The grim shadow of the Cultural Revolution now looms over HK

August 23, 2019 13:33
A demonstrator holds a poster of Simon Cheng, a British Consulate staffer who has been detained in Shenzhen. There are doubts as to where exactly Cheng was arrested – at a border crossing or at the China-controlled area of a HK rail station. Pic: Reuters

In case anyone has forgotten why the current protests in Hong Kong were ignited by the proposed extradition legislation, Beijing has provided a timely reminder.

The arrest and detention of British Consulate employee Simon Cheng, which most likely occurred in the Mainland controlled customs area of the West Kowloon hi-speed train station, follows a grimily familiar pattern.

Cheng's family have no idea where he is, legal representation has been denied, details of his alleged offense have not been specified but the rabid state-controlled Global Times, which previously criticized Cheng for posting pro-protest messages on social media, has now accused him of soliciting prostitutes, an allegation firmly dismissed by his family but in the black box which is the Chinese legal system, it is impossible to prove or disprove allegations of this kind.

Also, as has become routine in the wake of arrests on the Mainland with wider political and human rights implications, China’s foreign ministry has issued a firm warning about foreign meddling, specifically instructing Cheng’s employers, the British government, to desist from having any involvement.

Here, in flashing lights, is another demonstration of the workings of the allegedly reformed and more open Chinese judicial system. The extent to which Beijing shows no regard to basic legal rights is underlined by the fact that Cheng, who is not a diplomat, but nevertheless employed at the British Consulate in Hong Kong, was bound to attract international attention.

The additional distinct possibility that Cheng was arrested at the West Kowloon station, has confirmed the worst fears over the co-location arrangement at the hi-speed railway station. It provides validation for the many people who warned that this kind of arrangement was fraught with dangerous possibilities.

That all this is happening right in the middle of the biggest protests ever seen in Hong Kong also demonstrates that the Chinese authorities have not the slightest intention of defusing the situation. 

And, of course, there is more because Beijing has now moved its attention to what many people regard as being the core of the relationship between Hong Kong and the rest of the country, notably the SAR’s supposed role in facilitating international business.

The notion of party before profit which was supposed to only apply to PRC companies but is now being enforced in Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, heavily dependent on Chinese regulation and business, being forced to sack its most senior officials, with other political dismissals underway, a clamp down on staff freedom of speech and groveling apologies being the order of the day.

What is being called the white terror is rapidly spreading as Beijing’s untamed mouthpieces start lining up other targets for punishment over their failure to have played a satisfactory role in criticizing the protest movement.

HSBC and Standard Chartered have been coerced into issuing fulsome condemnations of the protests, following criticism in the Communist media, the MTR has gone so far as to announce it will no longer provide train services to transport the massive numbers of people taking part in protests and now the Big Four accountancy firms are being lined up for Cultural Revolution-style denunciation.

David Webb, Hong Kong’s leading corporate watchdog, says it is "perhaps only a matter of time before China expects Hong Kong-based conglomerates to have to consult Communist Party committees before making decisions."

This may have sounded like wild talk some years ago but as Melvin Swire, the boss of Cathay’s main shareholder Swire Pacific, found when he scuttled up to Beijing in a bid to relieve the pressure on his company, apologizing was not enough, culling the management team was not enough, a more thorough purge was required and promises of better behavior would be carefully monitored.

Swire, Standard Chartered and HSBC are British controlled, so it feeds further into the paranoia of a one party state which was once believed to have been prepared to allow business to operate freely.

That assumption can no longer be made as businesses are not just expected to keep out of any kind of politics disliked in Beijing but are now required to get involved in the Communist Party’s politics.

Hong Kong tycoons have therefore been lining up to denounce the protests. Some of them, looking distinctly uncomfortable, were even required to participate in a rally organized on China’s instigation last Saturday.

It is hence safe to say that any fond notion of business being able to be politically neutral is dead and buried.

None of this comes as a surprise to those who argued that the only way of ensuring the success of the One Country, Two Systems concept was to bolster the distinctiveness of the two systems and allow the development of political and social progress to make Hong Kong's promised autonomy a reality.

Li Ka-shing and other members of the 'wise' tycoon class have consistently advised Hong Kong people to keep their heads to demand as little as possible and then they would be left alone. How’s that sage advice looking now?

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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.