Hong Kong Adopts Beijing Confrontation Tactics

The name of the Hong Kong government’s game: confrontation. That is the only conclusion which can be drawn from recent episodes which have pitted the territory’s Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, against liberal and pro-democracy groups and individuals.

It matters not that for these and plenty of other reasons, Leung’s popularity remains very low. What matters to him is whether he is faithfully carrying out the instructions he received from Beijing and its local representative, the Central Government Liaison Office.

Three events in quick succession have shown that Leung is not merely complicit in Beijing’s efforts to cut back the autonomy which Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy under the One Country-Two Systems formula encapsulated in the Basic Law, the 1997 compact between China and the territory promised to preserve Hong Kong’s independent for 50 years after the handover to China. Leung is going out of his way to raise tensions and try to show that there is no future in opposing Beijing or espousing liberal and democratic ideas.

The most dramatic of the three events was an episode, now dubbed a riot, in the densely crowded Mongkok district in Kowloon on the night of Feb. 8/9. Some 65 people were arrested and 130 reported injured in the affair which saw fires lit, bricks thrown and unarmed female demonstrators struck down by police.

The events have since been denounced ominously by Beijing as the work of “separatists,” blaming the whole episode on a group known as Hong Kong Indigenous, mostly consisting of young people in the forefront of demands to preserve local autonomy. The Beijing comment thus puts a group of identifiable Hong Kong ers in the same bracket as those advocating independence for Tibet, Xinjiang or Taiwan. “Beasts” and similar words have been used to denounce the group and its followers as pro-government mouthpieces have been wheeled out to try to denigrate the whole pro-democracy camp.

Yet the enthusiasm of the government to play up the incident has given rise to fears that government or Beijing-aligned forces may have had a hand in stirring it up. After all, the 2014 Occupy movement saw months of mass demonstrations which were almost entirely peaceful.

The actual Mongkok events, and who did what to whom, are still unclear. The protest in the first instance was against official attempts to clear hawkers away from street stalls set up by traders hoping to take advantage of Chinese New Year customers. The government seems to have planned a confrontation of some sort by choosing the first night of the Lunar New Year to launch the attack on the hawkers – and by announcing its intention in advance.

As a result locals and hawkers were joined by supporters of the Indigenous group and by others. Who sparked the violence is unclear. Mongkok is an area where triads (criminal gangs) flourish. Though they may have been on the side of the hawkers, equally they could have been acting on behalf of others. Triads are known to be politically conservative and occasionally useful to the authorities, as was widely rumored during last year’s Umbrella Revolution, also called the Occupy movement. Mongkok was also the scene of the only overt violence during Occupy. Some of the rioters were masked so there is no way of knowing identities. But the government has since taken to charging people with rioting simply for having been there. Faith in police impartiality, already at a low ebb, has been further undermined by the government’s refusal to appoint an independent commission into the events. It has even appointed the senior policeman in charge at the time to lead the forces own inquiry.

As Lau Siu-kai, the former Central Policy Unit head Lau Siu-kai told local media, the government passed up the appointment of an independent commission because it might fuel conflicts – especially if the government turns out to be wrong. As Lau said, the administration is a weak position – deeply unpopular – and might not be able to manage the situation were an inquiry launched.

Interestingly, most of the newspaper ink that has been spilled about the riot – especially the now-complaisant South China Morning Post – has featured pictures mostly of injured police. Facebook over the days following the event mostly featured pictures of young people, often young girls, with their heads split open with police batons.

The Mongkok affair followed shortly after another deliberate provocation by the government in appointing Arthur Li to be chairman of the Council of the University of Hong Kong in the face of widespread opposition by staff as well as students. Li has long been viewed as an arrogant, second-rate academic who has always owned his position to his family but is a staunch supporter of Leung.

The mega-rich family runs Bank of East Asia and Arthur Li’s brother and other relatives have long been prominent backers of colonial and now pro-Beijing governments. Brother David was involved in insider trading in the shares of Dow Jones, of which he was a director, at the time of its takeover by Rupert Murdoch.

Arthur Li had recently been involved in preventing the appointment of a pro-democracy legal academic to a senior university post for which he had been selected. Neither Li nor Leung care anything for academic freedom. Slavish following of the Beijing line is their sole agenda.

The third recent bit of evidence of Leung’s complicity in Beijing’s sledgehammer strategy against Hong Kong’s autonomy is his silence in the face of the kidnapping of Lee Bo – after the earlier kidnap of one of his colleagues from Thailand and others from Shenzhen While supposedly investigating Lee’s disappearance – he did not go through normal channels and is now clearly under detention on the mainland, Leung is fully aware of how Hong Kong law has been flouted, possibly with his prior knowledge.

Life is obviously tightening up for freedom of speech and assembly in a city that has been the freest from such intimidation in Asia.