China’s attempt to control the narrative in Hong Kong

It has been a difficult week in Hong Kong. Opposition to the government’s proposed amendments to the city’s extradition laws spilled onto the streets in two large scale protests. More are expected this weekend.

The extradition bill was initiated by the Hong Kong government to allow for the extradition to Taiwan of a Hong Kong national wanted there for murder, and to supposedly close a legal loop-hole that currently prevents Hong Kong residents from being extradited to China. Taiwan, however, opposes the amendments, with Taipei stating it would not seek extradition under the new laws. And Lord Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor, and former UK foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind have individually stated the decision to exclude extradition to China was both deliberate and a necessary safeguard for the continuation of the rule of law.

Despite the clear contradictions in their case and unprecedented opposition from both within Hong Kong and the international community, the government’s position has not fundamentally changed: they will not consider withdrawing the bill, and believe that the problem lies with the people for not having the correct point of view. In a press conference on Wednesday as protestors again gathered, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam emotionally described her ‘sacrifice’ and used the analogy of a mother and son to describe how sometimes, what is unpopular might be for the best. She had listened, but was clearly unmoved but what she – and Beijing – deemed necessary.

To many people in Hong Kong there is a frightening familiarity about this kind of paternalistic leadership. It is top-down, unrepresentative and unrestrained by any consideration for individual rights – an exercise of power from which the majority of Hong Kong people had fled. Once hopeful that it would become a truly democratic and representative government, Hong Kong is today a semi-authoritarian city-state existing at the mercy of an increasingly assertive and authoritarian China.

On paper Hong Kong’s institutions remain intact. However, freedom of the press and the rule of law are being eroded from within, by Chinese ownership and those who feel they must accept Beijing’s rules. The government has also played its part. Threats made against the Foreign Correspondents Club by the former Chief Executive went unaddressed and the decision to expel a Financial Times editor last year, despite causing an international outcry, were deemed undeserving of an explanation. The Department of Justice has also been uncharacteristically eager to question court rulings on issues of politically sensitivity, and have pressured the courts to impose tougher sentences on protestors.

Hong Kong people have much to be angry about. Political candidates have been barred from standing and six elected politicians disqualified in a legislature already heavily weighted towards Beijing’s interests. Yet despite this Hong Kong remains a divided city. People are not divided in what they purport to value, but in what they choose to see.

The use of social media may be a means of summoning protests, but it is also being increasingly used to present a narrative designed by the state. As protestors gathered on Wednesday, images of piles of bricks, supposedly brought to the protest site as projectiles, were being circulated online. The fact the police had sealed off much of the district the night before and were conducting stop-and-search on everyone in the vicinity was forgotten. A confrontation between protestors and the police was expected by both sides, and for those loyal to the party narrative such images, many obviously doctored, were enough to fuel their prejudices.

Long before Trump the communist United Front networks across the city have been used to propagate the China narrative. Trade and community associations play an important role in promoting the ‘correct’ view. Seemingly innocent flower arranging groups are used as means to introduce people to new sources of news and information, often shared by online chat group members on the Mainland. It is therefore unsurprising that there exists two very different understandings of the state of Hong Kong — between those who personally experience the change and the many in Hong Kong who choose to sit, with increasing fear and discomfort, on the fence.

Carrie Lam’s description of Wednesday’s protest as an organised riot plays to this divide. It was neither organised nor a riot. There are no malign ‘foreign forces’ – the standard line Beijing takes for any expression of opposition, and still the official line in both Hong Kong and Beijing to the 2014 umbrella protests.

The protests are a result of the fear and frustration of a desperate people with no means of leaving a city that has become their home. Theirs is a country and a government that demands but does not listen, and in whose future they no longer have a hope of having a say.

In a city that challenges not only their livelihoods but also their identity as Chinese and memories of what Communism has meant for China, to be able to protest becomes an issue of dignity – to gather as a people determined not to be told what they must think; a free Chinese community outside of the state narrative.

China claims to seek stability and harmony. In practice, both come from an unwillingness to compromise and an iron fist. Lam has demonstrated both. This will please Beijing.

Rather than seeking to heal divisions through empathy, sensitivity and understanding, her administration sought unity by doing all it could to suppress all but the official narrative. It is a style of governing and understanding of authority that is distinctly more authoritarian, more Chinese Communist Party than Hong Kong, that is incompatible with the free, open and liberal society that had once defined Hong Kong.

However, as Beijing misread the backlash to its assertive global ambitions, it would seem Lam too has misread the level to which Hong Kong people are prepared to bend. Insensitivity may be a virtue for the cadre but a sin in a politician. At a time when Beijing needs soft power, this demonstration of hard power in Hong Kong will not be welcomed.

Hong Kong ought to be a reminder of the challenges presented by Chinese dominion. China’s global ambitions do not end with trade, but encompass global control of its own narrative. Lacking any form of democratic mandate, its regime survives by appealing to a patriotic nationalism that demands that its people feel they are constantly at war with foreign hostile forces. The absurdity of this narrative, and its self-destructive nature, will not stand up to reason, and so the regime seeks to control the story.

(The original piece is published on The Spectator on 15 June 19)

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