Hong Kong On the Totalitarian Grease Pole

Beijing is continuing to come down hard on Hong Kong’s freewheeling 7.5 million citizens with the expulsion on Oct. 5 of Financial Times Asia News Editor Victor Mallet, the outlawing of a pro-independence political party, disbarring of elected opposition lawmakers from the Legislative Council for faulty oath-taking, and denial of a former student leader to contest a by-election. All levers of executive power are being utilized to block opposition voices. The judiciary is roundly criticized for being too lenient and not sufficiently playing the role of enforcers.

Much of China’s suspicions of Hong Kong are due to a view of the former British colony as particularly afflicted by “Western” ideas of individual rights, freedom of expression, a free press, the rule of law and uninhibited ways of thinking along with failing to recognize the omnipotence of the Communist Party of China. Hong Kong was a colonial outpost ruled by governors until 1997. Its ingratitude puzzles the party faithful.

To its dismay, the CCP finds itself not warmly welcomed for liberating Hong Kong compatriots from “150 years of shame.” Worse, there is deep suspicion of Beijing – even for a high-speed rail service which requires mainland security officers to be stationed there for one-stop immigration processing, to everyone’s convenience but to Hong Kong’s alarm.

Sovereignty, national security, and territorial claims are ‘core issues’ defined unilaterally by the CCP. “Foreign forces” fomenting dissent are a major worry. Foreign-funded NGOs in China and organizations like Human Rights Watch and World Wildlife Fund find themselves severely constrained in their activities and access. Foreign correspondents are tolerated because of the quid-pro-quo for China’s swarm of intelligence-gatherers abroad, sporting newspaper credentials.

Beijing stops being nice

The ‘Umbrella Movement’ of 2014 when 80,000 to 100,000 students paralyzed the Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok districts for almost 80 days, shocked both the Hong Kong government and the Beijing authorities for their defiance, tenacity, and exemplary discipline. Beijing’s attitude to the territory changed after that. It gave up trying to win hearts and minds.

The protests began with Beijing’s rejection of universal suffrage for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, which was promised in the Basic Law agreed between the departing British and the incoming Chinese in 1997. The initially small gathering mushroomed into a massive display of outrage when riot police pepper-sprayed the students. Parents and the public descended to shield the kids.

Umbrellas popped everywhere to block the pepper-spray, becoming the enduring symbol of the movement. Leung Chun-ying, then the chief executive, claimed the kids were being funded and encouraged by ‘foreign forces’ but failed to produce any evidence.

Student activists blacklisted

The disappointed student leaders then thought it best to participate in elections to the Legislative Council to pursue their goals within the system. Six of them won seats but were disqualified for deliberately garbling their oaths. One of them, Lau Siu-lai, submitted her candidacy for the upcoming Kowloon West by-election but has been rejected by the Returning Officer for a post on her Facebook page in 2016 on self-determination for the city (which she deleted). The Returning Officer presumed that she hadn't truly changed her views of 2016. That is enough to deny her rights.

This is part of a pattern in which any individual challenging the CCP seems to be blacklisted and blocked from the political process and where possible, prosecuted and imprisoned for endangering public order. Three of the protest leaders were sentenced to between six and eight months in prison on appeal, for harsher “deterrent” sentences in August 2017 after being initially committed to community service by a lower court. Similarly, 13 others had their community service revised to prison terms of eight to 13 months for storming a LegCo Finance Committee hearing.

At the moment the moves against the territory appear to be only political. But ultimately at issue is Hong Kong’s rule of law, said an observer close to the issue who declined to be identified or quoted directly. It isn’t just the media but academic freedoms and ultimately all freedoms, he said. The multinational business and finance lobbyists who in 1997 vilified outgoing Governor Christ Patten for his attempts to foster democracy, largely now have turned their backs on the situation beyond issuing a few terse misgivings, thinking it doesn’t affect them. It will in the long run, just as they submitted to Beijing’s rules on trade and patent with no reference to the statute book, and only to Beijing's whims.

FCC in the cross-hairs

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) triggered CCP paranoia when it invited Andy Chan Ho-tin, of the Hong Kong National Party which advocated Hong Kong independence. The party has since been banned. Beijing took the unusual step of sending a direct warning to the FCC not to host Chan. The FCC Board went ahead. Victor Mallet, as First Vice-President of the club, fielded the press queries and the event, which went ahead on Aug. 14.

There were loud calls by CY Leung, now a vice-chairman of the Chinese Peoples’ National Political Consultative Conference, and other pro-Beijing voices, for the government lease of the FCC building to be rescinded and the club evicted. The seven-year lease expires in 2023 but the loyalists call for it to be revoked anyway. Even if the government lets it stand, it is highly unlikely that the FCC can count on being there beyond 2023.

Incidentally, the FT in early August, 10 days before the FCC Andy Chan talk, published a major expose of repression in Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims are subject to public surveillance, arbitrary arrest, detention, and abuse in ‘re-education’ camps. That has embarrassed the CCP internationally. The fact that Mallet is an FT editor defying Beijing in his FCC role may have some bearing on what followed.

Visa renewal denied

Mallet’s visa renewal was declined and he was given seven days to pack his bags and go. Most commentators suspect that was a direct order from Beijing. Apart from being an officer of the FCC, which has long hosted contrarian views, topics and speakers from China and around the world without reprisal, Mallet being singled out for an immigration ban makes no sense. Neither the Hong Kong government nor Beijing has given any explanation.

There is no reason why a professional journalist doing his job conscientiously without malice should be blacklisted by Hong Kong. The arbitrariness of the decision diminishes already-frayed press freedom and rule of law claims. Protestations by chief executive Carrie Lam of upholding these principles as the “pillars” of Hong Kong society, echo truly hollow as the city flies down the grease-pole.