A page-one commentary in last Monday’s edition of the official People’s Daily newspaper, the flagship publication of the Chinese Communist Party, offered the closest we have yet had to an authoritative response from China’s top leadership on the protests in Hong Kong and related acts of violence that have unfolded in recent week.
The piece is attributed to “a commentator from this paper,” or benbao pinglunyuan (本报评论员), which marks it as executed by top staff at the paper but representing views at the most senior levels of the Party.
It essentially takes a strong line on the July 21 incident in which protestors — referred to in the commentary as “radical demonstrators” (激进示威者) and “extremists” (激进分子) — massed at the entrance of the Liaison Office of the Central Government in Hong Kong and pelted the building, including the national emblem of the People’s Republic of China, with black paint, eggs and other projectiles.
The commentary is absolutely firm in its stance that, as the headline itself reads, “The Authority of the Central Government Cannot Be Challenged.” It does affirm the “one country, two systems” formula, but it makes clear that protesters have, in the leadership’s view,“impinged on the bottom-line” by directly attacking the authority of the central government.
“We firmly support the Hong Kong SAR Government,” the commentary says, “in employing every legal means to ensure the security of offices of the Central Government in Hong Kong, to preserve rule of law in Hong Kong, and to punish these criminals.”
Firm as the tone of the commentary may seem, it offers few surprises in fact. It recapitulates the logic that stability equals prosperity, and that chaos is the enemy of the people and their true interests.
More specific to Hong Kong, the notion of “chaos” is applied as a threat to the rule of law, which the commentary tacitly characterises as the territory’s core advantage. “If they are allowed to trample on the rule of law in Hong Kong,” the commentary says of the demonstrators, “Hong Kong’s advantages and Hong Kong’s competitiveness will be eroded.”
The People’s Daily commentary avoids outright venom. It does not suggest, for example, that “foreign hostile forces,” or Western governments, are behind the protests in Hong Kong. But the piece presents a rather keen contrast with much of the discourse about Hong Kong appearing this past fortnight in more peripheral sources, and particularly on WeChat.
In a moment we’ll offer our full translation of the People’s Daily commentary. First, though, we’d like to run through some of the other sentiments about Hong Kong being expressed inside China, which mark in many instances a worrying escalation of extreme views about the territory and its future.
Among the themes that have been quite dominant in posts about Hong Kong appearing in WeChat public accounts since July 1 are the following:
- The protests have been infiltrated and to a large extent orchestrated by “Western countries,” and in particular by the United States
- Hong Kong’s political and social system is powerless to achieve order (implying the need for intervention from Beijing)
- The failure of Hong Kong police to establish order owes in large part to insufficient powers and excessive court intervention
- Protesters in Hong Kong are violent and irrational, and
- The fundamental failure of Hong Kong to recognise and accept its identity as a Chinese territory is an urgent threat to sovereignty, and a lingering legacy of colonialism and foreign contagion.
In order to conduct a brief survey of Hong Kong-related discourse on WeChat, we compiled a list of 200 WeChat articles appearing since July. Much of this content was what we might characterise as “junk news,” sensational viral content that resembles the sort of content we have come to expect from right-wing sources of in the West — content that actually proliferates in the Chinese social media space, suggesting, for example, that migrants are sowing chaos in Europe.
Given its context in a highly controlled information environment in which the Party line is supreme, we might also consider a neologism like “junk propaganda” to refer to content that is thinly and selectively sourced in order to emphasise the sensational and appeal to emotions, but which at the same time serves to consolidate “mainstream” Party messaging.
We can note that while few mainstream official sources last month employed the phrase “hostile forces,” a substantial number of posts in our WeChat set do, including headlines like:
Identities of Foreigners Who Directed Attacks on Hong Kong Police Are Revealed!
Identities of Americans Who Directed Attacks on Hong Kong Police Are Revealed!
Identities of Foreigners Who Directed Attacks on Hong Kong Police in Hong Kong Amendment Riots Are Revealed; Their Deeds Make Ones Hairs Stand on End!
Hong Kong Independence Thug Bites Off Finger of Hong Kong Police, This is a Tactic Used by the CIA
The last of these posts, attributed to the online site Global Horizon (环球视野), deals with a July 15 incident in which a protester in Sha Tin allegedly bit off the finger of a police officer. The post argues on the authority of “famous blogger Cui Zijian” that the cutting off of fingers is a commonly used CIA tactic to sow conflict and colour revolution. The Cui Zijian (崔紫剑) referred to here is a frequent contributor to Chawang (察网), a site founded in March 2014 that dubs itself a “well-known domestic patriotism portal” (国内知名的爱国门户).
Here is a taste of the WeChat post as it shares the bizarre analysis it attributes to the authority of Cui Zijian:
In Ukraine and other places, the tactic generally involves shooting. Generally, they mix in with the crowds and fire bullets into both sides, or directly beat participants to death. Then they use powerful public opinion attacks to stir up public anger.
Showing restraint, Hong Kong police have not offered such an opportunity. Add to this the fact that guns are prohibited in Hong Kong, and carrying guns in is difficult. Therefore, shooting is substituted [as a tactic] with cutting off fingers.
This is psychological warfare, and their goal in attacking the police is to cloud the officers mentally, filling the police with terror, undermining their courage and their ability to function.
If the police lose control, or lose their spirit — what follows is the next Ukraine.
Right beside this post at Global Horizon is a purported expose about how non-governmental organizations are used by Western governments to infiltrate and destabilize other countries. The piece even cites the remarks and policies of Viktor Orbán, the right-wing prime minister of Hungary, who has celebrated his own notion of “illiberal democracy,” to support its case.
Another post by the WeChat public account Liangjian Fasheng (亮剑发声) deals with the recent incident in the Hong Kong border town of Yuen Long, in which a mob of men in white t-shirts viciously attacked protesters wearing black just hours after the vandalising of the liaison office.
There are serious questions about whether these white-clad thugs, which Hong Kong media are reporting have links with criminal gangs, were actually mobilized by the authorities to intimidate protesters. But in the post from Liangjian Fasheng, the attackers in white are portrayed as local villagers defending their beloved homeland from invasion by “toxic extremists” (毒顽固分子). “Poisonous Gang of Hong Kong Thugs Countered by Villagers as They Invade Yuen Long Village,” the headline reads (港毒暴徒团伙在入侵香港元朗时遭到村民自卫反击!).
On the night of July 21, a number of Hong Kong thugs, organized by background orchestrators, made the deranged move of surrounding the Hong Kong Central Liaison Office of the Central Government, and pelted the national emblem outside the office with black paint, sprayed insulting language on the exterior wall and sought to charge into the building.
This conduct was an open challenge to the authority of the Central Government and impinged on the bottom-line of “One Country Two Systems,” [an act] of serious nature with a pernicious influence.
The Hong Kong police took active related measures to prevent the further worsening of the situation, and this was extremely necessary.
… In the chaos of last night’s attack on the Central Liaison Office, the Hong Kong police were at the end of their tolerance and struck back! After certain toxic extremists (毒顽固分子) refused to listen to police warnings, [the police] began using tear gas.
What no one could predict was that this clique of poisonous Hong Kong yellow corpses (港毒黄尸) was already prepared with gas masks, and even though the Hong Kong police used a great deal of tear gas at the scene, still a large number of thugs remained at the scene and refused to leave.
Under this situation, the police raised their force level, firing rubber bullets on the thugs.
This past month, we have seen the Hong Kong police taking up the law and taking up guns in order to teach a bitter lesson to these thugs who don’t know their limits, letting them know what pain really means.
After being dispelled by the police, the thugs still refused to desist from their troublemaking.
According to plans and arrangements made many days before, they took up weapons (凶器) and pushed into Yuen Long, seeking to again escalate the situation, expressing loyalty to their British and American masters…
But this time, again, they miscalculated!
When rule of law fails locally, the maintenance of social order and protection of the homeland must rely on salvation from a third party.
The situation in Yuen Long today seems to be one of disorder. This is a situation caused by a weak and powerless Hong Kong police force (owing to judicial power placed not in the hands of the Hong Kong police, but with courts that can be manipulated by foreigners, and which release thugs on bail). In order to maintain the concept of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, the Central Government is not likely to intervene.
The clan-based villages often have strong feelings toward their home countries. The Yuen Long Weitou people themselves have a tradition of patriotism and love for their homeland. Perhaps they aren’t greatly literate, and they aren’t as eloquent as certain so-called cultured people, or those who have been brainwashed. But most of the Yuen Long villagers have a bottom line, and that is a rather deep love of their country.
The white-clad thugs of Yuen Long, who were clearly shown in video footage surrounding and attacking protesters, are cast as patriots out to defend China. This is messaging we certainly would not expect to see in official Chinese media reports, but it has become core to the discourse about Hong Kong on Chinese social media.
Despite the extreme nature of many of these Hong Kong-related posts, they remain available on WeChat. One important question, then, is the extent to which these posts serve Party-state agendas — for example by proliferating views about foreign conspiracy or protester-driven violence that appear to delegitimize civil society action in Hong Kong.
As I suggested earlier, the term “junk propaganda” may apply, because while this discourse is not, strictly speaking, official (as are People’s Daily commentaries or Xinhua News Agency reports), they can potentially serve to disrupt and noise-fill the public opinion space in ways that are at least expediently beneficial to the leadership.
It is perhaps worth noting that Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement of 2014 happened before China’s WeChat platform had become a truly dominant force in the social media space, and we can now observe the role of WeChat in forming public opinion in mainland China around the question of Hong Kong — a question that merits further systematic study.
It is certainly further testament to the worrisome prevalence of extreme rhetoric on the need to take a stronger approach in Hong Kong that Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡锡进), whose paper has long been the standard-bearer of Chinese jingoism, wrote on Monday against the position that military intervention from Beijing was advisable.
Hu’s piece was called, “Hong Kong is in Chaos: Should Beijing Show a Strong Hand?” (香港乱了, 北京该不该强力出手). “Does everyone support the idea of Beijing showing force, for example by ordering the PLA troops stationed in Hong Kong to take to the streets and maintain order?” Hu asked at the start of his piece, before offering his own view through his preferred alter ego, “Old Hu”:
I don’t know what you think, but Old Hu is very much against [the idea]. Why?
Some people say if things go wrong just do ‘One Country One System’, but that would mean a revolution in Hong Kong society, and the price and risk it would entail would be greater than the trouble we’ve seen thus far in implementing ‘one country two systems’.
If the PLA gained control of the situation in Hong Kong, and suppressed all of these thugs, what then?
Indeed. What then?
Before we turn now to our full translation of Monday’s commentary in the People’s Daily, we have one last recommended post for our readers, a chilling treatise that appeared on July 3 at Red Flag Online (红旗网), a well-known leftist website, after first appearing in late June at Red Song Society (红歌会网), a self-described Maoist site devoted to “red culture.”
Tellingly, perhaps, the post, called “Smashing Hong Kong’s Colour Revolution” (粉碎香港颜色革命), is still available inside China and shared quite widely on WeChat. While the author is not entirely clear, there are a number of passages that suggest the piece has its origins somewhere in the PLA.
The first passage of the lengthy piece ends, for example, after summarising the “chaos” in Hong Kong, with the line: “Therefore, this [unrest] must incur the tremendous anger of China’s entire mass of 1.4 billion people, including all members of the Chinese Communist Party, all the generals in China’s People’s Liberation Army, and all commanders of China’s public security!” A similar formulation can be found in the concluding passage.
At another point, the piece says, unambiguously advocating PLA action in Hong Kong in light of the failure of the SAR government to maintain control during the 2014 Occupy Central movement:
Therefore, leaping beyond the current judicial process in Hong Kong, and unifying the superstructure, must become an urgent task of the Hong Kong SAR government. The focus of this should include, but not be limited to: imposing martial law in Hong Kong; firing, arresting, expelling or refusing entry to foreign judges that refuse to cooperate with the Hong Kong SAR government; arresting and sentencing those who organise street riots; arresting or expelling the intelligence personnel of foreign forces intervening in Hong Kong affairs, etc.
That is chilling stuff. But it is just the beginning in a piece that holds nothing back. The final section offers ten recommendations for action in Hong Kong, beginning with the takeover of the government and the establishment of a Hong Kong Work Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
The post is an excruciating read for all concerned with the future of Hong Kong, but it is nonetheless essential for anyone who wishes to understand one of the most radical Chinese positions on the territory, points of which may be shared in various corners of Chinese society and the Party-state.
Read through the fiery passages of “Smashing Hong Kong’s Colour Revolution” first, and the firm-fisted Monday commentary in the People’s Daily begins to sound almost conciliatory. And that may tell us something — though we need a great deal more research on the subject — about the possible utility of “junk propaganda.”
Commentator From This Paper (本报评论员)
July 22, 2019
On July 21, a few radical demonstrators surrounded the Liaison Office of the Central Government in Hong Kong, destroying equipment, defacing the national emblem, and spouting out language that insulted the nation and the Chinese people. This sort of conduct tramples Hong Kong’s rule of law, is an open challenge to the authority of the Central Government, and touches the principle bottom line of “One Country Two Systems,” with pernicious effects, and this must not be tolerated.
For successive days, a series of violent incidents have caused disquiet in Chinese society. A number of extreme radicals have in the name of opposing amendments [on extradition], attacked the Legislative Council building, destroyed public facilities, beaten police, manufactured explosives, and these violent acts have seriously damaged social order in Hong Kong, and trampled on Hong Kong’s rule of law.
This time the surrounding of the Central Liaison Office has already completely gone beyond the scope of peaceful protest, and the level of violence has been escalated. The Liaison Office is the representative office of the Central Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and it exercises its responsibilities in Hong Kong according to the Constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law, and empowered by the Central Government, and this cannot be challenged. The violent conduct of these extremists (激进分子) seriously violates the Basic Law and Hong Kong’s local laws.
Since Hong Kong’s return, the Central Government has fully adhered to and implemented the “One Country Two Systems” [formula], the principle of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” (港人治港) and the policy of [offering] a high-level of autonomy, and it has acted strictly in accord with the Constitution and the Basic Law in handling matters — acting as a defender of “One Country Two Systems” and the Basic Law, as a supporter of progress on various issues in Hong Kong, and as a protector of the legitimate rights of our Hong Kong brethren. For the past 22 years, the government (国家) has offered staunch support for the development of Hong Kong. And Hong Kong’s development is thoroughly linked to the mainland.
[Tung Chee-Hwa once said:] “If Hong Kong is good, the nation is good. If the nation is good, Hong Kong is even better.” These words spoke of the inextricable link between Hong Kong and the nation (国家). Only by properly protecting the authority of the Central Government can we ensure that the implementation of “One Country Two Systems” in Hong Kong does not go awry, that it is not distorted — and only this way can be ensure Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability (香港长期繁荣稳定) and the welfare of its residents.
We can no longer find justifications for acts of violence! In a civilized society under rule of law, the peaceful and rational expression of demands on the foundation of mutual respect is a basic demand. There is no excuse for violence, and the threshold of rule of law cannot be violated.
Compromising with, defending, beautifying and tolerating violence can only result in the continued escalation of the violent behavior of extremists. If they are allowed to trample on the rule of law in Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s advantages and Hong Kong’s competitiveness will be eroded.
Hong Kong residents must see clearly the harm and basic nature of the violence perpetrated by a minority of extremists, and must resolutely protect “one country two systems,” resolutely defend law and order in Hong Kong, and preserve the beautiful home of 7 million people.
[As the saying goes:] “Nothing is more beneficial than stability, and nothing is more detrimental than chaos.” We firmly support the Hong Kong SAR Government in employing every legal means to ensure the security of offices of the Central Government in Hong Kong, to preserve rule of law in Hong Kong, and to punish these criminals. We also call on all of our Hong Kong brethren to work together to oppose violence, and preserve rule of law, and to treasure peace. We firmly believe that with the support of the Central Government and the people of Hong Kong, the Kong Kong SAR Government can reinstate normal social order; we firmly believe that the tried and tested “One Country Two Systems” formula can continue to show more vitality.
People’s Daily, July 22, 2019, Page 01