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The long march for free speech in Hong Kong

Protests against the ‘Moral and National Education’ classes, outside government headquarters in Hong Kong, 7th September 2012. Photo: Kin Cheung / AP / PA Images

On 4th June 1989, the name Tiananmen Square became synonymous with the ruthlessness of the Chinese government. The brutal crackdown on the protestors who assembled at the Beijing landmark to call for reform and freedom of speech was the defining event of recent Chinese history. And yet, type “Tiananmen Square”, “Tinananmen Massacre” or “June 4th” into a search engine anywhere in China and the results will be unrelated to the event (a Google Images search bizarrely turns up a picture of a grinning Michael Phelps) or blocked entirely.

Public gatherings to commemorate those who died in the massacre (unofficial estimates of the dead range from several hundred to thousands) are strictly forbidden. Everywhere, that is, but Hong Kong.

Thanks to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “one country, two systems” – a condition of the 1997 handover designed to ensure that China could not enforce its socialist policies on the former British colony for at least 50 years – the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong enjoys myriad freedoms that the rest of China can only dream of. These include uncensored internet access, free speech and, crucially, the right to protest – something that Hongkongers have been practising more than usual in 2012.

 

School’s out

In a year marked by growing tensions between Hong Kong and Mainland China, one of the most significant battles has been over the classroom. In 2010 Donald Tsang, then chief executive (the island’s most senior political position), unveiled plans for a compulsory “Moral and National Education” curriculum (MNE).

A march protesting the introduction of patriotism classes on 29th July 2012. Photo: Vincent Yu / AP / PA Images

The announcement was met with derision and protests, which intensified in July 2011 when Hong Kong’s National Education Service Centre distributed a 34-page booklet to schools across the city entitled ‘The China Model’. In it, China’s one-party system is held up as the ideal form of governance and the ruling Communist Party is portrayed as “progressive, selfless and united”, while Western democratic systems are chided for creating “endless inter-party feuds that bring disaster to the people”. Unsurprisingly, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are entirely omitted.

In the face of continued hostility, the introduction of the curriculum was pushed back to 2015, but the protests continued. This summer has been one of student-led street demonstrations, hunger strikes and a plummeting approval rating for new chief executive Chun-ying Leung.

In an unusual move on 22nd August the education bureau said it would form a special committee “to allay public concern” over the MNE. On 7th September tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated outside government headquarters. By 8th September – the eve of district elections that were on the verge of being a disaster for the pro-Beijing camp – the curriculum seemed all but dead, with the government announcing that the classes would now be optional rather than compulsory.

There are more and more people starting to speak up, including many from the middle-class and conservative backgrounds”

The climbdown may appear to be a relatively small victory for Hong Kong’s David against China’s Goliath, but the manner in which it was achieved is hugely significant. It highlighted the territory’s depth of political awareness and growing willingness to defend every last inch of its rights and freedoms.

“The fear of our next generation being ‘brainwashed’ is very affecting to many people,” says one former student leader I speak to. “There are more and more people starting to speak up, including many from the middle-class and conservative backgrounds.”

She cites Hong Kong’s widening wealth gap and skyrocketing cost of living as well as “the increasing interference by Beijing such as the suppression of the press and social activists” among the reasons for the upsurge in public protest, and highlights the importance of Hong Kong’s student body in galvanising the populace.

It was pretty rousing to see thousands of people chanting, singing, camping out, going on hunger strike – doing all they can to make their voices heard”

“Most people think students are ‘pure’ from political interests and solely speak for justice and ideals, and are therefore credible in leading the social movements,” she says. “In the past few years, more and more students and youngsters have become radicalised because of the worsening social problems and the growing political tension.”

Tom Grundy is a Hong Kong-based Brit who made headlines around the world in June of this year when he attempted to perform a citizen’s arrest on Tony Blair during his visit to the city. Through his Hong Wrong blog (Hongwrong.com, now known as the Hong Kong Free Press), he has regularly reported from the frontline of demonstrations. “The national education protests were an inspiring demonstration of unity among students, teachers, parents and other regular Hongkongers, young and old,” he says. “It was pretty rousing to see thousands of people dressed in the same way, chanting, singing, camping out, going on hunger strike – doing all they can to make their voices heard.”

 

The D&G locusts

The MNE protests are just the latest manifestation of a growing distrust of Beijing and a strong desire to protect Hong Kong from so-called “mainlandisation”. The year had barely begun when this tension was brought to the fore by an incident in which a local shopper with a camera was told to stop taking pictures of the glitzy Dolce & Gabbana store on Canton Road – which caters largely to the busloads of mainland tourists who stream into Hong Kong in search of luxury goods – while mainlanders were allowed to snap away at will. More than a thousand people protested outside the store, and the company was forced to apologise.

Soon after, a mobile phone video went viral. It showed a mainland girl carelessly tossing her noodle carton on to the floor of one of Hong Kong’s spotlessly clean trains before being confronted by a cluster of angry passengers.

The video reinforced the popular local stereotype of mainlanders as rude and uncultured. In response, Kong Qingdong, an outspoken professor at Peking University, made a TV outburst that sparked outrage in Hong Kong by accusing its citizens of being “the dogs of British colonialists” and criticising them for speaking Cantonese, the local language, rather than Mandarin. This in turn led to a protest group in Hong Kong taking out a full-page ad in a local newspaper in early February that branded mainlanders as “locusts” and appealed to local government to take action to stop their “infiltration”.

There has been further fallout over pregnant mainland women being allowed to give birth in Hong Kong hospitals. Many Hongkongers see this as an unacceptable encroachment on the city’s medical resources – although the fact that children born on Hong Kong soil have a claim to residency is doubtless the most troubling factor for opponents, as well as the reason for the practice’s popularity among mainland mothers-to-be. The city’s soaring property prices, meanwhile, are often blamed by locals on the influx of mainland investors.

In her experience, acknowledges the former student leader, such feelings towards mainland China play into the upsurge in protests. But she sees this ill feeling as ultimately unhealthy. “The anti-national education movement is associated with the general fear and resentment towards China and mainlanders, that they are ‘threatening’ our local interests,” she says. “But many activists are trying to engage the whole sentiment to a more progressive direction.”

Pro-democracy campaigners picketed the South China Morning Post’s offices and set fire to copies of the paper”

More concerning for advocates of free speech is the worry that the press, notionally as free as in the West, is employing self-censorship and adding a pro-Beijing spin to curry favour. In the run-up to this March’s chief executive election (a misnomer, incidentally, as Hong Kong does not have universal suffrage; the chief executive is selected by a 1,200-member election committee), accusations of press manipulation were rife.

The most incendiary case took place in June when a censorship row erupted at the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Hong Kong’s largest English-language newspaper. The controversy began when a sub-editor at the paper questioned editor Wang Xiangwei’s decision to downgrade a breaking story on the suspicious death of Tiananmen Square dissident Li Wangyang to a few lines, then leaked Wang’s brusque rebuke. In response, pro-democracy campaigners picketed the SCMP’s offices and set fire to copies of the paper.

The incident tapped into building fears both within and outside of the SCMP that the newspaper was becoming increasingly pro-Beijing and was declining to run stories that portrayed the mainland government in a bad light. The SCMP is owned by Malaysian Chinese billionaire Robert Kuok, who is regarded as pro-Beijing and has significant interests in the mainland including an empire of sugar refineries and his Shangri-La hotel group.

 

Smile, it’s all rigged

On 4th June, the city’s annual 
candlelight vigil to commemorate those who died in the Tiananmen Square massacre drew record crowds, with some estimates placing the number of attendees at 180,000. But the year’s largest protest took place, as it does every year, on 1st July, the anniversary of the handover from the UK and a public holiday known, snappily, as Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day.

On this day every year, significant numbers of Hong Kong citizens traditionally march from Victoria Park to the government offices to campaign for democracy and minority rights. As well as being the 15th anniversary of the handover, this year’s HKSAR Establishment Day bore even greater significance because it was the day on which Chun-ying Leung was sworn into office. His election campaign was beset by allegations of corruption and suspicions that he and rival Henry Tang were little more than Beijing stooges.

These accusations were marked by the local edition of Time Out, which ran a cover with Leung made up like the Joker beside the headline “Smile, it’s all rigged”.

The occasion was also marked by a rare visit from then-Chinese leader Hu Jintao, who presided over an 
astonishing military parade at an airbase in Hong Kong, with tanks, artillery and battalions of army personnel deployed in a brazen display of military might and political power.

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao inspects People’s Liberation Army soldiers at a camp in Hong Kong, 29th June 2012. Photo: AP / PA Images

Such occurrences may not be uncommon on the mainland, but for Hong Kong, it was the stuff of pre-Handover nightmares, when the prospect of Chinese tanks rolling over the border to assert their authority was a very real fear for many. The next day, a journalist who shouted out a question to Hu about Tiananmen Square was promptly arrested.

The point was reinforced subtly as Leung was sworn into office on 1st July in Mandarin, rather than Cantonese, as is customary. But if this was supposed to keep Hongkongers cowed, it backfired spectacularly, as organisers estimated a record 400,000 people took part in the annual march.

The pro-democracy march, 1st July 2012 – the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. Photo: AP / PA Images

Grundy notes of the 1st July protest: “The atmosphere seemed angrier this year, but – as always – it was very peaceful. There was an unusually high number of British colonial flags being wielded, and I believe this to be a provocative and nostalgic gesture rather than a real desire to see the British return – it certainly caught the attention of Beijing.”

And so it was against this backdrop that the national education row unfolded, and that protestors struck a crucial blow in the fight against the “mainlandisation” of their curriculum. A crucial blow, but not a decisive one, as the former student leader points out. “Though it’s a victory for now, we can’t be too optimistic about the government’s next move,” she says. “There are still many ways for them to pursue the whole patriotic brainwashing.” Indeed, the government later announced that the plans for compulsory education had only been “shelved”, suggesting this particular lesson is far from over.

 

 

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