How Hong Kong's echo chamber works

March 23, 2018 17:34
Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong member of the NPC Standing Committee, has proffered the idea of not just banning advocacy of independence in Hong Kong but adding the requirement that there can be no criticism of one-party rule. Photo: CNSA

At last I've found a reason to agree with Carrie Lam. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Hong Kong's leader was asked which political leader she most admires. Lam prefaced her answer with the words "you may say it's shoe-shining" before proceeding to give her answer: "I have to say I find President Xi (Jinping) more and more charismatic and admirable in the things that he is doing and saying."

Well, Lam is perfectly right about the "shoe-shining" bit!

To be fair to the Chief Executive, her predecessors were equally sycophantic in their dealings with Chinese leaders but it's interesting that Lam thought it would be a good idea to insert this piece of staggering brown-nosing in an interview with a major overseas publication.

Why did she do it? In part this is because there has been an escalation of brown nosing. EJI readers will recall Rita Fan's brazen contribution with her own comment: "I don't think we can see anyone on the horizon who can pick up this leadership role other than President Xi.”

She is clearly not alone, and the reason for that is that no one seeking a position in the Chinese political sphere is secure in the current atmosphere of Xi worship.

And they are aware of the potential consequences for those suspected of harboring the smallest doubts about the great man. In these circumstances officials and other office holders feel safer not just keeping quiet but believe it would be better to go that extra mile in affirming their loyalty.

Such behavior is absolutely typical of what happens in dictatorships where mere passive support is considered to be an inadequate way of hailing the leader of the day.

Lam has chosen the path of personal flattery but others are intent on going even further by being what the old Soviet Communists described as 101 percenters; in other words people who not just support the party line but do so by trying to guess how to go beyond what is already on the table.

In this spirit Tam Yiu-chung, the only Hong Kong member of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, has proffered the idea of not just banning advocacy of independence in the SAR but adding the requirement that there can be no criticism of one-party rule. Inevitably this suggestion has been greeted with enthusiasm on the Mainland. First up to endorse it was Chan Sixi, a deputy director of Macau’s Liaison Office. Others will follow.

This is how things work, minor functionaries are encouraged to put forward ideas that strengthen the dictatorship and if they fly, it can be said that demands from the people have led to this or that tightening of the screw. If, for some reason, they have gone too far the option of retreat can be explained in terms that these proposals never came from the leadership in the first place.

The sycophants responsible for these ideas are marked down as being Grade A patriots, even if they go too far because their role is, as Lenin liked to say, that of being 'useful idiots'.

There is a particular twist to this process in Hong Kong where the elite spent decades learning the gentle art of flattery under colonial rule. They would even debase themselves by supporting the view that Chinese people could never rule themselves as well as the British.

When the colonial officials in Hong Kong had to explain their actions to their masters in London they frequently cited 'Chinese opinion' as justification. The files of the old Colonial Office are stuffed full of communiques written in these terms; indeed the post-World War II proposals for political reform in Hong Kong advanced by Governor Mark Young were quashed by other colonial officials couching their opposition with references to how badly 'the Chinese' people of the colony would react to change of this kind.

The local elite were closely attuned to knowing what colonial officials wanted to hear so that they could echo these views when called upon to do so.

Fast forward to today’s situation where the Hong Kong elite make it their business to know what Chinese officials want to hear and then parrot these views as loudly as possible.

In the dark days of British colonialism most officials could not even speak the local language and the extent of their interaction with the local community was largely confined to the English speaking elite who were experts in providing an echo chamber for their masters.

Nowadays language is less of a barrier to communication with the new masters (except that the use of Cantonese in official communications is taboo) but the ability to echo has, if anything, only deepened.

There was a time when Chinese officials made genuine efforts to listen to other views but, mirroring the growing lack of tolerance for dissent on the mainland, that time has passed and Beijing’s access to opinion outside the echo chamber has largely been removed.

In Hong Kong, China's new colony, the sycophants reign supreme and remain the main conduit for providing misleading information about what’s really happening in the SAR.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.