On the first day of Hong Kong’s Occupy movement, the Global Times (環球時報) said “these radicals are doomed”.
Then on Sep. 30, at the height of the mass protests, the mainland newspaper said in an editorial “military involvement to ensure the implementation of the constitution is the normal practice of all countries”.
To make its point unmistakably clear, it said “if the Hong Kong police cannot handle the protests, in addition to the People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Armed Police can also cross the border at any time to provide support”.
The PLA has a garrison in the city. The PAP is a law enforcement force on the mainland responsible mainly for civilian policing and fire rescue. It has never set foot in Hong Kong.
No longtime reader of the Global Times will be surprised by its hawkish comments. For weeks, it ran articles virtually every day denouncing the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Although it is well known to be a propaganda organ, the Global Times sells well on the mainland, probably because its aggressive nationalistic stance suits the taste of readers who think Beijing must be more self-assertive, as befitting China’s status as a superpower.
The paper’s editorials are closely watched. Since it is a sister newspaper of the People’s Daily (人民日報), the Communist Party’s chief mouthpiece, viewpoints expressed in the Global Times can be seen as representing those of the Chinese leadership, or at least a major faction within it.
But all of a sudden, the newspaper has softened its tone on Hong Kong.
Last week it carried an editorial headlined “If Hong Kong can withstand chaos, the mainland should not be too bothered (如果香港社會能容忍亂，內地何須急)”.
Although the editorial still portrayed protesters as “thugs and mobs”, it said “the mainland must not rashly think about deploying the PLA troops to quell the turmoil; since the ‘one country, two systems’ principle is still in place, that cannot be a solution”.
It said the central authorities will not meddle in Hong Kong’s decision-making and that the extent to which the police can use force is “a matter for Hongkongers to think about”.
The editorial said that given Hong Kong’s social reality, people with radical political views can still cause ripples and influence the public, but it suggested, surprisingly, that the mainland may have to adjust its attitude towards the city, as a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong is stipulated in the Basic Law.
The Global Times went so far as to say “which direction Hong Kong will go is its own choice, and it must face all the consequences itself; the mainland should not make a promise that ‘whatever you do, we will take it upon ourselves’”.
In a hint that the pro-democracy movement was expected to last for quite some time, the editorial ended by saying that it was way too early to draw any final conclusion on the impact of the protests, which had recently entered their third month.
It appears that the Global Times has veered from a strategy of denouncing pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong to adopting a vaguely conciliatory tack.
Granted, its editorial last week, although more rational and objective in tone, breaks no new ground, as some of the more liberal Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong have expressed similar opinions.
Yet the fact that the hard-line newspaper’s comments on Hong Kong affairs exhibit a drastic reversal from its previous stance makes observers wonder whether Beijing has decided to adopt a softer approach after its heavy-handed propaganda war in the past couple of months backfired.
Another editorial in the same week, headlined “Will the sum of the interwoven Hong Kong and Taiwan questions be bigger than the parts?” (港台問題會「一加一大於二」嗎？) provides a hint as to why Beijing is becoming more circumspect in its semi-official response to Hong Kong residents’ cry for democracy.
The editorial followed the ignominious defeat in local elections of the mainland-friendly ruling Kuomintang in Taiwan.
In it, the Global Times admits that the notions of patriotism and safeguarding the national interest may not touch a chord among Hongkongers and Taiwanese “because the two places have been separated from the mainland for a long time”.
It says if “Taiwanese envy Hongkongers, then it will be fundamentally conducive to China’s reunification, but if things go the opposite way, we will face more challenges”.
Upon the rollout of the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect cross-border trading scheme last month, the Global Times commented that “Hong Kong just sits there and expects policy blessings, but the central government is unable to spoon-feed Hong Kong (中央政府並無法把送上門的飯再餵到香港嘴裡)”.
It went so far as to say that some people in Hong Kong are “good-for-nothings (扶不起的阿斗)”.
That editorial declared that while the central government couldn’t be more considerate towards Hong Kong, some people were just ungrateful for Beijing’s mercy, tolerance and imperial magnanimity.
Now, within weeks, the newspaper has changed its mind.
In the editorial about the “interwoven Hong Kong and Taiwan questions”, it says the central government should offer Hong Kong more “policy blessings” and make the city a showcase in its efforts to lure Taiwan back into the fold.
It reaches the sensible conclusion that people in Hong Kong and Taiwan won’t sincerely admire China unless “we continue to make the mainland a better place”, as “people in these two places still feel that they are superior to mainlanders in many ways”.
However, one should not read too much into the apparent sea change in Beijing’s thinking.
On the mainland, the focus remains on economic development.
Truly making it “a better place” will entail improvements in aspects like human rights, democracy and freedom, but barring a revolution in the party’s philosophy, those will never be an option.
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