Beijing’s mass politics game in Hong Kong can backfire

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Robert Chow’s high-level reception in Beijing can be a dangerous move making Hong Kong’s political scene even more chaotic.

Chief Executive hopeful Carrie Lam sparked one last controversy before her resignation by announcing the plan to build a Hong Kong Palace Museum in late December last year. About a week later, the Alliance in Support of Hong Kong Palace Museum was formed by Eddy Li Sau-hung (李秀恒), Chairman of the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong.

The Communist Party has had a tradition of deploying “mass” movements to back the government in power and to take on opposition. While Beijing’s overarching strategy on Hong Kong has been to rely on a small group of local business and political elites to rule on its behalf in the past, there is a rise of “civilian” groups led by much less prominent pro-establishment figures with a more extremist stance. Caring for Hong Kong Power and Voice of Loving Hong Kong are some of the early examples which have earned their fame – or infamy – by targeting pan-democrats.

The clear shift in Beijing’s strategy towards Hong Kong amid growing opposition came in late November last year when Robert Chow Yung (周融) was first received by Zhang Dejiang (張德江), Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and then by Wang Guangya (王光亞), Director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in a trip to Beijing.

Chow is a former RTHK radio host and currently the spokesman of the pro-Beijing Alliance for Peace and Democracy and co-founder of the Silent Majority for Hong Kong movement. He was one of the most outspoken opponents of the Occupy Movement and has organised a number of extravagant pro-government events since.

The fact that Chow was able to engage in one-on-one conversations with two top-level officials and even became the ‘spokesperson’ of Beijing in announcing a plan to allow pan-democrats to apply for home return permits – hours before the Hong Kong Government confirmed the move – was extraordinary. The rare reception served as a strong political message to other non-traditional pro-establishment groups that they will be rewarded for fighting against the unorthodox radical pro-democracy and localist movements. The result is the aforementioned “civilian” groups increasingly engaged in street-level politics with ugly exchanges of blows both verbally and physically.


It can turn even uglier

The recent attacks on Demosisto lawmaker Nathan Law Kwun-chung (羅冠聰) by pro-Beijing protesters at the Hong Kong airport is a clear example of the widening of the pro-establishment spectrum. Protesters were chanting slogans such as “scum of Chinese people” and called Law a pro-independence activist as Law returned from Taiwan where he attended a forum hosted by the local pro-independence New Power Party. This came despite Law stating on a number of occasions that he and his companions did not support Hong Kong independence.

Even traditional pan-democrats have fallen prey as pro-government protesters hurled insults at the likes of Leung Yiu-chung (梁耀忠) and activists in support of people with hearing disabilities outside the LegCo on Monday.

Such distinctively natioanlist targeting of pro-democracy lawmakers, accusing them of overt or hidden separatist leanings, is likely to persist in this ‘post-truth’, or rather ‘post-Robert Chow’, era. But herein lies a risk for the old guard of Beijing supporters.

Traditional pro-establishment parties will now have to make some effort to accommodate these blossoming groups as there is a real chance for these loyalists, originally outside the power circle, to suddenly climb to the top of the ladder. However,  the pro-establishment camp may have learned a lesson about the risks of keeping too close to like-minded street fighters given their potential to repel more moderate supporters. That lesson has been hard learned by the pan-democrats as they struggle to position themselves vis-à-vis the not always friendly localists.

Neither may a close association with these confrontational activists benefit the next Chief Executive if he or she is intent on bringing together a polarised society – divine words from Beijing or God aside.