Why Political Struggle Sessions Won't Work in Hong Kong

A veteran political commentator hits out at concerted attempts by Hong Kong and Chinese officials to smear law professor and democracy campaigner Benny Tai.

HKU Law professor and one of the leaders of the 2014 Occupy protests Benny Tai speaks during a gathering outside the government headquarters to mark the third anniversary of mass pro-democracy rallies, known as the Umbrella Movement, in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2017.

Chinese officials have been ramping up the volume on their denunciations of the Hong Kong University law professor and founder of the Occupy Central movement, Benny Tai.

Using tactics typical of mainland Chinese ideological hit-jobs, they have given us a perfect demonstration of why we should fear such Cultural Revolution-style struggle sessions.

The Chinese Communist Party's struggle tactics are a vicious, tried-and-tested routine with almost no weaknesses, and impervious to reason or logic.

The first rule is to create stigma.

Benny Tai suggested we might speculate about the ways in which the different populations of greater China could be connected if there was an end to one-party dictatorship in the mainland. His comments were smeared as being pro-independence.

Those who lead these "struggle sessions" are so solemn and righteous in their attempts to expose such terrible conspiracies, but most of their claims are pretty far-fetched, sometimes plucking conjecture from thin air.

The conclusions come before anything else, and opinions take the place of facts. Fantasy is used to distort reality, and perverted reasoning masquerades as common sense.

It's hard to win the people's trust with cock and bull stories alone. You have to add some respected public figures into the mix to make them really powerful. Without that, the so-called patriotic press's gunning for Benny Tai would only have amounted to empty words, given their tiny readership, and would have passed most people by.

So the Hong Kong government made a statement, and then the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the Central Liaison Office weighed in as well.

The "patriotic" press redoubled its efforts too, of course. By the time the smear campaign by the ruling elite had gotten as far as the standing committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), Benny Tai had become the focus of public debate, and bore the brunt of the campaign. So you see, the voices of powerful people do have the power to change public opinion.

Mao Zedong once framed all of China's problems as the work of capitalists within the party, when he launched an era of political infighting in the name of the Cultural Revolution and socialism.

Deliberate misrepresentation

Today, history repeats itself in the form of the Benny Tai incident, with officials from chief executive Carrie Lam, to Central Liaison Office chief Wang Zhimin, to NPC standing committee member Tam Yiu-chung all singing from the same hymn sheet in a chorus of deliberate misrepresentation.

It's true that none of these people wield the same sort of clout that Mao Zedong once did. Lam is Beijing's puppet chief executive ... and it's not clear whether her reading from Beijing's script will convince the people of Hong Kong.

And Wang, Tam and the rest of them aren't saying these things for the good of Hong Kong: instead, they are trying to scare Hong Kong people. It's hard to say how effective this will be.

Tam, for example, is an NPC standing committee member from a trade union background, but he doesn't support collective bargaining. He only cares about commercial interests, and he knows very well that all power stems from central government in Beijing. He stands more for the central government than he does for the people of Hong Kong.

But it doesn't matter too much if the general public aren't convinced by these people. All they really need to do is make people afraid.

Take Wang Zhimin, head of the Central Liaison Office. He has said that opposing the ruling Chinese Communist Party is a crime against the people of Hong Kong. According to his logic, the Chinese Communist Party is the lord and master of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the creator and protector of the "one country, two systems" framework.

To oppose the party is to oppose "one country, two systems," and that makes you the enemy of the people of Hong Kong. By pinning this on Benny Tai, he is accusing him not just of supporting independence for Hong Kong, but of trying to bring down "one country, two systems" too.

Put in such an exaggerated manner, it's hard to avoid seeing the flaws in this argument. If Benny Tai opposes dictatorship, does that mean he opposes the Communist Party leadership? Or that he supports independence? And how can the voice of a single individual bring down the "one country, two systems" framework, and turn him into a public enemy?

Are they going to put an end to "one country, two systems" just because some people in Hong Kong have violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law?

Just what is Tam Yiu-chung scared of? Perhaps he shares the worst fears of Wang Zhimin, that Beijing will tar everyone in Hong Kong with the same brush if they hear people talking up Hong Kong independence, and just move to a one country, one system framework instead?

If this is the case, who will have committed a crime against Hong Kong? The pro-independence activists that nobody pays attention to, or those with the power to destroy the one country, two systems framework?

When frightening people no longer worked, those in power had to work harder to make the masses more "patriotic." They didn't care that they all were all parroting the same words; they needed to create an atmosphere where a baying crowd would pile in and bad-mouth Benny Tai.

But it never occurred to them that struggle sessions, even those instigated at national level, are nothing but a crude trick aimed at depriving the people of Hong Kong of their freedom of speech.

How do they expect Hong Kong people to pledge allegiance to an attack on their cherished core values?

To Yiu-ming is associate professor of journalism at the Hong Kong Baptist University, and a prolific media commentator.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.