Johnny Lau: Foreign phantoms, strangers in Hong Kong

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Battle in Square City.

“Beijing 2008” by Canada-based Chinese painter, Lui Liu, has been said to depict the international relations between China and other powers. The four mahjonh players and the young observer have been interpreted as Japan, China, US, Russia, and Taiwan. From their different postures to the amount of garb left, art lovers and political buffs alike have been trying to decipher the hidden messages in this painting.

Like most, Beijing’s fears tell you more about themselves than those they fear. Foreign influence in Hong Kong is the bogeyman in Beijing’s mirror.

Throughout the Occupy movement, Beijing and CY Leung have repeatedly claimed “there are foreign influences infiltrating Hong Kong”. The hard-liners from Beijing have also insisted these particular “foreign influences” have deepened their penetration and are pushing Hong Kong towards a “colour revolution”, “unrest” or even an “independence movement”. However, Hong Kong people don’t see it. Why, then, does Beijing continue to play the “foreign influence” card?

Old fear runs deep
First, we must look at the core issues. The main reason for Beijing to worry about “foreign influence” so much is its fear of history repeating itself. The rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the last century relied on the support and funding from the Comintern, a “foreign influence” (from the Soviet Union). Even some of its weapons were provided by Comintern later on. During those years, the Comintern dictated the replacement of CCP leaders, the direction of the party, and even specific tasks in the mainland. In the end, CCP defeated Kuomintang. The party does not want to let history repeat itself, leading to its demise. Naturally, they remain vigilant towards today’s “foreign influences”, vigorously taking action at any sign of it.
Old fears, new phantoms
Secondly, all indicators point to Beijing believing times have changed and today’s “foreign influences” cannot be defined the same way they used to be. They come fiercer than ever, and penetrate deeper and broader, which means they must be countered with greater forces. In Beijing’s eyes, the penetration of “foreign influence” is carried out in at least six aspects, including: (1) creating social conflict through labour disputes emphasising the disparity of wealth, adding pressure to the government; (2) the use of liberal tendencies from the middle class and intellectuals to overthrow the government with democratic aspirations; (3) offering support or guiding local media outlets, and using them as tools against the government; (4) stimulating immature young people to go against the government; (5) spreading anti-government information and operations through the Internet; (6) fostering anti-government forces through NGOs.
Say it often enough…
In fact, these six aspects neither exist in the eyes of Hong Kong people, nor do they have much effect. But why do Beijing and CY Leung still make a fuss, obsessing about “foreign influences intervening in Hong Kong affairs”? The reason is simple enough: if they exaggerate and expand on the threat of “foreign influence” long enough, painting it as the next plague, they can deceive some kind-hearted citizens and also sway some moderates, saying, in effect, “Do not let foreign influence exploit you; we should take political reform nice and slow. “
Given the long period of time in modern Chinese history where China was bullied by foreign powers, a kind of xenophobia is embedded in Chinese political blood, forming a defensive mentality against foreign influence. So long as the government is able to play off this mentality, it can stimulate nationalist sentiment, where citizens would rather accept the government’s outdated policies, rather than let other countries and their foreign influence subvert the state. In a sense, Beijing and CY Leung are good at manipulating this nationalist mindset. From this perspective, it becomes obvious who is in fact utilising “foreign influence”. Beijing and CY Leung are the ones using exaggerated “foreign influence” in order to suppress the democratic aspirations of Chinese and Hong Kong people.
However, despite Beijing’s and CY Leung’s repeated emphasis that “no foreign influence should interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong”, we need not worry they will hurt Hong Kong irrationally, or even use economics as a means to force Hong Kong people to abandon their democratic aspirations. Hong Kong still holds some value to Beijing, including its special position as a platform for the powerful mainland Chinese to launder their interests, monetary or otherwise. In order to maintain this platform, they will not allow Hong Kong to die. The irony is, part of the forces that will inadvertently protect Hong Kong will be the under-the-table activities that will not see the light of day.
I often tell my friends in mainland not to worry even if there are foreign influences or external forces. It is the norm in international politics. Once Beijing comes up with better ideas to unite its people, it need not be afraid of powers from the outside. Foreign forces are mere microorganisms in water. There is no reason to fear them once you boil the water.
Originally written by Johnny Lau in Chinese, translated by Harbour Times journalist, Cassy Chau (周嘉怡).
Johnny Lau is a well-known commentator on a range of topics, especially on the Hong Kong-China nexus. He is the worker for Wen Wei Po from 1972 to 1989, where he retired as Bureau Chief. He is now a lecturer and China relations consultant and has been a mainstay of Hong Kong media for over 40 years.