So, it’s come to this: protestors in Hong Kong are now being officially classified as “separatists”, the dreaded term that has provided China with leeway to crack down relentlessly on protestors in places such as Tibet and Xinjiang.
It may be argued that this would never have happened had it not been for the recklessness of those involved in the Lunar New Year clashes in Mongkok, or it may also be argued that the mainland authorities have long been looking for an excuse to apply this label not just to demonize protestors but to open the door to a raft of repressive measures that will limit freedom of expression in Hong Kong.
Whatever the reason, it is important to be under no illusion that once the use of the word “separatism” has been deployed it will definitely not be confined to the tiny minority of activists who actually think it is a good idea for Hong Kong to become an independent entity.
This desire for independence is emphatically not a view held by the overwhelming majority of the democratic movement who see themselves as Chinese patriots and have never advocated what used to be called “splitism” in the old Maoist lexicon.
However this will matter not to the Chinese Communist Party which is increasingly in struggle mode in ways that bring back gruesome memories of the Cultural Revolution where anyone could be denounced for going against the Party line regardless of facts. The price they paid was, of course, far more severe than it is today and the mayhem it caused reached levels that sane people hope will never be revisited.
Yet the mentality that gave way to this madness is re-emerging from the shadows.
Unfortunately it is all too easy to cite examples. Once officials start talking about people being separatists they are clearly signaling an intention to take the struggle to a new level, when, ahead of the initiation of any judicial process the Chief Executive feels free to accuse those arrested but not charged of being “rioters”. With the charge, you can see that the old maxim of “guilt before trial” is already in place.
And when the usual suspects clamor, as they did in the Cultural Revolution, to find new ways of denouncing those they dislike using inflammatory language, a frisson of terror must travel up the spine of anyone with even a slight historical memory.
In some ways references to the Cultural Revolution appear to be unnecessarily alarmist but, equally, often in the midst of a change in direction, it is hard to appreciate what’s happening. However in this case it should not be too difficult because the new hardline and the level of rhetoric surrounding it is building with considerable speed.
The real face of the struggle to assert a policy of “one country, one system” is no longer concealed. And it is becoming quite apparent that there was never a plan to crush the democratic movement by using the law while respecting the integrity of the legal system. Moreover the old propaganda methods are being shelved because it is deemed no longer sufficient to merely accuse the opposition of undermining economic prosperity.
This is yesterday’s language and to see how things have moved you need look no further than the current New Territories East by-election campaign being waged by the DAB which has started using the slogans of “fighting disorder” and “maintaining stability”. This, however, is the mere tip of the iceberg.
Much, much more, is to come and it will be very ugly.
However there is a fundamental difference between the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to surge into struggle mode on the mainland and in Hong Kong. On the other side of the border is a society lacking rule of law and shorn of civil liberties whereas in Hong Kong this was taken for granted.
Even the most avid anti-democrats have, at least up till now, been forced to affirm their commitment to rule of law and freedom of expression. They understand the depth of the people’s commitment to what can best be described as the Hong Kong way of life and they do not feel strong enough to challenge it.
Here lies the best hope of stopping struggle mode in its tracks because it is always the case that taking away basic civil liberties is far more difficult that preventing them being introduced in the first place.
However there are no grounds for complacency. The Communist Party is not known for giving up or for tolerating continued opposition. The masters in Beijing see what is taken for granted by Hong Kong as a manifestation of stubbornness and indulgence. Yet they have an equal fear of chaos and unpredictability and so careful thought will be given to preventing this happening.
The stakes therefore are very high right now and those who want to preserve the Lion Rock Spirit must know how much it will take just to maintain the status quo, let alone achieve improvements.
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