Beware of inciting 'patriotic' extremists

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2009, 12:00am

News of the arrest in Shenzhen of several people involved in a suspected plot to target Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, and Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, chairman of Next Media Group, provides some hope that more details about this mysterious case may emerge when the trial is held.

We still don't know what the motivation of the plotters was. Mainlander Huang Nanhua, the gunman who was arrested in Hong Kong last August and who received a 16-year jail term this month, refused to say who had recruited him to carry out the attack.

That is similar to what happened in the 2006 attack on solicitor Albert Ho Chun-yan, chairman of the Democratic Party. In that case, the men who carried out the attack were brought to book and duly sentenced, but they did not disclose the identity of whoever had paid them to carry out the assault. It is believed the attack was related to his legal work, not his political activities.

In the latest case, too, both Mr Lee and Mr Lai said they did not believe the Chinese authorities were involved. But they are two of the highest profile political figures in Hong Kong and it stretches credulity to say that politics was not involved.

It certainly makes no sense for the Chinese government to want to make martyrs of the two men, especially in view of the timing. Mid-August was just weeks before the Legislative Council election. Mr Lee had announced his retirement from the legislature, but he was campaigning for other Democratic Party candidates.

If he had been killed during the campaign, the pro-democratic camp would no doubt have gained many more votes. It would have been the worst possible thing for the pro-China camp.

But then, if not Beijing, who would have wanted him dead? The most credible theory is that it was the work of a fanatic. Mr Lee, after all, has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities for 20 years, ever since the Tiananmen Square military crackdown in 1989. At the time, he told a human rights hearing by US congressmen that handing over Hong Kong to China was 'like handing over 5 million Jews to Germany'.

He repeatedly sought support for democracy in Hong Kong by foreign governments and, for that, he was condemned by Chinese officials. In February 2004, Tsang Hin-chi, a Hong Kong member of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, called Mr Lee 'definitely unpatriotic'.

The following month, when Mr Lee was in Washington, vice-minister of commerce An Min branded him a traitor and a liar. 'There are a few people who always rely on foreign forces and beg under their breath for favours,' Mr An warned, adding that Beijing would not tolerate international interference in China's internal affairs.

When Mr Lee appealed to US president George W. Bush to use the Olympic Games to pressure China on its human rights record, even some in the pan-democratic camp thought he had gone too far. So it is perhaps understandable that a pro-China fanatic may have felt Mr Lee deserved to be shot. While Beijing did not conspire to shoot Mr Lee, it helped create an environment in which a fanatic may have thought the patriotic thing to do was to rid the country of a traitor.

But then, why do it in August, during the middle of an election campaign? Perhaps whoever made the decision was not politically attuned. Or perhaps the opportunity did not present itself until then.

Last week, accountancy functional constituency representative Paul Chan Mo-po received a death threat after he said in the Legislative Council that he would never forget the June 4 crackdown.

There is no shortage of crackpots, and one never knows when a threat is to be taken seriously. Chinese officials must be mindful not to incite extremists into feeling justified in committing crimes, including murder.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.