Everything appears to be going nicely to plan.
The installation of a much hated chairman for the University of Hong Kong’s governing council has predictably stirred protests, democrats in the Legislative Council are being blamed for stalling legislation that affects people’s livelihoods, and, as an added bonus, fear and dismay are spreading in the wake of the disappearance of the five booksellers.
Is it excessively paranoid to describe this sequence of events as a plan?
Had that question been posed a little while ago, I would have argued that it was more realistic to imagine that it was little more than a case of government cock-ups.
However the notion that mere incompetence is at work is hard to sustain.
What’s happening in Hong Kong is, unsurprisingly, very much a reflection of what’s happening in the mainland, where the Xi Jinping regime is pursuing a hardline ideological and control strategy not seen since the Cultural Revolution.
Clearly the excesses of the Cultural Revolution are not in evidence right now, but many of its characteristics are back in play.
The mass round-up of dissidents, real and imagined, is well underway.
The gruesome parade of “sinners” mouthing carefully crafted self-denunciations is back.
The even harsher treatment of minority groups within the mainland, notably Uyghurs and Tibetans, continues apace.
Overshadowing all this is a mass purge within the party itself under the guise of an anticorruption campaign.
And then there’s the personality cult being fostered around Xi himself, something no leader since Mao has dared emulate.
Little wonder, therefore, that reverberations of this upheaval on the mainland are being felt here.
The leaders in Zhongnanhai must be happy that Hong Kong did not end up under the leadership of the willing but largely hapless Henry Tang Ying-yen.
Instead, their man is the far tougher Leung Chun-ying, who can be relied upon to follow the hardline guidance from Beijing with both enthusiasm and ruthless intent.
In December, Xi publicly warned Leung to guard against “deviation and distortion” from the “one country, two systems” concept but made it clear that the “one country” part of the equation was the more important.
Leung hardly required any elaboration of this message.
If anything, it propelled him further along the hardline path he was happy to tread.
He positively relishes the prospect of confrontation as a way of fulfilling his mandate from up north.
What does this mean in practice?
Take the example of HKU. Leung could easily have found another hapless yes-man to head its council, but he insisted on installing Arthur Li Kwok-cheung despite almost universal opposition to his appointment within the university community and in the full knowledge that it would spark protests.
The Communist Party has long pursued a tactic of flushing out its opponents and, rather than argue with them, forcing them out onto the streets, where the advantage lies with the power of the state both to suppress the protests and to promote the narrative that opposition leads to disorder and chaos.
Meanwhile, back in the legislature, the growing gridlock of legislation and funding for all manner of projects could be rapidly cleared if the Leung administration did not insist that its most controversial measures had to be passed before any of the many far less controversial matters are dealt with.
Here again, we see a determination to paint opposition legislators as being no more than obstructionists who will sacrifice progress to make a political point.
In fact, the democrats have offered to process these other matters, but their offer has been turned down flat, because it does not follow the script of painting them as wreckers.
The administration actually wants this stalemate to fester.
The extent to which it is prepared to sacrifice the public’s interest to pursue its hardline political agenda was most vividly illustrated by its initial reluctance to tackle the lead-in-water scandal purely because this matter was brought to the public’s attention by a Democrat legislator.
Looming over this, and indeed a host of other issues, is the intentionally chilling saga of the five disappeared booksellers who had been engaged in the highly sensitive business of producing and selling books that are banned in the mainland.
There is little doubt that their disappearance was masterminded across the border, giving rise to the question of whether the Leung administration was a willing accomplice in an act that transgresses the Basic Law or whether the Chinese state security apparatus is so contemptuous of the Hong Kong government as to feel emboldened to simply ignore it.
Neither explanation is favorable for Leung and his colleagues.
Meanwhile, the big picture is that the Leung administration is anxious for confrontation, both to emulate the crackdown on the mainland and also because previous pathetic attempts at gaining public support have failed.
As Theodore Roosevelt vividly and crudely put, it’s a case of “if you’ve got them by their balls, their hearts and minds will follow”.
The Chinese government, which is not usually attentive to other US presidents, appears to have followed this precept with great enthusiasm.
A grab to the nether regions appears to work well in a society where concepts of liberty, freedom of expression and rule of law have never prevailed, but in Hong Kong these concepts are deeply implanted in people’s hearts.
The Chinese government is seriously misinformed if it believes that Hongkongers will relinquish these treasured cornerstones of their society without putting up a fight.
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