Cheung, 2012).
Mainland conspiracy theories
Subsequent to the mass arrest and dragging away of over 500 peaceful protesters, the HK Special Authoritarian Regime took other unprecedented authoritarian measures to extinguish popular support for the non-violent OCLP movement and quell swelling public demands for civil nomination of Hong Kong’s next chief executive (CE). This included the never before arrest of Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) organizers of the annual July 1st democracy march – an act which was described by Amnesty International as violating the HKSAR government’s responsibilities to uphold freedom of expression and peaceful assembly rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Police also seized CHRF organizers’ mobile phones to search for “evidence of conspiracy” in defying authorities’ orders related to the July 1st protest. HKSAR security forces were also accused of delaying or denying some of the 511 protesters access to legal advice. (RTHK, 2014b) Furthermore, police have also been accused of beating youth and radical activists following arrests for rowdy protests at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) in mid-June. (S. Chan, 2014)
Broadening a conspiratorial-fueled OCLP witch-hunt, on the same day as the crackdown, HK’s police chief accused a prominent local religious leader and democracy heavyweights of holding illegal gatherings to drum up support for the recently completed referendum through a series of walks in Hong Kong’s 18 districts. (Lau, 2014) The religious leader, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, had previously asked the public to vote in the public referendum “to express their views” and had also called upon HKSAR government officers and public servants to “Keep the conscience and not to be a slave.” (J. Lam, 2014a) The call for expression is in significant contrast with the call for silence from other religious leaders. In a likely united front response given his membership in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the archbishop of Hong Kong’s Anglican Church in Hong Kong and Macao, Reverend Paul Kwong, essentially told followers to be silent in the political war over Occupy and political reform. (“Anglican Church head criticizes Occupy Central,” 2014; T. Cheung & Lai, 2014; RTHK, 2014a) The Secretary-General of the Anglican Church, Reverend Peter Douglas Koon Ho-ming, was also reported by the China Daily as saying that the church was ‘discouraging its members from participating in the ‘Occupy’ rally.” (K. Chan, 2014a) Kwong and Koon’s comments came as a flurry of companies and tycoons also made high-profile condemnations of OCLP in the media in support of China’s united front media campaign against Occupy Central.
A WIDENING UNITED FRONT
This included four major accounting firms – Ernst & Young, PwC, Deloitte and KPMG – who placed local newspaper ads framing OCLP as a threat to Hong Kong (Milmo, 2014); Barclays Bank (Ng, Yu, & Chan, 2014); the Hong Kong-Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) who quickly partially reversed themselves following widespread public criticism over their stance against Occupy (Ng, 2014a, 2014b); and, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Lee Heng Diamond Group who told employees in an email to “wake up” and join Silent Majority, a Hong Kong-based united front group opposed to OCLP (Wan, 2014). Several foreign chambers of commerce in Hong Kong had also jumped on the united front bandwagon following the white paper’s release and before the OCLP referendum, including: “the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and Macau, the Hong Kong Bahrain Business Association and the Indian chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong” (G. Cheung, 2014). Broader, more agents of social control-oriented, united front virulent contestations are also taking place such as evidenced in the disputes between the Law Society who sought to defend the controversial white paper and Hong Kong’s Bar Association over the position and role of the judiciary under OCTS (Chan, 2013a; Lau, Cheung, & Cheung, 2014; Ng, Cheung, & Ng, 2014). Insofar as Beijing is concerned, Hong Kong’s law, legal system, and rule of law are all tools of the government – not constraints on their power, or tools for the opposition to thwart the Party’s agenda and policies in Hong Kong (Chan, 2013b; Hao, 2013).
New united front groups are still being formed despite the spectacular successes of the OCLP referendum and the massive July 1st turnout. The war for ‘hearts and minds’ in Hong Kong escalates ahead of an imminent OCLP occupation action should the Chinese and SAR governments attempt to impose an undemocratic form of universal suffrage such as the practice in the mainland under the guise of ‘inner-party democracy’ where the CCP picks the candidates for the people to vote for. Introduction of such a system in Hong Kong would be a de facto abandonment of the “Two Systems” dimension of the OCTS ideology and policy. One of the most recent counter-OCLP groups, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, seeks to collect 800,000 signatures to let “patriotic” voices to be heard and is an umbrella group for 40 pro-Beijing groups, scholars, and chambers of commerce (Siu, 2014). One of the Alliance’s members is a CPPCC standing committee member and the group also has connections Silent Majority, a counter-OCLP group established in August 2013 (Lau, 2014).
Silent Majority, like the accounting and banking firms aiding China’s united front against OCLP, has frequently used newspaper advertisement campaigns to attack pro-democracy groups. Though not (yet) physically aggressive like other pro-government extremist united front organizations in Hong Kong, Silent Majority has indisputably played a growing propaganda role in the information war over OCLP. For example, during the OCLP referendum and shortly before the July 1st demonstration and dry-run for Occupy Central, Silent Majority released a sensational YouTube video claiming the OCLP movement would destroy Hong Kong titled, They Can Kill this City! Beyond the audiovisual features and narrative of the pro-Beijing political communication, the title was a rebuttal of a popular pro-democracy retort to the patriotic forces intimidation of journalists and the OCLP movement, “They Can’t Kill Us All”, which became popular after a brutal February 2014 attack on a liberal former newspaper editor. Though the motivation or tasking of the attack remains unknown months after the assault, several have speculated it may have been retaliation for the paper’s role in an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) report on Chinese leaders and their families’ hidden wealth (Kaiman, 2014).
HKSAR security forces’ political strong-arming of Hongkongers related to the July 1st march and OCLP, ostensibly under the guise of maintaining public order, social stability, and upholding the law, went as far as arresting the driver of the sound truck heading the procession under dubious accusations of idling and vacating a vehicle (Ng, 2014c; Ng & Cheung, 2014) as it cautiously proceeded through throngs of up to 500,000 Hongkongers’ voicing rage at Beijing and demanding civic nomination of candidates in the 2017 CE election. Rather than the police’s claim that the organizers deliberately slowing their progress, however, there seemed to be little doubt among those present at the procession (including this author who was photographing the day’s events) that the sound truck was inevitably slowed in many places by seemingly endless police barricades and the inexplicable sporadic kettling of peaceful protesters by police.
Law enforcement political targeting of low-level supporters in the OCLP and pro-democracy movements such as the CHRF’s sound truck driver is not entirely new, but the trajectory of authorities strategically arresting protesters and radical pro-democracy supporters for alleged infractions (often minor) that occurred years before does appear to be increasing. Widespread police surveillance of activists and videotaping of political protests have provided SAR security forces ample tools for political coercion at times and places of their choosing. This surveillance also serves to increase the costs of activism and political resistance to Beijing on Hongkongers by exerting political coercion over protesters who never know when charges might be levied against them.
For example, Hong Kong’s Police Commissioner, Andy Tsang Wai-hung, has warned students in March 2013 to “think twice” before joining OCLP or participating in Occupy activities, implying there would be criminal and future career and educational implications for their participation. (D. Chong, But, & Lau, 2013) Other “Think Twice” warnings have come from the SAR’s Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (Liao, 2014), the Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen (Li, 2014; Luk, 2014), and the pro-Beijing political party the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) (Lee, 2013) all of which have further sought to dissuade participation. Notably, due to the student and youth-led nature of the Occupy Central movement, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-him has also made veiled threats regarding students and teachers participation in OCLP, going as far as to say those who supported “illegal activities” like Occupy might bear “criminal liability” or be guilty of professional misconduct (Information Services Department, 2014a).
Education Secretary Ng was subsequently criticized by pro-democracy legislators who said: “We think that Ng’s comments were unfounded; meddling in the teaching profession, creating white terror and applying political pressure form top down on teachers”(Ngo, 2014). Academic freedom in the SAR is enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Yet, the implications of the Education Secretary’s warnings are not trivial for activists. For example, the Education Bureau (and more broadly, the CE) exerts supervision and influence over important educational institutions in the City and possess significant opportunities to punish or reward students in educational pursuits or research opportunities (Legislative Council Secretariat, 2012). A number of situations involving academic freedom have arisen since the Handover but mostly involve professors, not students or potential students who are more vulnerable to coercive exploitation. Moreover, a number of student activists, especially those in the radical pro-democracy wing, have been the target of questionable police actions related to various protests against the Chinese and SAR governments. This includes the past arrest of an aide of one of the Occupy Central organizers (S. Cheung & Cheung, 2013). In a broader and more salient context, student activists and youth radicals have become more potent political forces in the Hong Kong contentious politics and often are directly confronting Chinese and SAR government policies (e.g., Scholarism, Hong Kong Federation of Students) so are attractive targets for regime coercion.
Targeting Radical Leaders
As the protester described HKSAR police and Justice Secretary-led white terror campaign of early-July 2014 continued, arrests and threats of arrest of other pro-democracy leaders widened on July 4th. For instance, besides the leaders of the CHRF, the popular – albeit ever controversial – radical pro-democracy leader Wong Yuk-Man was arrested (Ng & Lo, 2014) following a confrontation during a legislative question-and-answer session with the CE where the lawmaker reportedly threw a glass of water in the general direction of the CE as scores of pro-democracy lawmakers rushed the executive shouting for civil nomination and waving placards at him. Though the CE was not struck and no one injured, police later arrested the radical lawmaker on common assault charges despite the fact that various items had been thrown at the CE for many years in the legislature without law enforcement intervention or arrests.
The CE, however, took political advantage of the situation and, wagging a shard of glass in front of cameras, said: “From the first banana thrown a few years ago to this morning incident, there has been too much verbal and physical violence in this chamber. We should ask ourselves: what kind of role the LegCo members have played for our young people?” (K. Chan, 2014b) The CE remarks mirrored those in Beijing’s united front camp who have long criticized the SAR government for tolerating belligerent defiance by radical pro-democracy legislators whom they blame for the growing youth activism and radicalism that have afflicted the SAR since at least January 2010 when 10,000 youth activists surrounded the parliament in what was called the “Siege of the LegCo.”
In 2012 after radical pro-democracy forces gain more legislative council seats, China’s local mouthpiece, the China Daily, decried the development and blamed them for polluting Hong Kong’s youth, inspiring the anti-national education movement, rejecting China’s patriotic education and communist-centered national identity, and creating an independence movement: “The seed of discord was planted quite a while back, when Wong [Yuk-man], W. Chan and their fellow radical opposition lawmakers started raising hell in LegCo sessions, with all kinds of disorderly behavior and they got away with it. Some youths saw their unbecoming antics and believed them to be ‘heroes’, breaking the norm by all means necessary. The radical faction apparently is trying to copy what the Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) does in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, and in a way has succeeded by adopting the politics of violence in Hong Kong many times already” (Lai, 2012).
The arrest was the latest incident in a series of arrests of pro-democracy and radical anticommunist legislators for dissent-related offenses. Prior to the July 1st march, for instance, well known radical pro-democracy League of Social Democrats legislator Leung Kwok-hung, aka “Long Hair,” was sentenced to four weeks in jail for a 2011 protest offense.
A CITY OF POLICE BARRIERS
No longer just a “city of protests,” Hong Kong has in the last few weeks also become a “city of barriers” with copious caches of police barricades, orange warning cones, and Panopticon-like protest pedestals littered across the city. Huge plastic police fortifications routinely obstruct Hong Kong streets during large demonstrations and marches. Large numbers of police officers and police paddy wagons also typically monitor, or loiter nearby, during even the most minor of protests – an indicator of a very frightened police state. Policing kettling of static and moving protests have become very pervasive at protests of any significant size and arguments between police and protest organizers over procession routes and lane openings commonplace. As a result, incidences of illegal assemblies in the sense of refusing to inform police of events have proliferated due to police obstinacy and as symbolic acts of civil disobedience against Hong Kong’s often described draconian Public Order Ordinance. Efforts to restrict public space for protests and areas for journalists to observe them have also intensified. Now, instead of ‘flower beds’ in front of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong (Garrett, Forthcoming 2014), a pedestrian flyover next to the HKSAR headquarters typically used in the past by the public to observe protests below in the courtyard is frequently obfuscated by “police passages” and tall screens designed to obstruct public view of protests.
Hongkongers refuse to “Look Down”
Growing protester anger at such oppressive political monitoring – frequently expressed in the past through online transgressive kusu/egao images positing police as triad thugs – now broaches more-and-more frequently into the material world. For instance, following the violent clearing of Charter Garden road by police, anti-Hong Kong Police Force stickers (“Fuck the Police”) begun appearing on Hong Kong Island along major thoroughfares and protest venues. And, after police pepper sprayed, arrested, and had allegedly beaten youth and radical protesters during the anti-Northeast New Territories (NENT) demonstrations held just before the July 1st march, one protester brazenly and defiantly marched back-and-forth in front of police officers carrying a placard bearing the Internet-meme: “All Cops are Bastards!”
On July 1st, Hongkongers also refused to “Look Down” in the wake of the June 10th white paper and the escalating threats of PLA intervention over OCLP. Instead, they ‘red carded’ the Chinese and HKSAR regimes. During the march, in the spirit of the World Cup, many participants brashly waved ‘red card’ protest props bearing the “689” (signifying CE CY Leung) and words “White paper” to flag hegemonic fouls against the city and its way of life. Indeed, these popular placards were ubiquitous as were political stickers declaring no white paper. A huge copy of the front cover of the white paper was also trampled by hundreds of thousands of protesters in the march. A mock effigy of a PLA tank covered with copies of the State Council’s white paper was depicted as “blowing up” the HKSAR Basic Law which protest Hong Kong’s freedoms and civil rights under OCTS. A roving performance art protest parodying Hong Kong police’s use of warning banners against protesters, Hongkongnese Warning Squad, warned about mainland dangers to Hong Kong from: the “Party-State”; “Fake Commies”; “Love the Party”; “Redden”; and “Corruption.” As explained by the artist Kacey Wong, “Many citizens in Hong Kong felt the police are abusing their power when it comes to handling peaceful demonstrator[s] and this work [will] inspire the viewers to reflect about this issue.” (K. Wong, 2014)
The mood of many protesters might be summed up by the defiant slogan on a widely observed T-shirt and many banners: “Our Home Our Say.” And, in a sign of the mounting failures of ruling Hong Kong “with patriots” under “One Country, Two Systems,” increasing numbers of Hong Kong independence and separatist leaning street stations and growing numbers of supporters were observed during the march as compared to the past two July 1st processions coinciding with the term of the incumbent CE CY Leung. In the same fashion, large numbers of antimainland and pro-Hongkonger stickers demanding “No Locusts in HK!”, “Stop Chinese Illegal Re-Colonisation!”, “Hong Kong is NOT PART OF CHINA”, “I’m Hongkongese! Not Chinese!”, and “Hong Kong Independence!” could be found subversively situated throughout the urban infrastructure lining the protest route. Hongkonger’s defiance was also represented in the increasingly ubiquitous slogan, “They Can’t Kill Us All!”, which has become as popular in Hong Kong as the resistance song, “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
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. He tweets @DanGarrett97. Part 2 of this essay will be published on July 23rd.