Picking a fight with the right enemy can be smart politics, even if you have to build that enemy up.
It may be dismissed as a case of much ado about nothing. But it was, in fact, something. Something big.
Build the bogeyman
When Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying blasted the University of Hong Kong student magazine Undergrad for its pro-independence views in this year’s policy address, he was setting his eyes on next round of battle with the pan-democrats over political reform and, importantly, on managing a city fraught with tensions with the mainland.
Although the 79-day civil disobedience movement was brought to an end on December 15, pan-democrats have vowed to re-launch protests to fight for genuine universal suffrage when a government bill on the 2017 Chief Executive election is scheduled to be tabled at the Legislative Council for an approval in summer. Bracing for more turbulence in mainland-Hong Kong waters, Leung highlighted the danger of pro-independence views among students, calling for vigilance against such ideas.
“That Leung’s two top aides…have clearly distanced themselves from Leung’s remarks says something about the controversial move
In his just-published 2015 Policy Address, Leung highlighted the “fallacies” made by Undergrad published by the Hong Kong University Students Union. He referred to its 2014 February issue, which featured a cover story entitled “Hong Kong people deciding their own fate. He also singled out the book “Hong Kong Nationalism“, in which it says Hong Kong should find a way to, in his words, ‘self-reliance and self-determination’. Leung said: “Undergrad and other students, including student leaders from the Occupy Movement, have misstated some facts. We must stay alert.”
To nobody’s surprise, Leung’s broadside against a student publication in his annual policy blueprint has caused a stir, drawing flak from the pan-democrats for stifling freedom of expression. Critics ridiculed him for giving free publicity to the student publications and the pro-independence views they contained, which had been largely left unnoticed hitherto. Questions were raised on whether Leung and his aides thought through the political consequences of his attack on Undergrad before putting it into the Policy Address.
Their doubts are not unfounded. That Leung’s two top aides, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, have clearly distanced themselves from Leung’s remarks says something about the controversial move. Lam said she respected Leung’s views. Tsang has described Leung’s views as his own personal opinion.
It is inconceivable that Leung and his team found the public outcry over his salvos against Undergrad unexpected. The opposite is perhaps true. Leung is eagerly keen to have what he deems as the pro-independence advocacy of the students fully and widely disseminated in the public domain to create a stir. By doing so, he is hoping to expose the alleged hidden agenda of the pan-democrats and the Umbrella Movement, namely to achieve Hong Kong independence, or version thereof.
Colour me foreign
The pro-independence political hat could fit perfectly well with the conspiracy theory broached by Communist authorities and in some quarters in the city’s pro-Beijing circles that the Umbrella Movement was indeed a so-called “colour revolution” masterminded by hostile foreign forces. The aim is to disrupt China’s rise to superpower status.
It has therefore come as no coincidence that Leung has repeated his claim, though again little concrete evidence, of the meddling of foreign forces in the protest in a post-policy address RTHK radio programme. Grilled by the programme host, he said he has evidence to that end that has not been published, in addition to the publicised exchanges of email between Next Media boss Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and a list of people that contained details of his donations to certain pan-democrats. Leung has pledged to reveal the evidence at an “appropriate time”.
Leung’s game play of foreign forces dovetails with the political strategy of the Chinese Communist Party in the making of a foreign policy that serves domestic needs. In a nutshell, it drums up nationalism and xenophobia to help rally the people together against external threat posed by foreign hostile forces led by the United States.
By persistently claiming foreign involvement in the Umbrella Movement, Leung sought to undercut the public support for the students-led campaign by blackening the purity of its purpose and raising doubts on its spontaneity. Although the campaign lost steam after the clearance of the occupied areas in Queensway and Causeway Bay, Leung shows no sign of relaxing. Instead, the attacks on Undergrad and foreign forces are part of the anti-Occupy campaign ahead of the beginning of a new wave that could emerge when a bill on universal suffrage for the chief executive is put to a vote in the Legislative Council.
Practically speaking, there may not be a big number of Hongkongers who have subscribed to the theory of foreign forces’ plot and the alleged agenda of Hong Kong independence. Still, claims about who is behind the fight for universal suffrage and its real goal could create lingering doubts about the movement. If left unaddressed by the pan-democrats, it may weaken people’s support for democratic elections.
“Leung’s call for vigilance against those deeds and words appears to be a smart play. But it is also a highly dangerous act
Leung’s bold offensive against university students and the pan-democrats as a whole in his policy address has put them on the defensive. Still suffering from a loss of direction and struggling to keep unity after the setback in Umbrella Movement, the pan-democrats and students are faced with pressure to declare their stance on Hong Kong independence. By doing so, they seem to have given credence to claims that the alleged pro-independence agenda are not groundless.
In view of the public opposition to Hong Kong independence, Leung’s call for vigilance against those deeds and words appears to be a smart play. But it is also a highly dangerous act that risks seriously misreading the feelings of youngsters and Hongkongers towards the nation. Their growing feelings of doubts and fears about Beijing’s Hong Kong policy under “one country, two systems” policy are the root cause of their weak sense of national identity and nationhood.
Events unfolded after the Umbrella Movement began on September 28 have shocked many people. With hindsight, the publication of the State Council’s White Paper on Hong Kong in June that stresses the principle of “one country” as against the notion of “two systems”, among others, has heralded a new phase of uncertainty in mainland-Hong Kong relations.
The New Army
On Sunday, the air of doubts and anxiety prevailed over the secretive inauguration of the Hong Kong Army Cadets Association at the People’s Liberation Army’s naval base in Stonecutters Islands speaks volumes to tense relations. At a time of rising political heat, any game play about Hong Kong independence and foreign power plot runs the danger of pouring oil on the fire.