18 November 2019
A PLA soldier stands guard inside the Hong Kong garrison. On May 8, dozens of PLA soldiers will visit CUHK (left photo) for a fellowship activity. Photos: HKEJ, AFP
A PLA soldier stands guard inside the Hong Kong garrison. On May 8, dozens of PLA soldiers will visit CUHK (left photo) for a fellowship activity. Photos: HKEJ, AFP

How Beijing is projecting soft power in our schools

Hong Kong tertiary institutions have been undergoing a massive change recently thanks to China’s relentless push to promote its political agenda on campuses.

On Monday, the Post-graduate Student Association of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) asked students to join a May 8 event described in e-mail invitations as a “People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison and CUHK students fellowship activity”.

According to the invitation, dozens of PLA soldiers will visit the CUHK campus, attend classes and have lunch with vice chancellor Joseph Sung.

Then off they go to play basketball with CUHK students.

It’s worth noting that the invitation is taking an effusive approach to the activity, even promoting the PLA as having a “firm and unyielding” character.

That might be a bit too much for many Hong Kong students who have not had enough experience with the Chinese garrison which has been keeping a low-profile since the 1997 handover.

We don’t know how much of a hand these students have had in organizing the function. The CUHK post-graduate student union committee, which is spearheading it, is dominated by students from mainland China.

The event is billed as an effort to deepen understanding of the Chinese garrison among Hong Kong students.

But in a larger sense, it’s part of Beijing’s plan to project soft power to young Hong Kong people who are not terribly fond of the Communist Party.

China has been co-opting its own young people who are studying in Hong Kong to help promote the strategy.

Hong Kong schools are ground zero for the mainland’s increased efforts to propagate a positive image, obviously based on its experience with similar initiatives on its own campuses. 

Most Hong Kong people born after 1980 learned about Beijing’s June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, which killed dozens of young students, from their elders.

But these young people have been the most involved in commemorating the event in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), a tertiary student union, is a founding member of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which organizes the annual vigil in Hong Kong.

One of its missions is the vindication of the events surrounding the June 4 tragedy from the Communist Party which continues to deny its deadly aftermath.

Beijing forbids any activities to mark its anniversary but Hong Kong’s status under “one country, two systems” has allowed the commemorations to prosper. 

However, while the Hong Kong vigil has not lost its fervor, it could be different this year.

On Monday, HKFS announced it will no longer attend June 4-related activities as a group.

It said most of its members believe Hong Kong people have no responsibility to build a democratic China, a long-running theme for the group.

The announcement sparked speculation in the wider community.

Some people blamed a weakened resolve by the students in fighting a lost cause while others said it is the result of an emerging separatist mindset that wants nothing to do with China altogether.

One is the best possible outcome for China. The other is no less significant — it gives Beijing another excuse to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.

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EJ Insight writer