19 April 2019
The feng shui master predicts a generally good Year of the Dog for Hong Kong, but it is highly unlikely that the year will bring political harmony to the city. Photo: CNSA
The feng shui master predicts a generally good Year of the Dog for Hong Kong, but it is highly unlikely that the year will bring political harmony to the city. Photo: CNSA

Can Beijing’s mix of hard and soft power woo Hong Kong people?

Two days ago I interviewed feng shui master Michael Chiang Hong-man on TV. He predicted a generally good year for Hong Kong in the Year of the Dog, which begins tomorrow. Sadly, the Year of the Rooster ended with the tragic Tai Po bus crash. I am a half-believer in feng shui. I believe it when feng shui masters predict the new year will bring me wealth and romance. But when they predict a bad year for me I tell myself no one can foresee the future.

Is Chiang right when he predicts a generally good Year of the Dog for Hong Kong? You will have to wait until next year for me to answer that question. But even though I am not a feng shui master I will stick my neck out to predict the Year of the Dog will not bring political harmony to Hong Kong. It will bring increased polarization as Beijing uses a combination of a tightening grip on Hong Kong and soft power to win hearts and minds while the opposition fights back with warnings of eroding autonomy, rule of law, and freedoms.

When I say the opposition, I don’t mean just the so-called pan-democrats in the Legislative Council. I mean the roughly 55 percent of voters who consistently vote for pan-democrats compared to the 45 percent who vote for the so-called establishment camp. Can the pan-democrats keep their grip on the 55-percent share of votes or will it crumble to Beijing’s new-applied soft power? I will tell you after the election.

We have seen in recent weeks Beijing’s use of hard and soft power and the West’s response at the urging of Hong Kong’s opposition. The opposition got a taste of the hard power when the government – almost certainly at Beijing’s behest – disqualified self-determination activist Agnes Chow Ting as a candidate in March’s election.

Another taste came when the mainland’s security bureau paraded detained Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai, a Swedish national, in staged media interviews accusing Sweden of using him as a chess piece against China. There is little doubt Beijing’s real intention in staging the bizarre display was to warn the world against meddling in China’s affairs.

But at the same time, the central government’s liaison office used soft power in a charm offensive to woo Hong Kong people. The office’s director Wang Zhimin pledged to walk hand in hand with Hong Kong people and the government. He also announced plans to hold open days at the liaison office to make its work transparent to ordinary people.

The West responded to Beijing’s mix of hard and soft politics by accusing China of reneging on its promise of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong, persecuting democracy activists, screening Legco candidates, and violating international rules by detaining Gui.

Seen as a slap in Beijing’s face, American congressmen nominated democracy activists Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, and Alex Chow Yong-kang for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. And a US organization awarded the annual O’Connor Justice Prize – named after retired US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – to former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang for championing social justice in Hong Kong.

Whether she really did that or is a sudden democrat, as some allege, is for each of us to decide. I personally feel if Hong Kong deserves the prize, it should go to the Judiciary, which has promoted social justice by fearlessly upholding our rule of law in the face of groundless claims that it now kowtows to Beijing.

Will Hong Kong people buy into Beijing’s carrot and stick tactics or will they have a natural tendency to side with the West for defending Hong Kong’s freedoms? Again, that is a question that can only be answered in the fullness of time. A section of Hong Kong people will always feel it is their patriotic duty to side with Beijing, whatever it does. These people truly believe the West’s concerns about Hong Kong’s freedoms are just part of a ploy to curb China’s rise.

Another section of Hong Kong society will always treat with animosity China’s Communist Party. These people will never trust Beijing, whatever it does. They believe Beijing has reneged on its Basic Law promise of democratic elections and a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong. They truly feel their freedoms are being eaten away, the rule of law is eroding, and the Judiciary is under intense pressure from Beijing. These people are naturally drawn to the West’s respect for democracy and human rights.

How sizeable are these two sections? Is there a large middle section, a silent majority, whose hearts and minds have yet to be won? Does this section judge each issue based on its merits instead of always being attached to either Beijing or the West? No one knows for sure. The only guidance we have is that the voter split in elections is usually 55-45 in favor of the opposition.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean 55 percent of voters mistrust Beijing and detest the Communist Party. Loyal voters will always support one side or another but open-minded voters tend to support candidates who champion issues that affect their lives. That’s why so many US states traditionally regarded as Democrat strongholds voted for Republican Donald Trump.

I believe at least some of the 55 percent of voters who support the opposition do it not because they mistrust Beijing but because they want a counterweight in Legco as a check and balance against the government and overreach by Beijing.

These people will welcome olive branches such as open days at the liaison office but can see through and will find totally alien to their values things such as Gui Minhai’s forced media interview. They also know the nomination of three activists for the Nobel Peace Prize is just a political jab aimed at embarrassing China. As a long-time journalist I knew right away Gui’s interview was staged and the Nobel nomination was just political theater by US congressmen.

I have said many times before that mainland officials have yet to understand Hong Kong’s culture. This failure to think like Hong Kong people is the main reason why Beijing still has to woo hearts and minds 20 years after reunification. Joshua Wong does not represent mainstream Hong Kong nor does Anson Chan. But the establishment camp, which has Beijing’s backing, doesn’t represent mainstream Hong Kong either.

Our polarized society is clear proof no side has found a way to represent mainstream Hong Kong.

– Contact us at [email protected]


A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe