Hong Kong's Superpatriots Get Going

In 1896, when flag-waving newspaper publishers in New York were trying to foment a US colonial war to take the island of Cuba away from Spain, William Randolph Hearst, the publisher of the New York Journal, sent the famed painter and sculptor Frederic Remington to Cuba to draw sketches of the action.

When Remington cabled back a few weeks later that everything was quiet and there would be no war, Hearst, according to legend, cabled back saying “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

Whether it’s true or not, Hearst and his fellow yellow journalist and rival Joseph Pulitzer, fighting an intense newspaper circulation war, did exactly that. They got their war and the United States got its colony, and later more – the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal Zone (“We stole it fair and square,” the late US Sen. S.I. Hayakawa said) plus some islands, all of them a blot on US history that in some cases remains to be erased.

That is a cautionary story for Hong Kong, where the city’s English and Chinese-language newspapers and magazines have finally calmed down somewhat after falling all over themselves to extoll the “patriotism” of a handful of activists called the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands who commandeered a fishing vessel to haul them to the handful of largely useless rocks claimed by Japan (as the Senkakus), the Chinese (the Daioyus) and the Taiwanese (the Tiaoyutai).

The Action Committee (see adjoining story) managed to weave its way through a cordon of Japanese coast guard vessels to land on one of the islands. Seven of the committee leapt from their fishing boat to swim to the island and plant the Chinese flag and sing the Chinese National Anthem. Then several them were taken into custody by Japanese officials.

Nonetheless, Chan Yu-nam, the action committee’s co-chairman, told reporters: "We have achieved our goal successfully in claiming the sovereign right (of China) to the world. The action also exceeds our expectations and we accomplished our objective faster than expected."

In one aspect it was far more successful than a 1996 visit by activists to the island, when one of them leapt into the water and apparently wasn’t a very good swimmer. He drowned.

The South China Morning Post has led the charge in English, filling entire pages with pictures of the trip and beating the war drums with commentaries and editorials. It included a commentary by Greg Torode, the paper’s foreign editor, suggesting the squabble over the islands should spur Hong Kong to have its own foreign policy.

What Torode didn’t spell out is that a) the islands are largely worthless, b) they have been occupied by the Japanese for hundreds of years, and that c) a sensible thing to do would be to seek to settle the dispute via an international court.

That was what Malaysia and Singapore did over the Pedra Blanca lighthouse, on an island at the mouth of the Johor Strait. The islet, all of 137 meters long, was a bone of contention between the two countries from 1997 to 2008, when the two took the case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, where it was relatively quietly decided in Singapore’s favor. No shots fired, no boatloads of slogan-shouting guardians of bits of dubious empire and drowning in the undertow.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, the currently flailing chief executive, Leung Chun-ying reportedly donated HK$1 million to the defense committee, who actually mor resembled children in emperors’ hats, sitting in the bathtub pushing rubber boats towards their toes rather than the “heroes” they were branded in the press. With legislative and district council elections slated for Sept. 9, politicians were jostling to get on television at the Tsim Sha Tsui pier where the Kai Fung 2 landed. They were taunted by the crowd for electioneering.

Yazhou Zhoukan, a leading regional Chinese-language weekly, carried a cover picture of Chinese and Taiwanese soldiers together, fighting the Japanese. But, said the editor, LP Yau, “It has nothing to do with CY and local politics. The Diaoyu island dispute is an old issue since the 1970's. It was all because of Japan's gradual occupation from the 80's. Deng Xiao-Ping tried to procrastinate the case. Yet Japan kept pushing and a low-intensity conflict is not impossible. It is about time to think of the unthinkable. Our current issue has full coverage of the worst case scenario.”

Apparently neither Yazhou Zhoukan, nor Japan nor China nor Taiwan wishes to take ownership of the islands to the International Court at the Hague. One of them might lose.

“I don’t know what’s going on in their heads,” said a veteran deskman on an English-language daily. “It seems absurd to me, but the common wisdom is that it’s tied in with CY Leung as regards taking the pressure off his policy faults. And there’s an election coming.”

Patriotism, as Samuel Johnson famously said, is the last refuge of the scoundrel -- and often the last refuge of the newspaper editor as well.

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