For Beijing, vilifying 'foreign forces' is a useful strategy in Hong Kong

Suzanne Pepper says such ideological warfare, aimed at local democrats, also energises loyalists

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 3:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 8:53am

To hear committed loyalists tell it, Hong Kong is on the verge of insurrection and pan-democrats are poised to take over. Still, it's not the fault of most Hongkongers. They want nothing more than to live their lives in peace as part of the "silent majority". But if the majority is not to blame, who is?

Pro-Beijing loyalists have a ready answer: the fault can ultimately be traced to "foreign forces", the very same who have been trying to use Hong Kong as a base for overthrowing Chinese communism since its victory in 1949. Back in the day, of course, they really were. Today it's a different kind of political contest but Beijing has found a new use for the old arguments. Foreign forces are still targeting Chinese communism and they are now using Hong Kong's "dissident" democratic minority to promote their subversive schemes.

One recent commentary in Ta Kung Pao accused Britain of stepping up undercover efforts in Hong Kong after 1997. Unlike the United States, which specialises in hi-tech surveillance, the British have mastered the art of the personnel file. They keep information on well-placed individuals for long-term use … buying, turning and embarrassing … "casting a long line to reel in big fish".

A companion piece in Wen Wei Po the next day was more sweeping. It claimed that spies and moles run out of the British consulate here are busy at work in all of Hong Kong's key establishments including government departments, the judiciary, commercial organisations and the media.

The political purpose of this commentary was clearly stated. It came in the midst of a barrage of attacks from official sources. They were protesting about statements made by British and US officials in support of the campaign for genuine universal suffrage elections. It's all part of the "plot by US and British forces to seize power in 2017", that is, via the chief executive election. In fact, the entire democracy movement is explained as the product of that British-American conspiracy.

So what's going on? If diplomats were really behaving badly, a few well-publicised expulsions could set the record straight. It was also an open secret, among local journalists covering the story, that the entire diplomatic community distinguished itself during the last political reform debate in 2010 by uniting in (off-the-record) approval of the compromise climbdown that caused the Democratic Party so much trouble afterwards. Like Beijing, the outside world values Hong Kong first and foremost for economic reasons. Compromise is safe; confrontation frightens investors.

It follows that the current accusations are not really about Britain or the US except as useful reference points. The real concern is local. Seen in this context, the accusations are part of an old-fashioned mainland-style campaign that has been building up for months. It roughly parallels pan-democrats' drive for universal suffrage, and looks set to continue at least until the current political reform debate concludes. It also dovetails with the latest initiatives from the Xi Jinping administration, which is apparently trying to revive ideological enthusiasm for one-party rule.

In the past, Hong Kong ignored these campaigns, dismissing them as holdovers from the "cultural revolutionary" past. In fact, the mass-movement campaign style long pre-dates that era and seems set to carry on for many decades more, or for as long as the Communist Party continues to govern in the ways it knows best.

Hong Kong has experienced several such episodes: in the 1990s, in early 2004, and again in 2010. The pattern is always the same. There are targets, exemplary villains, political sins, and paths to redemption, all spelled out in clear, stark terms, the better for all to understand. The idea is to energise the "masses", discredit targets, and Mao Zedong's logic dating back to the 1920s still prevails: excesses are inevitable; going to extremes is necessary to right wrongs; any mistakes committed along the way can be corrected afterwards.

The major episodes here of such mass-line criticism campaigns have always been about clashing political perceptions, meaning Hong Kong's demands for protection and autonomy versus Beijing's insistence on guarding the Communist Party's right to rule.

On the face of it, Beijing's "foreign forces" argument and campaign tactics seem like holdovers from another era. They worked then when Beijing had the power to enforce its will. Here and now, the argument and tactics may seem dated but the logic remains, and it can produce some of the same effects: defining Beijing's aims; energising loyalist partisans; and cautioning opponents.

Since the 1990s, these campaigns have served Beijing's purposes here well enough. But, so far, they have only managed to curb and contain Hong Kong's democratic impulses, not defeat them, meaning there are several more rounds yet to go.

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer. A longer version of this article is posted at: