Red October Comes to Hong Kong

Teaching the proles how to think

A campaign echoing the Red Guard’s ideological cleansing of the Cultural Revolution is in full swing in Hong Kong. The key figure behind it is former Chief Executive Lung Chun-ying. CY, as he is often known, left office in 2017 with little to show for his single term, a second term having apparently been vetoed by Beijing on account of his unpopularity with the public and business community alike.

But Leung has been moving back into the limelight by using his Facebook account and easy access to local media to push an ever-more authoritarian nationalist agenda. Whether he believes he can make a comeback and succeed incumbent Carrie Lam is a matter for conjecture. What is beyond doubt is that he has become the lead figure in efforts to push the government into ever-greater efforts to crush dissent and debate.

CY first surfaced in this role in 2018 with an attack on the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong for inviting a pro-independence advocate to speak at a lunch. That led to the government’s denial of a visa renewal to the Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet, who was forced to leave the city.

Leung’s most recent and much more important victory for totalitarianism in once free-wheeling Hong Kong has been to push the education department into investigating teachers whose loyalty to the nation was allegedly suspect. The department was frightened by lynch mob calls into blatant abuse of its powers by depriving a teacher of his professional credentials on account of a class teaching plan involving discussion of last year’s pro-democracy movement and calls for independence.

The singling out of this particular teacher was clearly meant as a warning to the profession in general that open discussion of political and what are now deemed national security issues – i.e., anything critical of Beijing or in praise of liberal democracy – was not to be allowed.

There has been a broader attack on the whole ideas of liberal studies as encouraging freedom of thought and thus liable to encourage views on policy and history in conflict with the (ever-changing) orthodoxies of the Chinese Communist Party. The recently imposed National Security Law is so sweeping in its criminalization of “subversion” that the scope for discussion is becoming ever narrower. Thus for the future, teachers may not just need to beware of losing their jobs but of facing criminal prosecution.

School teachers are directly subject to the education department but universities, largely government-financed and with boards consisting of government appointees, have become keenly aware of the threats to themselves. Quite how this plays out in the longer term is not clear as the National Security Law is still recent and so there are as yet few cases to guide. But plenty of the new Red Guards – though they identify as “blue” – have been lining up behind Leung. As for Carrie Lam, she just follows orders.

Her powerlessness was vividly illustrated on October 12 when she canceled her annual policy address just two days before it was due to be delivered to the Legislative Council. The official excuse was that she needed to be in neighboring Shenzhen for celebrations attended by Xi Jinping. But the delay is too late in November. Meanwhile, she will go to Beijing to learn of new measures to be adopted. Clearly, the draft Policy Address she had sent to Beijing was regarded as inadequate so she has to go there and take instruction. The humiliation was astonishing, doubtless to the delight of CY Leung.

The other current Red Guard target is judges who have dared dismiss a few cases against demonstrators accused of illegals assembly, rioting, and related offenses. Some have accused police officers of blatantly lying in attempts to obtain convictions. As the police now seem to see themselves as above the law, such comments by judges have led to numerous complaints lodged against the judges concerned, and online “exposure” used to frighten them.

In response a judiciary inquiry headed by the Chief Justice investigated claims and found them without merit, noting that all the judgments were reasonable on the evidence presented and that there was no evidence of political bias.

 But the executive will not give up trying to bend the judiciary to its demands and prove that there is no separation of powers in Hong Kong, whatever the public and foreign observers agreed was implicit in the Basic Law. The Justice Department has joined in efforts to rein in independent-minded judges by appealing against some decisions that rejected police claims.

As for CY, his good fortune can never be discounted. Thought to have joined the Communist Party early in his career, he became a successful, high-profile surveyor as well as a member of the Basic Law Consultative Committee. However, his firm DTZ, which was listed on the London Stock Exchange, went under in late 2011 shortly before he announced his candidacy for chief executive. However, he managed to get an offer – not revealed at the time – of a £6 million (approximately HK$60 million) payoff from the buyer, UGL of Australia, for what was left of DTZ for agreeing to its offer and to not competing against UGL.

There had, according to Australian media reports, been a higher bid for DTZ but Leung and other directors favored UGL. So he got a big payoff but the mass of shareholders got nothing. The payments to Leung were made after Leung became chief executive but they were only revealed later by the Australian media and were deemed not subject to tax in Hong Kong, a decision which angered local taxpayers.

An investigation into Leung by Hong Kong’s ICAC was begun but ceased after the dismissal of the chief of its investigation unit.

Fortune, or Leung’s friends in the party, doubly smiled on him. He not only escaped handsomely from the DTZ wreckage but went on to be elected chief executive when the odd-on favorite Henry Tang, scion of a rich textile family, was revealed to have constructed large illegal structures under his house.

A comeback to chief executive for CY would have seemed impossible two years ago. But the disliked and almost powerless Lam is unlikely to want or get a second term and her government team consists almost entirely of similarly uninspiring bureaucrats. So, watch out.


This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.