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New crackdown will deepen dividing lines in Hong Kong

A protester waves a
A protester waves a "Liberate Hong Kong" flag during demonstrations in December (Willie Siau via Getty Images)
Published 21 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Whoever first said that “you should never waste a good crisis”, the Chinese government appears to be listening. At least when it comes to Hong Kong. With the city and the world’s attention on Covid-19, Hong Kong police swooped at the weekend to arrest 15 veteran activists on allegations of illegal assembly, among them 81-year-old “grandfather of democracy” Martin Lee.

The arrests earned condemnations from senior US, UK, Australian and European Union officials. But, more importantly, the raids came after a week in which the Chinese government’s revamped office in Hong Kong, given new hard-line leadership by President Xi Jinping, started to show its muscle. It called for a long-delayed national security law to be implemented urgently, and brazenly asserted its right to supervise Hong Kong affairs, unilaterally re-interpreting the city’s mini-constitution. The brief, coronavirus-assisted lull that followed the rolling mass protests and clashes with police last year is clearly over.

It was inevitable that Beijing would look to teach the city a lesson after the humiliations of 2019 – a year when democracy activists pushed back against the authorities with unprecedented unity, tenacity and violence on the streets, while also trouncing pro-Beijing parties in local council elections. Luo Huining, the disciplinarian new head of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, appears to have taken to his job with relish.

The recent arrests could foreshadow a broader crackdown on the democracy movement, to prevent it from repeating its ballot-box success in this year’s elections for the Legislative Council. But, however many democratic candidates Beijing disqualifies, the renewed crackdown is likely to deepen existing dividing lines in Hong Kong, rather than prompt any breakthroughs.

Pro-democracy activist Martin Lee talks to the media at the weekend after being arrested and accused of organising and taking part in an unlawful assembly in August (Issac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images) 

Hong Kong has been descending into a spiral of political conflict for a decade, with a rapid acceleration over the last few years. Beijing has always seen the One Country, Two Systems arrangement as a messy compromise to smooth the handover from British rule in 1997 rather than a long-term basis for political freedoms and autonomy for Hong Kong. In the last 10 years, and especially since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, it has intensified efforts to assert control over Hong Kong’s politics, economy and society.

But Beijing’s repression has prompted regular backlashes, from the 2014 Occupy movement to last year’s protests against the extradition bill. The more it squeezes, the more it forces the democratic opposition to solidify and, ultimately, push back. As the famous slogan from last year’s invasion of the Legislative Council stated: “It was you who taught us that peaceful protest doesn’t work.”

By pushing so hard, the authorities risk intensifying the very nemesis of political violence that they claim to be opposing.

The Hong Kong government, which now speaks almost as one with Beijing, has begun to accuse protesters of committing “terrorism”. Some front-liners did use violence to fight the police last year. But, while there was unease about this in the democracy camp, there was a widespread sense that the police had triggered the backlash through their own excessive use of force.

A failure to prosecute any police officers for these abuses has deepened the feeling of injustice, and the lack of trust in the authorities. Meanwhile, nearly 8,000 protesters have been arrested since last year and more than 1,000 charged, a generation of political prisoners-in-waiting for Hong Kong’s jails. By pushing so hard, the authorities risk intensifying the very nemesis of political violence that they claim to be opposing.

Ultimately, Beijing will not be deterred by criticism from foreign governments, who it has accused of “condoning evil”. But neither will it be deterred by the fact that its actions are likely to make the problem worse in the foreseeable future.

Both the Chinese Communist Party and the Hong Kong democracy movement are settling in for a long and painful struggle. Beijing seems to genuinely believe it can prevail eventually by arresting trouble-makers, closing down the space for opposition, neutralising hostile foreign forces, co-opting the business community, and indoctrinating a new generation to be loyal to the motherland.

For their part, democracy activists well understand that the current leadership in Beijing will never respect their rights, autonomy, and identity. They are, in truth, fighting a rear-guard action to disrupt the authorities while hoping to keep the flame of resistance alight until something dramatic changes in Beijing.

How China is winning the Hong Kong propaganda war

Being “faceless” plays badly for protesters as it’s harder to identify with a mask (Photo: Miguel Candela Poblacion via Getty)
Being “faceless” plays badly for protesters as it’s harder to identify with a mask (Photo: Miguel Candela Poblacion via Getty)
Published 19 Nov 2019 12:00   0 Comments

I have been in touch with “Lee” for a few months now. She is a 20-something Hongkonger heavily involved in the long-running protest movement there, and she has always sounded pretty level-headed and clear in our communications, replying to my queries with long, considered, and helpful answers. Today she seems fraught. I had asked her about whether I could speak to anyone currently involved in the battle at Polytechnic University that has been raging continually for days.

Her response was terse.

No; it’s a life-or-death (or arrest) situation in there right now. We’re not available for interviews at the moment.

Clearly protesters are rattled with the shift from fluid street phase to civil war phase. 

As a media advisor, I have been watching the events in Hong Kong from a messaging point of view very closely. I wrote recently here and elsewhere that the protesters may have lost the narrative and that they are in danger of being swamped by the unlimited propaganda resources at Beijing’s disposal.

The focus now is the violence, and the issues, such as the movement’s five demands, have been conveniently veiled by the tear gas and tyre smoke.

I write this out of concern for freedom of expression in Hong Kong. This is not about particular issues, but about the right of Hongkongers to take to the streets peacefully, as they did originally, and be heard. Given China’s influence globally, their inability to do so has major international ramifications.

As I watch how the authorities in Beijing and in Hong Kong have reacted to the crisis, it seems clear there has been a wait-it-out approach. Authorities have been aware that they have all the time in the world, whereas the protesters have jobs, families, studies, etc, and cannot be on the streets indefinitely. They are also aware that, as Christmas approaches in the Western/Christian world, news interest will shut down and the spotlight of news coverage will more or less switch off.

That phase looks to have passed. Clearly the concern now is the escalation towards violence and about how this undermines the protesters’ aims.

Hong Kong riot police battle with protesters at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the most violent confrontations seen in nearly six months of unrest (Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

My concern is in two forms.

First, Beijing has a history of violent clampdowns on civil dissent. Tiananmen is, of course, the obvious case study here, and much has been written about how Beijing would be keen to avoid this scenario again. But Tiananmen was a different context in terms of Chinese leadership culture. The state’s deadly reaction there had as much to do with shifting dynamics in Zhongnanhai as with actual political unrest (notwithstanding rare leaks of late). Today’s Beijing under Xi Jinping is more stable and set.

The better model in the current context is the Hundred Flowers movement. This campaign, in the second half of the 1950s, was originally sold as a method of “correct handling of contradictions among the people” (the title of a pamphlet Mao Zedong released for the campaign). It soon became a means of identifying critics so as to get rid of them and their ideas, to consolidate Mao’s rule.

Pushing the movement into violence has the same effect. It narrows the target and puts an emphasis on the hardcore protesters. They can then be portrayed as radicals, thus tarring the whole movement. This characterisation justifies shutting the protests down and clamping down on the protesters. In a situation where the movement has no identifiable leaders, this is the next best way of decapitating it.

This is what shaping the narrative looks like.

The second concern is about how the optics of violence play in Beijing’s favour. As the news coverage is increasingly filled with fire and smoke and with images of ninja-like protesters (being “faceless” also plays badly for protesters, as it’s harder to identify with a mask) hurling Molotov cocktails, bricks, and debris at police and smashing up property, many of those looking on are alienated from the cause.

Beijing has clearly sought to provoke violence ­– the local police started it, after all, and have used agents provocateurs – and to shape the narrative into one of terrorism and civil war. This gives them the right, at least in international terms, to use whatever means necessary to quell the “rioters” and “terrorists” (note how this language has become more prominent lately).

The focus now is the violence, and the issues, such as the movement’s five demands, have been conveniently veiled by the tear gas and tyre smoke. What started as a peaceful demonstration has become a war, in terms of China’s and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s messaging. Imagery and language are tools to cast the movement in the way the authorities want it to be seen: wait for the chance to grab the message and shape it, then use the news media’s short attention span, its disdain for context, and its need for light and movement and – voilà! – the narrative is made.

This is reactionary PR 101. I call it DAM: discredit, attack, and marginalise.

As Polytechnic U seemingly goes up in flames (importantly, in the grip of a strict media blackout, unlike Tiananmen), many are calling it the “last battleground” in this campaign. It’s also being called a “slow Tiananmen”. It is actually part of the process of marginalisation, whereby an excruciating siege, just as PLA troops are seen in Hong Kong streets, is deployed to contain the movement and panic the activists. 

Perhaps this is actually the first real battle, with real ordnance and multiple casualties, a major move on the propaganda chess board. Having manufactured a war, the authorities are now showing what it looks like to prosecute it.

Hong Kong protesters need a narrative – now

The near ubiquitous smoke-halo for images of protesters (Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
The near ubiquitous smoke-halo for images of protesters (Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 23 Oct 2019 06:00   0 Comments

As the demonstrations roll on in Hong Kong, the narrative surrounding the protests is as unclear as the tear gas clouds in Causeway Bay. While the visual drama tells a certain story, and the #fivedemandsnoless hashtag gives some clues, it’s difficult for many looking on around the world to discern the core point.

That’s not to say there isn’t one – there is likely more than one, in fact – but to argue that none have been effectively communicated. This problem plays into the hands of the same authorities the movement is seeking to confront.

Demonstrations like those in Hong Kong are aimed, to some extent, at the international community. While internal organisational capital has great value, outreach to those beyond national borders can cause a wave of pressure to flow back onto authoritarian governments. It’s true that even powerful international support doesn’t always work (the case of Juan Guaido in Venezuela is a prominent recent example), but international favour can make or break a social movement.

And so, that means context and narrative – the story of the moment, and not just the moment itself – is important. The medium, actually, is not always the message.

To understand the value of narrative in this sense, consider the role of Martin Luther King Jnr in the American civil rights movement. Often considered a leader, he was not an organiser as such. Rather, he was able to verbalise the struggle, to give it a rationale beyond the dry calls for policy change and reform. He gave the movement a voice. He gave it eyes to look out and into the eyes of those looking in. That’s what narrative does.

Arrests in the Wanchai area of Hong Kong on 1 October (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s generally no value to rely solely on news media coverage, no matter how positive, supportive, or widespread it may be.

Firstly, media is reactive. That is to say, the majority of news reporting is a response to the events unfolding in front of it. Journalists are trained to follow leads and to react to movement and events.

Thus, a standard news media frame for a protest situation is action, not explanation. Context in this landscape is often lost amid the noise and colour of a demonstration in full display, with the requisite powerful imagery and to-camera pieces by breathless, smoke-haloed presenters.

Second, news media has a short attention span. News, by definition, is immediate. A protest movement is only coverable for so long. Without easily defined shifts and developments, even the most explosive and tumultuous demonstration becomes stale and uninteresting. It’s only relevant until the next war/natural disaster/celebrity event.

Leaders in Beijing know that without messaging, without a storyline, the coverage of Hong Kong will wane, and the world will find other focal points for its daily news fix.

But, even given this, there are options. Opinion articles or short films (like the New York Times’ Op-Docs format) in traditional news media, for instance, can provide the space to humanise and “give eyes to” a given news situation. And now, podcasts or quick-turnaround docos (a day in the life of a protester, say, or a five-minute short on doctors working on victims of police violence), which can be express-produced and rolled out, providing human scale to the news and a storyline the world can relate to, have become a tool. But they are largely ignored.

The Hong Kong protests draw on the experience of the Occupy Movement and the earlier Arab Spring. Both drew in turn on the work of US political scientist Gene Sharp, whose core argument was that political power is built on the willingness of its masses to conform to central frameworks set by the power elites. Civil disobedience was therefore a vital dynamic in overturning corrupt or dysfunctional government. Obedience was the prerogative of the people, and if they chose to withdraw it, then that was an appropriate outcome in a healthy society.

But Sharp mentioned little about traditional media campaigning. Unwittingly, he set a poor model for social movements, at least in the last ten years.

While Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, or Telegram can be useful for bringing people together, these platforms struggle to provide a context and, therefore, a narrative anchor line for everyone to hang on to.

A hashtag, while a powerful tool, doesn’t explain much.

Street art in the Tsim Sha Tsui district in Hong Kong (Photo: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s interesting to note that many recent “sit-in” style protest movements such as those at Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011 against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in New York’s Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street that same year, or Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013 all set up old-fashioned book libraries in their camps. It seems those involved, despite their social media savvy, need stories to identify with. Those outside the camp do too.

For the leadership in Beijing, the Hong Kong protests are aggravating and costly. But they know that without messaging, without a storyline, the coverage will wane, and the world will find other focal points for its daily news fix. “Just sit it out” would seem to be pretty good advice, and this looks more or less like what Beijing is doing.

It’s not just Hong Kong. Take a look around the world. Street marches on various grievances, from Egypt to Haiti, from Iraq to Ecuador, from Zimbabwe to Lebanon, display similar disdain for media articulation and messaging, to their individual and collective detriment.

Being leaderless is one thing, and it can, generally, be strategically justified. Being voiceless is something else and is a little harder to carry.

Right now the Hong Kong protest movement(s) is/are losing the narrative. News coverage is beginning to fall away, because there is nothing new to report; there is no progressive arc to track, no pillars of definition to feel for, no maps to offer guidance.

If the last 20 weeks of struggle and sacrifice on the part of the thousands of Hongkongers who are reaching for change and reform are to have any lasting impact someone, somewhere had better find a narrative. Fast.

Battleground states: Twitter and Facebook ban Chinese-linked accounts

American platforms moving into China has always been fraught (Photo: Omar Marques via Getty)
American platforms moving into China has always been fraught (Photo: Omar Marques via Getty)
Published 21 Aug 2019 10:30   0 Comments

You will have seen the news, possibly on Facebook or Twitter. This week, Facebook and Twitter announced that they had addressed coordinated activity on each of their platforms which appeared to be pushing a pro-Beijing message in the face of ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Together, they removed almost 1000 accounts between them. Twitter also shut down a latent network of approximately 2000 accounts, and also banned state-owned press entities, such as Xinhua, from buying its advertising.

These are battles for battlegrounds, as actors test what is possible on unfamiliar terrain.

Removing state-facilitated accounts on either platform is not new. Earlier this year, Twitter removed 1600 accounts it said were linked to Iran. Facebook removed campaigns targeting Thai politics that it said originated in Russia, and similar campaigns targeting Ukrainian elections.

And removing coordinated activity and fake accounts on either platform is not new, either. In fact, it is in many ways business as usual, an act of digital-security theatre designed to address shortcomings in Twitter and Facebook’s responses to the 2016 US presidential election. Twitter and Facebook see coordinated activity and fake accounts as damaging to their brand in a traditional, consumer-oriented sense and ban it in their Terms of Service for that reason, not because they seek to protect audiences from foreign interference.

Just as it can refer to networks of Chinese trolls, “coordinated activities” can mean networks of bots promoting virility services, or fake accounts promoting products in Facebook groups for new mothers. This sort of activity degrades the authentic “social” experience these companies want users to have. Importantly, it is also a problem for their business model. Coordinated activity, especially, means that algorithms can be gamed, changing the ability of companies to shape the way advertisers can use these platforms.

But stepping into the Chinese information space as American companies do goes beyond simple theatre, especially when the coordinated activity looks to be targeting the Chinese-language diaspora. Twitter has sought to define what “state-owned” media looks like, inserting the company into years of debate about US-China relations and media freedom as a driver for US pro-democracy policy. And this takes place a time when the FBI and Silicon Valley are working together more closely than ever in anticipation of the 2020 election. Despite an often antagonistic relationship between big social and the American state on many issues, it may not appear so distant to outside observers in this context.

Matters are likely compounded by the fact that Chinese activity in this space appears relatively new – these are battles for battlegrounds, as actors test what is possible on unfamiliar terrain. Existing work on automated Chinese propaganda suggests very little previous evidence of such activity. But recent media buys on Twitter suggest United Front involvement, and some of the coordinated account activity can be traced, according to Twitter, to unblocked IP accounts associated with Chinese government actors. Things appear to have changed.

These are not the sophisticated deep identities created by Russian operations around the 2016 US election, but they are very clearly linked to key Chinese Communist Party priorities regarding an increasingly tense situation in Hong Kong. The complexity is compounded by the fact that American social media companies (mostly) want desperately to do business in China.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, platform actions on this topic vary in terms of what little market access there is for each. Twitter has banned state-owned advertising on the platform. It is unlikely ever to enter China in any significant way, with the market for similar products wholly dominated by domestic Chinese platforms. And its founder appears uninterested in the prospect to say the least, having recently met with the Dalai Lama.

Facebook, meanwhile, draws approximately 10% of its advertising revenue from China, despite being officially blocked, and its founder has made no secret of his desire to enter the Chinese market. Facebook has chosen not ban state-backed advertising.

There is nothing to suggest that YouTube has been the target of coordinated activity, but YouTube is a cesspit of misinformation at the best of times – it is reasonable to expect that some activity is occurring on the platform. Google, silent on recent events, has also made no bones about its desire to enter the Chinese market – and, in fact, is already there, in a number of forms.

American platforms moving into China has always been fraught, as the history of US-China relations on media freedom and broader human-rights protections have marked the information space as a battleground for both. Taking action on Chinese-government accounts, especially on an issue as central to the CCP as Hong Kong, and in the context of a technology-driven trade war, clearly marks the American platforms as international actors.

Hong Kong: popular protests, live-streamed

Protests in real-time and political commentaries on YouTube are cutting through (Photo: Philip Fong via Getty)
Protests in real-time and political commentaries on YouTube are cutting through (Photo: Philip Fong via Getty)
Published 20 Aug 2019 10:00   0 Comments

On Sunday, more than 1.7 million Hongkongers braved torrential rain for yet another massive and peaceful rally. The astonishing size of the turnout might have caught some people off-guard, especially those who believed that the movement has already lost its public support after violent clashes among protesters, alleged moles from mainland China, and the police broke out just days ago at the protest at the airport. Leaders of the Hong Kong government sitting in air-conditioned offices, and possibly even those in Beijing, might find the phenomenon mind-boggling.

The Hong Kong government led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been treating the issue as a failed publicity campaign rather than a political crisis.

Why, after nearly two-and-a-half months since the movement began, with the extradition bill that ostensibly sparked the protests abandoned, and demonstrations gone from peaceful to aggressive, is the public’s opinion in support still solid and almost unshakeable?

A recent conversation with a 60-year-old might shed some light on this. A housewife with just a primary-school education and who speaks little English, this auntie from my family fits the profile of the nationalistic, patriarchal, and pro-government “blue ribbons” who are blindly patriotic and against anything that rocks the boat of Hong Kong. But to my surprise, not only does she not watch the news on TVB, the city’s biggest broadcaster, or read newspapers, which regularly put the worst slant on the protesters and their motives, she is actually an avid follower of live-media-streaming scenes of protests in real time and political commentaries on YouTube, including channels of some of the most radical and foul-mouthed commentators whom even I find unbearable.

I asked her why she has ditched the traditional media. She simply said, “There are so many other options out there.” And what is her take on the protests?

I have never participated in any of the protests, but I feel sorry for the young people. They have to walk the extreme path because the government does not listen to them. And the police is brutal, firing tear gas in residential areas and even subway stations. And not to mention the disappearance of the police when thugs in white shirts attacked ordinary people in Yuen Long. I have seen it all.

If this is typical of a 60-year-old woman who does not go to protest, imagine what the younger population actively participating in the protests have been doing.

Recording demonstrators in Wong Tai Sin district, Hong Kong
Recording demonstrators in Wong Tai Sin district, Hong Kong (Photo: Justin Chin via Getty)

Ever since 1 million people took to the streets on 9 June to march against the bill that will allow suspects to be extradited to stand trial in mainland China, which has a legal system that many do not trust, the Hong Kong government led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been treating the issue as a failed publicity campaign rather than a political crisis. The bill was suspended because officials did a poor job in explaining the bill to the public effectively, it was claimed, not because the bill was so problematic that it could bring down the firewall that separates Hong Kong’s common law system from that of mainland China.

The government has been waiting for chances to swing public opinion. The opportunity came on 1 July, when the black-clad, masked protesters stormed the Legislative Council building. Instead of mobilising the police force to guard the building and disperse the protesters before they took action, the building was largely unguarded throughout the day, giving protesters a tremendous amount of time to break the glass doors with their primitive tools. And by the time they entered the building at night, there was no police in sight. The next day, Lam conveniently condemned the protesters, constructing a narrative of how protesters have become mobs or even violent rioters, spread chaos and disorder across the city.

It might have worked, had this happened before the age of social media, camera phones and live streaming. But the reality is that most people in Hong Kong have already witnessed the brutality of the police via live broadcasts by journalists with traditional and online-based media on 12 June, when the police cracked down on the protest to stop the second (and possibly third) reading of the bill outside of the Legislative Council and government headquarters. The images of police shooting rubber bullets and beanbag rounds at unarmed protesters and firing tear gas into the crowd were already imprinted in people’s minds. Besides the live footage by journalists, videos taken by citizens’ camera phones on the ground surfaced on social media and also went viral. Those who experienced such police brutality first-hand or simply watched this footage online were traumatised to various degrees.

Police in Mong Kok district, Hong Kong
Police in Mong Kok district, Hong Kong (Photo: Isaac Lawrence via Getty)

Trauma needs to be healed. But instead of healing this wounded society, the authorities continue to escalate the use of force to suppress the protests, with Beijing’s backing. Over the past weeks, the people of Hong Kong have witnessed through live footage and videos on social media a much greater degree of violence inflicted upon protesters. Incidents such as police letting go of thugs attacking citizens indiscriminately in Yuen Long on 21 July, a young female medic getting shot in the eye, police firing tear gas inside the subway stations and residential areas, as well as undercover police dressed as protesters making arrests in Causeway Bay on 12 August have only sowed greater distrust in the government and the police. More and more residents in these neighbourhoods are standing up to the police and fighting back.

Hence, no matter how hard the government tries to spin public opinion through the network of traditional media, the effort is futile. People are much more forgiving of aggressive tactics, as half of the protesters believe that non-violent means no longer work, according to a Chinese University survey. The public will voice their disagreement when things have gone wrong, such as the violent clashes at the airport, but they also vow not to cut themselves off from frontline protesters, because they understand the heightened emotions and hyper-sensitivity towards undercover police or personnel sent by Beijing.

In Sunday’s peaceful rally, the people of Hong Kong again demonstrated their utmost determination and willingness to fight for the freedom and rights they were promised when the city was handed over by Britain to China in 1997. The authorities should have learned by now that propaganda will not sway this faith and perseverance. Politics, not trickery or force, is the means to deal with the Hong Kong issue properly.

Hong Kong Protest City: Podcast out now

Published 13 Aug 2019 09:00   0 Comments

In the latest episode of the Lowy Institute’s new half-hour podcast, Rules Based Audio, I’m talking to Lowy Institute Research Fellow Ben Bland and Hong Kong-based Financial Times journalist Primrose Riordan about the roots of the ongoing political unrest in the city, and where it might end.

The semi-autonomous Chinese territory is being squeezed by an increasingly authoritarian Beijing and its appointed leadership in Hong Kong, putting pressure on its autonomy and rule of law. Following a furious public reaction to a proposed extradition bill which would have exposed Hong Kongers to the mainland justice system, the city has been convulsed for over two months by mass protests, including violent clashes between police and demonstrators.

Protesters are demanding charges against protesters are dropped, an investigation into police brutality, and democratic voting rights. After the peaceful Umbrella movement of 2014 ended without concession from the government, its leaders barred from political office and jailed, where does the cycle of repression and resistance end, and will Beijing step in?

Ben Bland is the Director of the Southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute, and the author of the 2017 book Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow. Before joining the Lowy Institute, Ben was an award-winning foreign correspondent for the Financial Times, with postings in Hanoi, Hong Kong and Jakarta over the previous decade.

Primrose Riordan is a Financial Times journalist based in Hong Kong where she has been covering the protests. She previously reported on foreign Affairs for The Australian and the Australian Financial Review in Canberra.

You can catch up on previous episodes of Rules Based Audio on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify or on Soundcloud

Hong Kong’s political trouble is Singapore’s gain

More than rival airlines (Photo: Artur Widak via Getty)
More than rival airlines (Photo: Artur Widak via Getty)
Published 24 Jul 2019 06:00   0 Comments

China’s promise to treat Hong Kong as “one country, two systems” has been in the spotlight ever since the controversial extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in June resulted in massive protests, not only against the bill but also over Beijing’s meddling in Hong Kong affairs. While the protests have been largely peaceful despite the huge crowds – one report suggested as many as two million protesters marched on 9 June – there have been scattered cases of violence as protestors and the riot police fought each other.

As the political chaos in Hong Kong in 1967 proved to be an unexpected gain for Singapore, so it looks to be again in 2019.

This continued political chaos in Hong Kong has only served strengthen the image of another of Asia’s island cites as a stable venue for investment – Singapore.

Singapore has benefitted from Hong Kong’s troubles before. Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew revealed in his autobiography that after seceding from Malaysia in 1965, he made frequent visits to Hong Kong to encourage their manufacturers to establish factories in Singapore.

Lee got his opportunity when riots instigated by pro-communist trade unions occurred in Hong Kong from May to December 1967, resulting in 51 deaths. Students and workers ran through the streets, shouting slogans, assaulting police officers and planting bombs. For the next few months, land values, stock market shares and bank deposits in the then British colony fell sharply. Local entrepreneurs also feared swirling rumours that China would invade Hong Kong. In May of 1967 alone, about HK$800 million was shifted out of Hong Kong by nervous investors.

Lee Kuan Yew inspecting Singapore housing projects in 1965 (Photo: Larry Burrows via Getty)

Only a few years earlier, Singapore had embarked on a rapid industrialisation program. The Economic Development Board (EDB) was formed in 1961 and subsequently worked tirelessly to look for places to build factories for investors from Hong Kong. Then finance minister Goh Keng Swee reported to parliament at the time that in addition to tax incentives and possible citizenship, Hong Kong entrepreneurs saw Singapore as a safer and more stable location in the long term.

Prospective investors from Hong Kong were also impressed with the minimum of bureaucratic red tape since they only had to work with the EDB, which wanted “pioneer industries”. Pioneer certificates were issued to industries that manufactured new products not previously made in Singapore and were exempted from paying the standard 40% tax on company profits for five years or more depending on the size and type of investments. Pioneer industries were also expected to hire at least 200 people in a bid to keep unemployment down. In November 1967, nearly one-third of 44 new companies in Singapore granted “pioneer status” involved Hong Kong capital that had moved to Singapore.

But after the Hong Kong riots ended in December 1967, the drivers for this shift dissipated. By 1970, The Straits Times reported that money flowing to Singapore from Hong Kong “now seems to have steadied down”.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam meets Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore in 2017 (Photo: K. Y. Cheng via Getty)

History appeared to be repeating in 2019. The Sun Daily in Malaysia noted the political chaos had hit Hong Kong’s reputation as a stable financial hub, and “its loss might just be Singapore’s gain”. The same paper also noted that Singapore had promoted itself as “a less crowded, more orderly alternative to Hong Kong” with a reputation for a strong rule of law, a criterion in attracting businesses. On 1 July, Channel News Asia reported that some foreign wealth managers were abandoning plans to open offices in Hong Kong in favour of Singapore, and rich Hongkongers had moved funds out of the territory out of fear that their assets might be seized by Beijing.

It wasn’t only the protests over the extradition treaty that was to blame. A survey by Asian Private Banker in 2018 found Singapore was more attractive than Hong Kong because it was “less connected to mainland China from a regulatory, political, and financial perspective”. Economic analysts had also pondered their future in Hong Kong when it was announced in November 2018 that economists in mainland China had to sign a self-discipline agreement to take into account the interests of the Chinese Communist Party when writing their reports. This was said to have had a “chilling effect” on the finance community in Hong Kong as it made analysts’ work more difficult.

As the political chaos in Hong Kong in 1967 proved to be an unexpected gain for Singapore, so it looks to be again in 2019. In 1967, it was the communists in Hong Kong who instigated the riots, leading to an outflow of capital from the colony. In 2019, it was the Chief Executive – long regarded as nothing more than a lackey of the communist government in Beijing – who introduced a bill without public consultation, resulting in mass protests, and potentially another outflow of investment and money from Hong Kong.

While the situation calmed in 1967 after the riots, Hong Kong after 2019 will not be the same again. The Special Administrative Region of China looks ahead gloomily towards the end of “one country, two systems” by 2047 and a future uncertain.

Hong Kong sets an example to push Taiwan even further from China

Standing in Taipei in solidarity with Hong Kong (Photo: Sam Yeh via Getty)
Standing in Taipei in solidarity with Hong Kong (Photo: Sam Yeh via Getty)
Published 10 Jul 2019 10:00   0 Comments

Other than the Chinese government in Beijing, the authorities in Taiwan are closely watching the latest developments in Hong Kong. After a series of protests in the Chinese special administrative region, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has since abandoned a proposed extradition bill that could have seen any national living or simply transiting in the city sent to mainland China for trial. But the regional effects of the protests will reverberate for a while yet.

After Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, the territory was given a high degree of autonomy under “one country, two systems” principle formulated by the late Chinese reformist Deng Xiaoping. This was meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s borders, independent judicial system, parliament and freedom of assembly for the next 50 years as part of the deal between Britain and China.

Demonstrators crowd the streets of Hong Kong on 16 June (Photo: Vernon Yuen via Getty)

Beijing had also offered the “one country, two systems” framework to the government in Taipei in hope of unifying Taiwan with mainland China, for what President Xi Jinping has described as “a must for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era”, long before the system was implemented in Hong Kong.

Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, is a country in all but name. It has the ability to establish diplomatic ties with other states and is in charge of its own military that guards its borders. It also has a democratically-elected government, with multiple parties represented in its parliament, and could be seen as the ideal democracy in the Chinese-speaking world.

Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, is a country in all but name.

Taiwan, however, is not a member of the United Nations. China has consistently claimed Taiwan as part of its territory and Beijing has said that it will take Taiwan by force should Taipei declare formal independence.

During Deng’s visit to the United States in 1979, he publicly said for the first time that Beijing “will respect the realities and current systems there so long as Taiwan returns to the Motherland”. Three years later, Deng proposed the idea of “solving the Taiwan question” by saying: “Two different systems are allowed to co-exist … By and large, the relevant policies may be applied not just to Taiwan, but also to Hong Kong.”

The government in Taiwan, however, has opposed the “one country, two system” initiative from Beijing. This has only be reinforced in statements following the protests in Hong Kong.

Taiwan’s current president Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party tweeted on June 9 when the first major protest broke out:



Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has also tweeted under his foreign ministry’s Twitter handle opposing the “one country, two systems” during subsequent protests on the 22nd anniversary of the Hong Kong handover:



Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, responsible for planning and handling of China matters, released a poll in March reporting 79% of the Taiwanese public disapproved China’s “one country, two systems” and 87.7% of the public believed that Taiwan’s future should be decided by the 23 million people of Taiwan. With Taiwan’s presidential election scheduled to take place in January, the Hong Kong protests could see this already strong opposition only increase.

This latest episode in Hong Kong will certainly make the government in Taipei more determined in its efforts to convince the world that Taiwan does not want to be a part of the People’s Republic of China. And most Taiwanese would prefer to maintain their hard-earned democracy rather than rule from Beijing. Taiwan might strive to keep the current status quo for as long as it can, but its position on China has always been clear.

The deeper malaise in Hong Kong’s civil service

Recent violence shows Hong Kong Police Force – once heralded as “Asia’s finest” – have become partisan political enforcers (Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty)
Recent violence shows Hong Kong Police Force – once heralded as “Asia’s finest” – have become partisan political enforcers (Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty)
Published 17 Jun 2019 13:30   0 Comments

On Saturday, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that she would suspend consideration of the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill (“the Bill”). The Bill would have, among other things, allowed mainland Chinese authorities to make extradition requests against anyone who set foot in Hong Kong, and as a result, had drawn expressions of concern from the legal profession, numerous chambers of commerce, and foreign governments. It also prompted large-scale protests within the territory (Umbrella Movement 2.0 exposes flaws in “one country, two systems”), and on 12 June police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators and engaged in violence against journalists.

Following Lam’s announcement on 15 June, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was quick to congratulate the Hong Kong government for a job “well done”.



Hunt’s congratulatory message was premature and ill-advised. The Hong Kong government’s conduct throughout the abortive legislative process shows that – even without the Bill – the widespread concern about the continued viability of Hong Kong’s business environment remain valid.

The tardiness of Lam’s announcement should already be cause for alarm. As late as Friday, it appeared that Lam would forge ahead with the Bill, despite a fusillade of objections from across the political spectrum and a million-strong protest march the preceding Sunday, 9 June. It appears that Lam’s about-face on 15 June was the result not of international or even domestic pressure, but an emergency meeting with Vice-Premier Han Zheng two days earlier. (Lam refused to confirm or deny that any such meeting took place.)

Nor should Lam’s announcement be celebrated as a complete victory for critics of the Bill. Notably, Lam declared that her government would merely suspend the Bill, rather than withdraw it entirely. It therefore remains part of the government’s legislative agenda and may be revived by giving 12 days’ notice. This stands in stark contrast to the government’s response to street protests against widely-reviled national security legislation in 2003, when it withdrew that legislation entirely.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has backed down on the proposed extradition bill, for now (Photo: Justin Chin via Getty)

It should by now be apparent that Lam’s announcement made merely tactical concessions – and only after prompted to do so by senior PRC leadership. This alone should suggest that the Hong Kong government is – at the highest levels – wholly beholden to Beijing.

What businesses or governments are more likely to ignore, however, is the creeping political capture of the historically apolitical civil service.

What businesses or governments are more likely to ignore, however, is the creeping political capture of the historically apolitical civil service. Speaking on Saturday, Lam defended the police’s decision to brand the unrest of 12 June a “riot”, and referred to allegations of excessive use of force by the police – including numerous instances where police attacked unarmed protesters and demonstrators – as defamatory. Viewed in conjunction with the outrage expressed by rank-and-file officers at convictions relating to brutality against Umbrella Movement participants, the most recent instances of police violence show the extent to which the Hong Kong Police Force – once heralded as “Asia’s finest” – have become partisan political enforcers.

This phenomenon is not confined to the police. A leaked Hospital Authority memorandum dated 12 June suggests that medical staff were asked to identify injured protesters, enabling the police to conduct arrests in hospitals. (The Hospital Authority subsequently issued a statement declaring that it upholds patient confidentiality.)

Nor did such political capture first emerge on 12 June. Since the end of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, political opponents of the government have found themselves targeted for vindictive prosecutions, disqualified from running for election, prohibited from forming companies – a necessity in the absence of any bespoke regulation for political parties – or even selling merchandise during Lunar New Year. These developments suggest that rank-and-file civil servants are now actively restricting the ability of Hong Kong’s political opposition to operate.

Foreign governments and businesses have focused on the extradition provisions of the Bill as the greatest threat to Hong Kong’s business environment. Yet the political capture of Hong Kong’s civil service may pose an even greater threat. If the day-to-day regulatory environment a company faces in Hong Kong is influenced by its political affiliations, one might reasonably conclude that there is no meaningful difference between the partisan administration of mainland law and the partisan administration of Hong Kong law. That should worry businesspeople and investors far more than the ultimate fate of the Bill.

Hong Kong climbdown eases external pressures on China

Protests continued on Sunday despite an announcement by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam the controversial extradition bill will be suspended indefinitely (Photo: Carl Court/Getty)
Protests continued on Sunday despite an announcement by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam the controversial extradition bill will be suspended indefinitely (Photo: Carl Court/Getty)
Published 17 Jun 2019 10:00   0 Comments

Claims by Chinese and Hong Kong officials that the huge protests of the last week were instigated by “foreign forces”, rather than Hong Kongers fighting for their rights, are laughable.

However, the Hong Kong government’s decision on Saturday to suspend the hated extradition bill will ease the squeeze that Beijing is facing from said “foreign forces” or international governments, as those who are not Marxist-Leninists prefer to say. 

This humiliating climbdown, which will have required sign-off at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party, also takes some international heat off Beijing when it is fighting many fires at once.

China had come under intense outside pressure over the bill, which would have allowed people in semi-autonomous Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China for the first time. It was roundly condemned by Washington and US lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called it “horrific”, and criticised by other Western governments including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Senior US lawmakers even introduced a bill that threatened to revoke some of Hong Kong’s special trade privileges if the extradition proposal came into effect.

Most initial assessments have argued that Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong leader who is appointed by Beijing, dropped the bill because of pressure from the streets and the fear of more violent clashes between police and (mostly young) protesters. That was certainly a factor.

But this humiliating climbdown, which will have required sign-off at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party, also takes some international heat off Beijing when it is fighting many fires at once. Foreign ministers from Australia and the UK, who are looking to cool tensions with China rather than inflame them, have already welcomed the decision to drop the bill.

China’s President Xi Jinping is in the midst of a trade and technology war with the US and pondering whether or not to meet Donald Trump at the G20 in Osaka later this month in a last-ditch effort to come to a negotiated settlement. The last thing he needed was to give the US, and other Western countries, another stick to beat China.

Another external issue was Taiwan, where presidential and legislative elections are due in January. Beijing holds out Hong Kong’s One Country, Two Systems arrangement as the model for eventual unification with Taiwan, which it claims as its own. But President Tsai Ing-wen was using the extradition bill, and the massive protests in Hong Kong, to highlight once again why her country must keep its distance from China if it is to remain a vibrant democracy. Even presidential candidates from the more China-friendly opposition party, the Kuomintang, felt compelled to speak out against the Chinese government because of the events in Hong Kong.

It helped, of course, that the extradition bill was not a core issue for the Chinese Communist Party. While it supported the bill, which would have allowed it to detain corrupt businessmen and political enemies in Hong Kong without the need for messy kidnappings, it does not seem to have been instigated it. And Beijing can use Lam as a shield to absorb criticism over the climbdown.

Still, the dropping of the bill shows that, contrary to what many analysts say, China is not impervious to external pressure.

Umbrella Movement 2.0 exposes flaws in “one country, two systems”

Amid the erosion of freedoms and increasing self-censorship, the rule of law is what is left that sets Hong Kong apart from the rest of China (Photo: Wang Qin via Getty)
Amid the erosion of freedoms and increasing self-censorship, the rule of law is what is left that sets Hong Kong apart from the rest of China (Photo: Wang Qin via Getty)
Published 14 Jun 2019 15:30   0 Comments

On Wednesday, the Hong Kong police opened fire at tens of thousands of young protesters who had gathered outside the Legislative Council in the city centre of Admiralty hoping to stop the second reading of the controversial extradition bill with China from taking place. Young people equipped themselves with face masks, goggles, helmets and umbrellas stood in a line of defiance against the authorities.

At first glance, the scene felt like déjà vu, a scene from the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. But in reality, this is Umbrella Movement 2.0. It is not only opposition against the Carrie Lam-led Hong Kong government and the extradition bill. It exposes the fundamental flaws of the ideals of “one country, two systems” as China grew stronger as an economic power that attempts to challenge the dominance of the West, while Hong Kong’s attempts to hold onto its identity and accidentally embroils itself in these global conflicts. The latest protest has also united more people and public opinion than four-and-a-half years ago.

The “612” (named for the date, 12 June) violent clashes, which involved the firing of 150 rounds of tear gas and 20 bean bag shots at not only protesters but also the press, were a direct result of the Hong Kong government’s blatant rejection of the voices of more than one million people who took to the streets just days before (Sunday, 9 June). The government proposed amending the existing laws so that it will allow Hong Kong to send suspects to stand trial in mainland China. The Progressive Lawyers Group explains the current law does not allow mainland China to extradite suspects from Hong Kong, but once the amendments are made, anyone who is considered a suspect by mainland China can be sent to the Chinese court, regardless of nationality, as soon as they set foot in Hong Kong.

Protesters try to retreat through tear gas smoke canisters on 12 June near the Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong (Photo: Miguel Candela via Getty)

Unlike the 2014 protests, there is too much at stake with the passing of this bill. In 2014 protesters demanded for universal suffrage to choose the city’s leader without Beijing’s screening, but some people were “OK” with Beijing picking the candidates as long as Hongkongers were allowed to pick the chief executive afterwards.

But this time, the urgency to stop the bill is imminent, as it will take down the most pivotal wall that separates mainland China and Hong Kong. Unlike China, which is governed by criminal law and fair trial remains questionable, Hong Kong continues to adopt the common law system after it was handed over by Britain to China in 1997. Amid the erosion of freedoms and increasing self-censorship, the rule of law is what is left that sets Hong Kong apart from the rest of China.

This is not just about freedom and democracy – the intangible ideals that many pragmatic Hongkongers would find difficult to grasp. This is about the special status the city relies on for economic prosperity. Many Hong Kong people realise the importance of this. And the massive protests have already garnered attention from the West, with the European Union expressing concerns over foreign citizens and business confidence in Hong Kong. Britain has warned how this development could undermine the city’s freedom that was promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984, which sealed the fate of Hong Kong by transferring the sovereignty of the city from Britain to China.

Thousands of protesters occupied roads near the Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong (Photo: Miguel Candela via Getty)

This is further complicated by the tension between China and the US, over an ongoing trade war and political conflicts. For over a century, Hong Kong has acted as a bridge between China and the rest of the world, and this status remains after the handover because of “two systems”. This puts Hong Kong in an advantageous but also an awkward position. When “one country” is above all, it is fundamentally in conflict with the city’s Westernised system that respects freedoms and the rule of law inherited from its British days. Hong Kong can be collateral damage when China is in conflict with others.

Hong Kong can be collateral damage when China is in conflict with others.

Things are already set in motion. The US has already weighed in on the matter. House Democrat Nancy Pelosi warned that the Congress might review the city’s special status. Almost immediately following the 612 violent clashes, Ten congressmen led by Senator Marco Rubio introduced a bill to amend the US-Hong Kong Policy Act. Signed in 1992, the act recognises Hong Kong special status under “one country, two systems”, and allows the US to continue the bilateral relations between the US and Hong Kong as an autonomous region after the handover. The act also protects the non-discriminatory trade treatments for Hong Kong. The amendments, if approved, could remove the special status of Hong Kong and tariffs applied to Hong Kong exports will be the same as that to China.

In the face of strong oppositions from locally and abroad, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, however, still refuses to back down and drop the extradition bill. A lot of people have questioned why she is willing to sacrifice the future of Hong Kong just to get the bill passed. Is she merely executing Beijing’s order? China’s ambassador to London Liu Xiaoming told BBC that the extradition bill was the Hong Kong government’s own idea. If Liu was telling the truth, then the responsibility of causing more than a million people to take to the streets – the largest protest Hong Kong has seen since the 1989 protest against the Tiananmen Square crackdown – and the subsequent protests and chaos rests on the shoulders of Lam.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, insists she will press ahead with Beijing-backed legislation easing extraditions to China (Photo: Justin Chin via Getty)

During the chief executive election in 2017, Lam was called “C.Y. 2.0” by her opponent to mock her even greater ability to divide the society than that of her predecessor Leung Chun-ying, who provoked the crowd to take to the streets in 2014, leading to the three-month Umbrella Movement. And Lam has “successfully” lived up to her reputation with the controversial extradition bill.

Hong Kong’s chief executive is a politically sensitive and delicate position as while it requires the person in the job to walk the fine line between pledging loyalty to Beijing and serving the best interests of Hongkongers. It requires someone who is good at politics and has a great deal of street smart to do the job. But the former straight-A student and long-time civil servant who has been good at executing orders since the colonial days does not seem to have what it takes to run the city. Lam has failed her job spectacularly. And how things pan out in the coming weeks will depend on whether Lam can rectify her mistakes before it is too late. A Tiananmen 2.0 in the heart of Hong Kong is the last thing the world wants.

Why China’s rulers won’t admit they could be wrong

China’s economic miracle has inspired awe but honesty and accountability should be at the fore (Photo: Artur Widak via Getty)
China’s economic miracle has inspired awe but honesty and accountability should be at the fore (Photo: Artur Widak via Getty)
Published 13 Jun 2019 12:30   0 Comments

On 2 June, two days before the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, I was in Singapore covering the Shangri-La dialogue, the Asia Pacific region’s biggest security forum, at which Beijing upgraded its representation this year with a delegation led by Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe.

“That incident was political turbulence,” Wei stated when asked during a Q&A session about the student-led movement in 1989. “The central government’s measures to stop that turbulence were correct. China has since enjoyed stable development.” He added:

If you visit China you will better understand that part of history.

The fact Wei even responded was beyond my expectation. The General’s Q&A session was tightly controlled – 20 questions were collectively raised, and none represented American institutions. Tiananmen, being one of the top sensitive topics, if not the top, I thought would have been intentionally ignored by Wei. After all, prior to this occasion, for years, if not decades, Chinese officials had mostly remained silent on the issue.

This time Wei didn’t shy away. Instead, he gave the counter-narrative – calling the protests political turbulence and insisting the government actions were justified.

For decades, many have hoped that the silence would one day be broken, in a different way though. As the South China Morning Post columnist Cary Huang put it, “the best way for the party to boost recognition of its leadership and governance today would be to revisit the horrors of June 4, 1989.” The general obviously didn’t offer what people had hoped to hear.

Inside China, the event that took place 30 years ago is now all but erased from the collective memory, thanks to the tight censorship powered by the increasingly sophisticated technologies.

Inside China, the event that took place 30 years ago is now all but erased from the collective memory, thanks to the tight censorship powered by the increasingly sophisticated technologies. And judging from the comments on sites outside the Great Firewall, such as Facebook and YouTube, a sizable number of people, seemingly overseas Chinese, have bought into the notion that China’s economic success since justifies what the government did back then.

Indeed, China’s economic miracle has inspired awe around the world over the last three decades. It can be argued however, that the country achieved such success in spite of, not because of, what happened 30 years ago, and that the boom has everything to do with China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, encouraged by the policies of engagement of the industrialised world. In other words, it’s the relatively liberalised economic system, globalisation, as well as the rules-based international order, that helped make the miracle happen.

That debate aside, just for the tragic loss of lives alone, there is still no admission of any wrongdoing.

Likewise, when it comes to the escalating trade tensions with the US, especially the once-almost–reached-then-suddenly-collapsed trade negotiations, what has been presented to the Chinese public is that the government did 100% right and had no share of the blame. A similar tendency is also on display in Hong Kong in reaction to recent protests. More than one million demonstrators have taken to the streets in recent days against the government’s controversial extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China, because the mainland’s human rights conditions have made people in Hong Kong suspicious and distrustful of its authorities. Despite everything, the Hong Kong government still vows to push ahead with the bill and Beijing strongly backs it, voicing opposition to “outside interference”.

Thousands of protesters occupied roads near the Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong (Photo: Miguel Candela via Getty)

For those who wonder why China’s officials never admit that they could be possibly wrong on anything, at first glance, the answer may be, it’s all about face. When you are in charge of everything, you are also responsible for everything. The omnipotent authorities can’t afford to lose face – as the always great, glorious, and righteous leaders – admitting to mistakes would undermine their image in the eyes of the public, which is especially the case when facing pressures from the international community.  

As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his opening speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, “Because of China’s long history with the West, its leaders cannot afford to appear to succumb to Western pressure to accept an ‘unequal’ treaty’.” As Lee went on to explain, besides the 30th anniversary of 4 June 1989, this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the 4 May movement in 1919, when a weak China was forced to make concessions to the big powers at the Versailles Peace conference. This led to students in Peking to take to the streets, launching a nationalist movement against colonialism and advocating democracy and science.

Interestingly but unsurprisingly, on the eve of 4 May this year, commemoration of the event centred on praising patriotism and urging youngsters to “obey the party and follow the party”, whereas the 4 May movement has long been associated with the spirit of challenging the existing orders.  

Like the 4 May movement, the 4 June movement 70 years later was also a patriotic student-led protest advocating political modernisation, but this one is viewed as “political turbulence” that had to be suppressed for the sake of stability and prosperity.

Admitting mistakes is considered to be a show of weakness, as a threat to legitimacy and its ruling. Yet on the contrary, as Cary Huang put it, “No event in history has tarnished the image of the Chinese Communist Party and undermined the legitimacy of its rule as severely as the Tiananmen Square crackdown three decades ago”.

Following the Shangri-La dialogue, I went to Vancouver to cover the Women Deliver 2019 Conference. While in Canada, I watched as Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accepted the use of the word “genocide” during a press conference to describe the tragedy that happened to Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women.

This was a controversial move, as some argue that “genocide” implies actions that are “deliberate” and “systematic”, while “negligence” and “indifference” might better describe Canadian people’s collective culpability. Nevertheless, the candour to admit something inglorious, to open debate around the atrocity and the responsibilities that politicians are willing to take, is impressive. It stands in stark contrast to burying and erasing people’s collective consciousness, creating a climate of fear and establishing a counter-narrative to justify what happened.

In many aspects, today’s China is no longer the one 30 or 40 years ago: it is the world’s second largest economy and its per capita GDP has grown over 20-fold. It has already become a geopolitical, economic and military superpower. When it comes to government accountability, I won’t naively expect my country to change overnight, however, as Lee Hsien Loong put it, “China may still be decades away from becoming a fully developed advanced country, but it cannot wait decades before taking on larger responsibilities”.

Of those responsibilities, honesty, accountability and moral stature should be the first and foremost part.