Hong Kong was promised 15 years ago, on the eve of repatriation to mainland China, a high level of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” scheme, and no change in the current social and political system in 50 years.
Alas, subtle changes of increasing mainlandization are already seen in a mere span of 15 years.
On the occasion of the swear-in ceremony of the new Chief Executive for Hong Kong Special Administration Region (HKSAR), Mr. Hu Jintao, President of China, made a brief visit to the Hong Kong, which triggered again an incident of the freedom of press, which Hong Kongers have jealously guarded as part of their freedom to speak and to protest since the city was returned to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997.
In the annual Democracy March on July 1st, tens of thousands of Hong Kong’s disgruntled public took to the streets to vent their grievance not only against Hong Kong’s new leadership, which Mr Hu had just sworn in, but also against the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, the corruptive tangles between property tycoons and public officials, and above all,the deteriorating status of freedom in Hong Kong and persistent violation of human rights in mainland China. With the deployment of extensive police force for Mr. Hu’s visit, the HKSAR Administration officials successfully segregated all these protestors from him, and yet the confrontation with the media still ran amok: A journalist from Apple Daily, after posing Hu Jintao a question related to the June Fourth Tiananmen Square Event, was accused by a police officer of “speaking too loud, amounting to the disturbance of public order” and taken away for questioning for about 15 minutes.
This police harassment not only angered Apple Daily, but also the Hong Kong Journalists Association which denounced it as another brazen act of interfering with the freedom of the press. The following day, Mr. Jianhong Zhang, the editor-in-Chief of Apple Daily, said they were prepared to sue the Commissioner of police Mr. Andy Tsang for unlawful detention and obstruction of media coverage. And it is not the first time such an accusation was made.
Over the years, the Hong Kong Police has already been criticized of increasing acting like public security officers in mainland China, using extreme tactics to segregate peaceful demonstrators, mounting surveillance of protesting masses and harassing journalists in their job to cover news. All these are part of the worries that a subtle mainlandization trend is rendering Hong Kong into one of the mainland Chinese cities where the freedom of the press is suppressed with news coverage under strict scrutiny of the State, public protests being dealt with high-handedly without due regard of human right, and officials in power be accorded with all sorts of privileges above the ordinary people. Such propensity in Hong Kong was heightened by the Hong Kong 818 incident.
This incident was a case of alleged civil rights violations that occurred on the 18th of August 2011 at the University of Hong Kong during a visit by Li Keqiang, the Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China, on the occasion of its centenary ceremony. HKU is the oldest institution of high education in Hong Kong with a long tradition of academic freedom. Furthermore , in its 100 years of history, it has never exhibited any submissive demeanor towards politicians in power. But the visit of Li Keqiang marked a shameful beginning.
First of all, the visit itself was shrouded in secrecy, typical of the mainland Chinese way of doing things. Secondarily, as an official function of HKU, the centenary ceremony should have been open to all HKU alumni. Yet only pro-Beijing camp members were invited. Conspicuously absent was Anson Chan, a pro-democrat who served as Chief Secretary both before and after the 1997 handover, and Martin Lee as well, a highly vocal pro-democracy advocate. Instead, guests that were invited include real estate tycoons such as Mr. Li Ka-shing, Mr. Lee Shau-kee and Macau casino boss Stanley Ho.
At the ceremony on Aug. 18, the Vice Premier was invited as one of the two keynote speakers, but accorded a center stage to be seated in the Chancellor’s chair, a symbol of the highest authority in the university, to the discomfort of many HKU alumni, while the other keynote speaker, Sir David Wilson, was given a seat in the second row, and was referred to only as an alumnus of HKU in the introduction, deliberately ignoring the fact that he was both a former governor of Hong Kong and a former chancellor of HKU, perhaps not to downgrade the prestige of the honorable Chinese guest. Such protocol arrangements were unprecedented and judged to be tarnishing the image of the University which takes pride in being an independent and righteous institution of higher education
But most disturbing of all still was the fact Mr. Li’s arrival at the University led to a lock-down and complete takeover by the Hong Kong Police force with more than 1000 officers. Students and alumni were kept far away during his visit. Three students who attempted to approach Li were blocked by police and thrown to the ground, one of them was dragged off and locked up in a staircase for an hour, which could be the basis for a civil suit against the police.
The harassment of students by the Hong Kong Police force was not just an isolated incident during that period. On 17 August, a day prior to the 818 incident, a Laguna City resident wearing a T-shirt with the June Fourth Tiananmen Square protest slogan was removed by police before Mr. Li’s arrival to visit a civil servant. NOW TV was filming the incident with their camera was blocked by police officers.
Such an outright suppression of Freedom of Speech by the Hong Kong Police force provoked an immediate outrage in the community: About 48 hours after Li Keqiang’s departure, 300 members of the Hong Kong Journalists Association dressed in black and protested outside the police headquarters in Central. On the night of 26 August, a group of about 1000 teachers, students, and ordinary citizens gathered on the campus’s Zhongshan square to protest against the 818 incident and conduct a candlelight vigil. Following the protest at the square, a smaller group of 200 participants marched to the West District Police Station. About 270 HKU alumni purchased a full-page newspaper advertisement to condemn the police security arrangements. Over 1,500 people signed another statement calling for police commissioner Andy Tsang to resign.
There was initial confusion as to whether the University had invited Li Keqiang to its campus or if the University acted under the request of Beijing. It turned out that it was HKU’s Vice Chancellor Dr. Tsui Lap-chee himself who had made such invitation, probably out of the unselfish desire to ensure future support for the University from Beijing. But such gesture was not appreciated by HKU’s alumni, and he soon came under fire for stooping to court Chinese officials in power and failure in safeguarding freedom of speech of the University. The Vice Chancellor subsequently announced his intention to step down from his position, without giving any reason if it was related to the 818 event.
While the freedom of speech is being curtailed over the years, several members of the Democratic Party launched a public protest last week outside the Education Department Office, calling for the immediate withdrawal of the Moral and Civic education section, as it has just released a National Education Manual which presents only a one-sided political system in China under the Communist Party. This manual, prepared by the Education Council-sponsored National Education Service center, is deemed to be akin to a political indoctrination.
The above is just another effort of mainlandization. Since last fiscal year, the Education Department has set up a budget of HK$ 64.2 million this year, to finance a student exchange program for a total of 46,000 exchange students to travel to mainland China to attend classes on national education. One of the publishing houses in Hong Kong recently interviewed 10 student members returning from such program to relate their learning and life experience in China, and found that the exchange students were shown only the perspective of an omnipotent central government with unparallel achievements, and the social benefits of living under the Communist regime. They were advised to always “have the overall situation in mind, and not to oppose Communist Party on every issue”. Concerns now arise on the true nature of this kind of exchange student program if it is just a political indoctrination program in disguise, aiming at brainwashing the youngsters in Hong Kong.
Judged from the biased content of the National Education manual, the protest seemed to be well founded: It praises the Chinese model of political system with a single ruling Party as a better system which brings the Country “progress , unselfishness and solidarity” , whereas the one in United States would only bring about disasters to the people with successive rotation of Democrats and Republicans, all the time fighting each other for power. Not a single word mentions the recent cases of human right violation and the suppression of freedom of speech.
Some critics still argue that the exchange program offers Hong Kong students the opportunity to learn the values of pragmatism, stable social development, and leave the June Fourth Tiananmen Square Event behind to look forward instead. We entirely concur with these critics that Hong Kong should not shy away from national education, but it should let the youngsters to learn the true history with neither distortion nor exaggeration. Unfortunately, the content of the said National Education manual turns out to be just “distorted and exaggerated”. Is this the right way to educate our younger generation about China?
(“Genomeken” was a former senior editor/journalist of the Hong Kong Economic Journal (HKEJ) in Hong Kong and a newspaper columnist for 13 years. He is currently a regular columnist in the financial Monthly of the HKEJ as well as news commentator for other media publications in Hong Kong