By Simon Henderson
Reading a statement by any Hong Kong government official these days, one could easily be mistaken for believing that the words come straight from Beijing. The language has become increasingly combative, dismissive and characteristic of wolf warrior diplomacy.
Despite the self-proclaimed tag of “Asia’s World City”, part of Brand Hong Kong, external messaging is being directed more towards Beijing than globally. Acerbic wording, accusing foreign governments of “hypocrisy”, “double standards” and “falsehoods” now litters statements by Hong Kong officials. These were particularly prominent in response to international criticism of the postponement of the September Legislative Council elections.
The “mainlandisation” of political language by the Hong Kong government has increased since the National Security Law was announced in May. For example, the popular mainland phrase of “so-called” has been deployed wholesale to belittle sanctions on Hong Kong, referendums on strikes and class boycotts and Washington’s Hong Kong Autonomy Act. “So-called” was first used in a press statement in May from Chief Executive Carrie Lam, decrying “international support for the protest movement”, which was alleged to “interfere with Hong Kong’s affairs.”
While increasingly hostile and frequent, this antagonistic language from the Hong Kong government, echoing that of Beijing, is not new. It has evolved over several years, especially since 2014. The change in language, and particularly the pace of change, provides an often overlooked barometer for how fundamental rights and freedoms have been eroded, while simultaneously highlighting the corrosion of One Country, Two Systems.
The timing for the linguistic shift can in large part be pinpointed to the release of the White Paper on Hong Kong in June 2014, which sought to reassert Beijing’s comprehensive jurisdiction. It marked a change in references towards self-determination, constitutional developments and engagement by the international community. Significantly, from the perspective of Hong Kong’s international image, the White Paper decried “foreign individuals and forces” for apparently “interfering in the internal affairs of Hong Kong.”
Before June 2014, concerns about “interference in internal affairs” were never uttered, but following the White Paper this became the boilerplate response to criticism by foreign governments, foreign institutions and organisations. The non-interference principle dates back to “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” in 1954, the Bandung Conference in 1955 and the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. However, its adoption by China and now Hong Kong, has frequently been used, contrary to its origins and accurate legal interpretation, to fend off criticism of domestic policies and human rights concerns. For example, it has been deployed in response to each six-monthly report by Britain’s Foreign Office since October 2016, among dozens of other examples. It has become a fall-back option for nations unwilling to respond to international criticism.
Other phrases have also entered the Hong Kong government’s political lexicon which increasingly echo Beijing. “Misunderstandings”, sometimes used alongside “misconceptions” and “misgivings”, has been used to respond to those who express concern at the deteriorating human rights environment. For example, any suggestion that protestors had been targeted for exercising their fundamental rights during public assemblies was, according to Secretary Matthew Cheung in a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2018, a “misunderstanding” that needed to be “clarified”. These words have also been used to explain without reason, absurdly so, to the legal community that they “misunderstood” the extradition bill proposals.
When there is a “misunderstanding”, there is never a process of self-reflection. Even Carrie Lam’s half-hearted apology for the extradition bill could not find anything wrong with the bill itself. Executive Council member Ronny Tong also struggled when given the opportunity to do so in an extended interview with Deutsche Welle. The use of “misunderstandings” in this way is somewhat reflective of perceptions by Beijing that Western thinking has misled Hongkongers. Officials in Beijing have often complained that if only Hongkongers spent more time in the mainland, took advantage of opportunities provided by the Greater Bay Area and truly understood the Basic Law, the situation would be different and there would not be mass protests or social unrest on the streets.
At the same time as the increasing “mainlandisation” of political language in Hong Kong, the importance and value placed on legal principles has diminished. Over time, statements have put less emphasis on reasoned legal analysis. In her 2017 Policy Address, Lam outlined Hong Kong’s “core values” as incorporating respect for human rights, the rule of law and freedom of expression, among other values. However, these “core values” have themselves been subject to distortion, especially where an all-encompassing response to national security is required, such as following mass pro-democracy protests.
It is noteworthy that the Hong Kong government, in its diplomatic response to Australia’s proposed suspension of its extradition treaty, did not address the legal basis for the move. For all the bluster by the Secretary for Justice that foreign governments, such as Canada, may have breached international law and were “interfering in internal affairs”, her department did not even try to explain how they were doing this.
Hong Kong’s shifting political language indicates the steady erosion of One country, Two systems. Sooner rather than later some may begin to question the value of engaging with the Hong Kong government on a range of issues if it becomes nothing but another Beijing mouthpiece.
In revising its political language, the Hong Kong government has undermined its own branding as “Asia’s World City”. Messaging that repeats Beijing’s desires and rejects, or fails to address, international concerns does not reflect “a global outlook” or a “diverse and tolerant” one. It is telling that the Brand Hong Kong website now includes a section defending the National Security Law and in doing so, intrinsically linking this law to Hong Kong’s political and legal identity.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices embark on a global “charm offensive” by writing correction letters to global media outlets. In doing so, they squarely tie Hong Kong’s image to legislation that breaches the principles of the rule of law through its vague language and overreach.
As tired and repetitive Beijing talking points, devoid of substance and often lacking in legal reasoning, increasingly dominate the Hong Kong government’s political discourse, the protection of the city’s purported core values – a commitment to the rule of law and a global outlook – appear weaker than ever.
Simon Henderson is an international human rights lawyer. He was formerly Senior Policy Advisor at the Justice Centre Hong Kong, and a spokesperson for the Hong Kong Universal Periodic Review Coalition.
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