Are foreign forces interfering in Hong Kong? Several commentators in the pro-Beijing media, including an official in Beijing, have suggested in recent weeks that they are. At the 18th Communist Party Congress, President Hu Jintao mentioned national sovereignty and security with respect to Hong Kong for the first time, and also strengthened previous comments about the possible threat of external forces here.
What are we in Hong Kong to make of this? Some members of the pro-democracy camp fiercely rejected the idea that foreign interference was taking place. They also warned that these remarks could signal a coming clampdown on the local opposition and civil rights. In the pro-Beijing camp, some outspoken patriots gave the impression that they see hostile foreign forces already influencing the local opposition and want something to be done. A few have developed theories about an opposition plot to take over Hong Kong in 2017.
For quite a few years, we have read or heard occasional allegations about certain figures being manipulated by foreign forces. Obviously, it depends how we define "forces". Would that include ideas or values? Many opposition figures - like a lot of us here - are influenced by Western education and ideas. Our local leaders always make a point of praising Hong Kong values, even though hard-line mainland commentators oppose similar "universal" values pushed by the West.
The truth is, no one knows how much or little overseas interests are active in the local political or civic scenes - and in a big international city, it is probably impossible to measure. However, we are seeing a dangerous cycle. Activists do or say things that alarm pro-Beijing figures, who warn of foreign influences or threats to national interests. The activists are then alarmed and see a threat to civil liberties, and so it goes on.
One root cause of this is the rise of vocal anti-mainland sentiment and the public opposition to the proposed moral and national education curriculum for schools.
The video of Hong Kong people hurling abuse at the parallel traders in Sheung Shui was shocking, and the sight of people waving colonial-era flags equally surprising. But it is not necessarily sinister and foreign. The influx of mainland visitors has affected some local residents' quality of life so much that they are genuinely angry. The flags were meant to shock, and maybe it worked; the government acted fast.
The national education plan should probably have been dropped as soon as scare stories about brainwashing children took off. It should be clear now that sensitive policies can no longer be developed without a solid buy-in from the community from the start.
Some people might think mainland and local pro-Beijing figures are overreacting when they talk about foreign interference. But to others, it is the colonial flag wavers and protesters against national education who are irrational. We have to accept that, in the near term at least, there is deep suspicion between the two sides.
The danger is that patriotic hardliners could fall into a trap. The more the allegations of foreign interference, the more the risk of provoking opposition groups into claiming that Beijing is preparing to clamp down on civil liberties here. This creates further distrust and fear in the community and is a recipe for more activities like colonial flag-waving. This mood is also reported in the overseas media, and Hong Kong's reputation as a business centre and modern, open community suffers. This is the last thing we need.
Much of what looks like "foreign interference" is almost certainly home-grown protest. The best way to break this cycle is surely for the Hong Kong government to focus hard on the livelihood and other issues - mainland-linked or not - that the public most worry about.
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council