During the terrifying years of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, a perpetual nightmare was the threat of being denounced for some real or imagined offence, with the denunciation taken up by the authorities or the mobs rampaging throughout the country.

It had been thought that this abysmal practise had disappeared or at the very least gone into abeyance. But now we see it re-emerging here in Hong Kong, the very place that provided a refuge for an outpouring of people escaping the Cultural Revolution.

Cultural Revolution. File photo: Apple Daily.

Fast forward to 2020 and the new-born Hong Kong Red Guards are busy mobilising to target their opponents for punishment. They may no longer be roaming the streets beating people up but in the new age of suppression they hide behind patriotic masks, furiously launching petitions and adding their names to pre-written letters calling for democrats to be punished.

The draconian action taken against a primary teacher, now banned for life from the profession, started with a coordinated denunciation campaign, enthusiastically taken up by the Education Bureau. His crime, apparently, was to allow his students to talk about issues related to the protest movement, which they framed as indoctrination forcing pupils to support the movement.

Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO), has gone along with this and decided to burnish her own patriotic credentials by egging on the denouncers and declaring her intention to purge other “bad apples” from the teaching profession.

Her predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, ever-anxious to be at the forefront of Red Guard-style activity, has called for the naming and shaming of any teachers suspected (suspicion is the same as proof in his book) of harbouring similar pro-democracy views.

Carrie Lam and Leung Chun-ying. File Photo: GovHK.

Even judges and magistrates are not spared the wrath of the born-again Hong Kong Red Guards, who confusingly, have adopted blue as their colour of choice and  generally prefer anonymity to showing their faces. They are demanding the purging of judges who are “too lenient” on protesters and have been busy circulating their names and personal details.

Circulating personal details, or so-called doxxing, is very much part of what they do: indeed they appear to have remarkably good access to official records in order to spew out their ever-growing lists of targets.

One of their most visible ones is a RTHK TV reporter who stands accused of aggressive questioning during press conferences. Then there are other journalists in the firing line for reporting in ways that “cross the line”.

More recently, legislator Kwok Ka-ki was denounced for a Facebook anti-police post and synchronised demands have been issued for his disqualification as a medical doctor.

The blood lust of the blue shirts is impressive and, let’s face it, effective. They launch denunciation campaigns under the guise of “simple citizens”. These denunciations are then taken up by the government as justification for action.

Like the Red Guards of the 1960s they have no desire to enter into a dialogue to justify their ideas, they simply want to see the opposition crushed – preferably in excruciating ways.

Hong Kong government’s front page advertisements in local newspapers. Photo; GovHK.

The existence of the national security law is a perfect vehicle for pursuing these political vendettas: its provisions are sufficiently wide-ranging to ensure that any form of opposition activity can fall within its remit of serious crimes. We have yet to see the full extent of how these powers will be used but in the meantime the threat of arbitrary national security law prosecution is quite enough to send a chill down even the most resolute of spines.

The poison that is circulating in civil society is all the more insidious because it relies on creating an atmosphere of fear that can become reality at any time.

The ludicrous idea that those who keep their heads down and cease to actively oppose the government have nothing to fear, is not supported by history. A climate of terror is an essential part of every authoritarian’s armoury and it always sweeps up a great swathe of people in its wake.

Hong Kong’s Toytown Red Guards are playing their part in making the climate as hot as possible. They have yet to face a day of reckoning – but history will prove to be a harsh judge of their activities.


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Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent. Vines is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously - Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium and Market Panic and most recently, Food Gurus. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse. Vines’ latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published in 2021 by Hurst Publishers, London