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Hong Kong and the Anti-Democratic Rhetoric

This month, a video of Hong Kong primary school teacher Alpais Lam Wai-Sze sparked great controversy. During a demonstration on July 14 she was filmed swearing at a police officer. At first it seemed she was protesting against the police cordon and her lack of access, but it later became clear that the reason why she lost her temper was different. Other videos uploaded on YouTube clarify the context of her reaction.

According to the Epoch Times, on July 14 Falun Gong practitioners were harassed by members of the Hong Kong Youth Care Association, a group associated with a Chinese Communist Party agency. The Falun Gong is a religious organisation that is illegal in mainland China, but tolerated in Hong Kong (note).

The teacher scolded police officers in harsh terms for not protecting the Falun Gong practitioners against members of the Hong Kong Youth Care Association, which is known in Hong Kong for having staged anti-Falun Gong campaigns in the past. According to the Epoch Times, "the Youth Care Association shares an office building and staff in Shenzhen with the 610 Office, a Party agency that oversees the persecution of Falun Gong in China, according to a Next Magazine report. The association’s leader is a Communist Party official from Jiangxi Province in mainland China."

Addressing the police officers and pointing her index finger at them, Lam heavily criticised the Communist Party, which she accused of organ trafficking and other crimes, and said the police were protecting "Communist bandits." At that moment, police officers threatened and shouted at her.

The episode was depicted by pro-Beijing media as an act of verbal violence against the police. A video posted on the pro-Beijing media outlet Sunday Oriental doctored the scene so as to misrepresent Lam's behaviour and the policemen's reaction. In fact, the paper suggested that Lam was the aggressor, and it praised the police for handling the situation calmly. On the other hand, media such as the Apple Daily and NextMedia, owned by Jimmy Lai, known for his anti-Beijing and liberal views, criticised the police and defended Lam.

It is obvious from the video that Lam is biased against the CCP. And I personally don't agree with what she said about organ trafficking, nor do I like the offensive tone of her speech. However, I do understand the frustration of a city where a part of the population is crushed under the weight of the CCP central government and Hong Kong's establishment (mostly pro-Beijing).

Here is the video:

This clash between activists, pro-Communist groups and the police, as well as the subsequent media coverage, show the city's division between the so-called pro-Beijing camp (or pro-establishment camp) and the pro-democracy camp.

"There Is Only One Hong Kong"

Not surprisingly, China Daily, a PRC government newspaper, hastened to condemn the "chaos" that allegedly reigns in Hong Kong.

On August 15, a current affairs commentator described Lam's words as "verbal abuse", and he attacked the rallies in support of Lam that took place a few days after the aforementioned incident. He described the confrontations between pro-Lam and pro-Beijing groups as resembling "scenes from a movie", that "unfortunately [...] really happened in Hong Kong and are expected to happen again and again in the days to come".

All it takes is a spark to ignite any of the tinder boxes somewhere in this cosmopolitan city," says the author, "housing shortage, landfills, waste incinerators, golf park, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Legislative Council (LegCo) and even unauthorized building structures in private homes. Little wonder a recent front-page report in Oriental Daily News cried out in huge bold type: Hong Kong is ill! 

What has turned Hong Kong from the envy of Chinese communities around the world into a "city of protest"; and what has turned local residents, best known for their law-abiding common sense and hard-working enterprising spirit, into a flock of "angry birds"?

According to the commentator, Hong Kong's problem is its loss of consensus-building ability,

I believe Hong Kong people's ability to build consensus is fast draining toward empty. [Hong Kongers] should try their very best to build consensus on the greatest common denominator that is the collective interest of local society as a whole, which requires the following: First, tear down the wall between the pro-establishment and opposition camps, because there must be only a Hong Kong camp. [...] Second, we understand that all Hong Kong residents share the same democratic dream and we have no doubt about the central authorities' commitment to honoring their promise.

As I have noted in a previous post, China Daily is by far not the only newspaper that condemns the alleged disruption of social order in Hong Kong. One of the main English newspaper of Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post, also echoes the worry that too much dissent, too much instability, will harm the city. Columnist Alex Lo is one of the main advocates of the myth of the apolitical, entrepreneurial Hong Kong that automatically defines any kind of dissent as anti-Hong Kong and anti-business. This myth often becomes the starting point of the anti-democratic rhetoric.

The Anti-Democratic Rhetoric and Why It Is Dangerous

First of all, we must understand that language is a powerful instrument of power. It is a weapon that can be used to manipulate, threaten, motivate, mobilise people. We should never underestimate the ability that lobbies and governments have to take advantage of rhetorical means to propagate their message. Language as such is not an all-mighty instrument. But the combination of political power, money, and language can control entire societies and suppress opposition.

There are three rhetorical stratagems in Hong Kong's anti-democratic discourse that I would like to talk about:

1- depicting anti-government movements as a source of chaos, instability, and as a threat to society

2- depicting anti-government movements as anti-Hong Kong, because they allegedly damage the traditional Hong Kong spirit of hard work and entrepreneurial success

3- using Chinese nationalism and Hong Kong local nationalism as a tool to discredit democracy

1) The first point is obvious in the aforementioned article from China Daily. Employing a melodramatic rhetoric, the author pities Hong Kong for its loss of stability. Those who campaign for more democratic rights and those who oppose the establishment and the central Chinese government are portrayed as trouble-makers who disturb Hong Kong, who damage business, who damage the very image of the city. In fact, the author tries to appeal to Hong Kongers' sense of pride, saying that the city was once the envy of the Chinese-speaking world, and now Hong Kong is ill (we have already mentioned that the Oriental Daily is a pro-Beijing media outlet, so no wonder the author quotes this newspaper and not, for instance, international newspapers, or a paper of the Jimmy Lai group).

It doesn't occur for a moment to the author that perhaps Lam and her supporters were not the problem. No. The police is never the problem, the government is never the problem, the pro-Beijing groups are never the problem. Hong Kongers should see the interests of certain groups as their own interests, they should not protest, disagree, and, ideally, they shouldn't even think, in the first place. Everyone who doesn't bend is a threat, a destabilising factor, a social problem.  

2) a rhetorical trick employed by many commentators and politicians is to argue that Hong Kong's success is based on business and hard work, and that therefore Hong Kongers should not focus on politics, but work hard to make the city rich. This is the myth of Hong Kong's laissez-faire I've already talked about in another post

This myth reflects the simplistic assumption of neoclassical economists that the market is at the centre of economic activity and the role of government is confined "to maintaining macroeconomic stability, provision of infrastructure and public goods, improving the institutions in markets to enhance development, and redistributing generated wealth. In the neoclassical view, resource allocation is performed by the market itself. The comparative advantage of a country is determined by resource endowments of the country [...] and resources are shifted to the sectors that produce the goods for which the country holds comparative advantages" (Akkemik 2009, pp. 4-5).

A by-product of this principle, which is often at odds with the reality of economic history and ignores the complexities of economic development, is that some people embrace a social Darwinist and culturalist view: "the poor are  poor because they are lazy, the rich are rich because they are talented and hard-working; therefore the poor deserve to be outcasts, despised by society, while the rich are the heroes, the model, and they should lead society." Neoliberals completely downplay the importance of conscious economic policy in creating wealth. 

As David Harvey has argued, neoliberalism has served in recent decades as the ideology that justifies the redistribution of wealth from bottom to top, the re-emergence of distinct social classes, and a reduction of wages and standard of living for large segments of the population (see Harvey 2007). In he end, neoliberalism contradicts itself, not only because many people got rich thanks to the state (research and development, government-financed real estate projects, privatisations etc.), but also because many people who get rich try to get connections with the government to obtain benefits like tax cuts, deregulations, or to dodge anti-trust laws. It is not a secret that many business people in Hong Kong cherish their ties with the Beijing establishment. Economic power and political power become indispensable to each other and sustain each other.

3) Another trick used to discredit pro-democracy groups is to argue that they don't represent the 'true' Hong Kong, that they are traitors and don't want the good of the city. There should be only a "Hong Kong campus", they claim. But what is the "true" Hong Kong? What is "good for Hong Kong"? And how do you reach consensus? The subliminal message of the pro-establishment camp is that the interests of Hong Kong and of the establishment are the same, and people who dissent are simply bad for Hong Kong. 

Democracy supporters - it is given to understand - are selfish; they are against Hong Kong, China, stability and prosperity. In this shrewd way the pro-establishment camp can impose its own will by using nice words that will appeal to people who don't see through this rhetoric, and they will also appeal to Beijing by reinforcing the loyalty of Hong Kong to the central government. As the author put it: Hong Kong's dream is a democratic dream, and no one doubts that the government will keep its promise. So, in order to achieve a democratic dream, the people should just shut up and follow the government, which will some day perhaps define its own concept of democracy and then grant it to the people from the top, as a sort of very generous present that a father gives to his spoilt son.

Hong Kong and Italy

I want to make clear that I am not suggesting that China or Hong Kong should accept Western-style democracy. What I am saying is that there are some people in Hong Kong who have their own opinions, who want to change Hong Kong, and as citizens of this city it is legitimate that they express their view on how Hong Kong should be. I don't think that protests, dissent, or lack of consensus, are such a huge problem for Hong Kong. On the contrary, they are a proof of the vitality of Hong Kong's society, of the will of its citizens to be an active part of it. This has nothing to do with Westernisation, but with a spontaneous desire of many people in the city.

Just imagine the following situation: you live in a house with other people. You need to buy furniture and decorate it. But your flatmates let you only choose the position of a vase, or they let you buy flowers, but they want to buy all the furniture and put the decorations themselves, leaving you out. Well, if you feel that that house is your home, naturally you want to give your contribution, you want it to reflect your taste and your preferences. But if others don't allow you to do that, then you don't feel this is your home any longer. 

That is what's happening between the pro-establishment and the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong. The pro-establishment camp think that they should decorate Hong Kong themselves, and they are only willing to let their opponents do minor changes. The pro-establishment camp hopes that these changes will allow them to keep the city firmly in their hand, and at the same time co-opt as many opponents as possible through a facade of cooperation on equal terms.

I am very sensitive towards these issues because I come from a country where democracy exists only on paper. Journalist Marco Travaglio, one of the best investigative journalists in Italy, has often explained how in Italy political establishment, economic elites, and criminal organisations work together to create a sort of "common campus". The media play a key role in this. Both in the past and in the present, many journalists were and are corrupt and avoid serious criticism of the establishment. There is a high degree of freedom for the citizens, of course. After all, in theory Italy is still a democracy. But in reality, common citizens don't really know exactly what happens inside the establishment, and they don't have the power to decide upon their destiny, because most parties belong to the establishment, so they actually favour each other and are not interested in true political competition.

Therefore, I don't think that democracy is just a question between West and non-West. Italy, and many other Western countries, certainly have a very imperfect democracy which is almost no democracy at all. That's why I sympathise with Alpais Lam Wai-Sze and her simple, basic demand that everybody's voice matters in the common, shared house of society.


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