We all know the government does not look forward to the annual July 1 march as one of its happy days. The march is generally summarised as “for democracy,” though it often attracts a wide variety of interests and causes.

Most famously, many years ago, the march swelled to a monstrous size and concentrated on opposition to proposed national security legislation, which was dropped soon after. This was a rare success. Calls for democracy remain unanswered.

july 1 democracy rally protest march
July 1 annual democracy march, 2018. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Recently, the government has taken to putting obstacles in the way of the march, with quibbles over routes and fundraising stalls, not to mention the Victoria Park football pitch problem.

The pitches in the park (which are tarmac, not grass) were the traditional assembly point of the march. For the last two years, they have been occupied on the relevant day by a “charity” which is clearly one of those sprouts which the Liaison Office produces in local flower beds when it reproduces vegetatively, underground, like a potato plant.

But this year, there was a first. After the march, we were told that the government had put out an official statement complaining about the slogans people were shouting on it. The relevant paragraph went like this:

“The spokesman reiterated that chanting slogans which disrespect ‘one country’ and disregard the constitutional order or which are sensational and misleading was not in line with Hong Kong’s overall interests and would undermine its development.”

This was widely reported as a comment on slogans which had been shouted, and which the government disagreed with. This interpretation was encouraged by the headline supplied, which went: “Government responds to July 1 procession”.

july 1 procession

The thing that puzzled me was how the government, or “a spokesperson,” heard the slogans, interpreted them, and then evaluated their importance. I presume that one maverick protester shouting “Xi out” would not produce the predicted effect on Hong Kong’s interests.

On the other hand, a constitution which can be changed – and frequently is – must surely imply a right for the common citizen to have and express an opinion on what further changes would be desirable. This is not in itself disrespectful. As Michael Kinsey put it in a rather different context: “We honour our friends by challenging them when we think they are wrong. It shows that we take them seriously.”

What would the government consider a sensational shout? What would it consider a misleading one? And how does the harm to Hong Kong’s interests ensue? I suppose that 364 days of the year, nothing people shout in Victoria Park affects Hong Kong’s interests one way or the other. Why should July 1 be different? How many people does it take to reach the “harm” threshold, and who counts them?

racism ethnic minority minorities july 1 diversity
Minority rights group marches in the 2018 democracy march. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

It is, of course, possible that in the hearing of the government spokesman, but outside that of the numerous reporters covering the event, someone committed some terrible verbal offence by referring to the Chief Executive as a “feckless c***,” or President Xi as Winnie the Pooh, which he apparently violently dislikes.

But the only shouts I could find reported were “end one-party dictatorship,” “Hong Kong people, keep going,” and “reject the deterioration of Hong Kong.” Clearly the first and last of these were not expressions with which the government would agree. But they hardly seem worthy of a whole press release.

And at this point I looked at the press release concerned. This can be found here, and is mostly concerned with providing a barrage of good news, incorporating all the current Liaison office hot items: Belt and Road, Pearl Delta, etc., and all the official feel-good titbits.

The paragraph about slogans comes right at the end of a release that runs to something over 400 words and could easily be mistaken for an extended grovel to our new colonial masters. The early part is not new, though the government’s own news website, which knows a political minefield when it sees one, prudently chose the headline “Gov’t says Hong Kong is stable, prosperous.” This accurately reflects the overall content of the release, though perhaps lacking what sub-editors used to call the “read me” ingredient.

The thing which struck me as suspicious about the whole enterprise came right at the end. It said “Ends/Sunday, July 1, 2018. Issued at HKT 17:33.”

Wait a minute. This is a government which to put a lift on a pedestrian footbridge takes the sort of time in which any self-respecting pharaoh could erect a small pyramid. It takes six months to hold a by-election, two years to decide whether to raise a tunnel toll.

The march started at 3.00. Are we to believe that the spokesman was in attendance then, heard horrifying slogans, sped to government HQ (Central) or the Information Services Department (Sheung Wan), spoke, someone else then wrote the release, submitted it to the usual seniors whose approval is required, some of whom are not the sort of people you can find in their offices on Sunday, and whacked it on the wires, all in two and a half hours?

july 1 handover bauhinia square flags
The government marks 21 years since the handover of Hong Kong to China by raising the flag at the Golden Bauhinia Square. Photo: GovHK.

I realise that “respond” is an ambiguous word. If you are lucky enough to attend a church which still uses the old Book of Common Prayer you will come to parts of the service which go like this:

Priest: O God, make speed to save us.
Answer: O Lord, make haste to help us.

The answer is given by the congregation and this is technically known as a “response”. Of course, it is not a response to what the priest has just said. It is planned in advance and was in fact written in 1552.

It seems to me that the government press release was also planned in advance and written, at the latest, the previous day. We must not be distracted by the “spokesman”. This is just a literary device that sounds more approachable than saying “the government said in a statement” or some such verbiage.

In practice, the media treat it as much the same thing. RTHK’s story from the same press release was headlined “Govt criticises calls for end of one party rule”.

The interesting thing about the spokesman is that he is said to have “reiterated” that he did not approve of chanting slogans. When was this, one wonders, and what does it do for the message to claim that the nameless and quite possibly fictitious orator was repeating it?

Whatever the answers to these questions the description of the whole affair as “responds to July 1 procession” was clearly misleading. It was taken to mean, as its authors should have expected and I fear must have intended, that the government had written the press release after hearing the slogans. Which was not true. That’s not PR, or spin, or propaganda – it’s deception.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.