Civil servants forced to watch propaganda films about 2019 protests

Hong Kong's once-neutral civil servants must absorb Beijing's official line on recent events in their city.
By Chun Hoi for RFA Cantonese
2023.12.14
Civil servants forced to watch propaganda films about 2019 protests Anti-government protesters are detained during skirmishes with police in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2019.
(Susana Vera/Reuters)

A video shown to Hong Kong's civil servants as part of a confidential internal training session is an attempt to 'brainwash' government officials with Beijing's claim that the 2019 protests were an attempt by foreign countries to undermine the Hong Kong government, according to a civil servant who attended a compulsory screening.

A leaked audio recording of the confidential training session obtained by RFA Cantonese reveals a narrative that claims to be the "truth" about the key factors driving the 2019 protest movement in the city. 

They began as a mass popular movement against plans to allow extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China before broadening to include calls for greater accountability for police violence, the release of political prisoners and fully democratic elections.

While contemporary accounts of the movement described a largely leaderless operation spontaneously organized by mostly young people using whatever they had to hand, China started referring to protesters as "rioters" backed by "hostile foreign forces" long before a section of the movement starting fighting back against riot police, who were widely criticized for their violence towards protesters and escalating the standoff with the government.

A landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in the 2019 District Council elections was widely seen as a massive show of public support for the protest movement. 

But the ensuing crackdown on dissent under the 2020 National Security Law ushered in a city-wide propaganda campaign to change people's minds in the guise of "national security education" requirements for all public institutions, including the city's more than 170,000-strong civil service.

Plans are already under way to rewrite the Civil Service Code to ban government employees from criticizing the authorities or leaking "secrets," while civil servants resigned in record numbers in 2021 after the government made it compulsory for them to swear oaths of allegiance to Beijing.

‘A conspiracy theory’

Now, according to the Hong Kong Economic Journal's political insider column, civil servants are required to attend "national security education" classes, which frame the protesters as "rioters" who "colluded with external forces to bring about regime change in Hong Kong."

The aim of the "external forces," according to the hour-long training session consisting of two videos narrated in Cantonese, was to foment a "Color Revolution," thereby subverting the Chinese government and its rule in Hong Kong.

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Police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at anti-extradition bill protesters during clashes in Hong Kong, Aug. 14, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

A civil servant who gave only his surname Chan for fear of reprisals said he had seen the video, and that attendance at "national security" training sessions was once optional, and is now mandatory.

"In short, it's a conspiracy theory," Chan said. "It kept talking about how Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai wanted to disrupt Hong Kong."

Lai, who has been in prison for nearly three years, is currently awaiting trial under the national security law on charges of "collusion with a foreign power," a charge his lawyers say is "illegitimate," in a legal system that is heavily skewed against him by political and legal changes imposed by Beijing since 2020.

‘Protester thugs’

The training video goes on to credit Beijing and the National Security Law with the restoration of "stability and prosperity" to Hong Kong, describing Communist Party leader Xi Jinping as "wise and powerful."

"Protester thugs started using more lethal weapons and tools to sow black terror throughout Hong Kong," it says at one point, citing the storming of the Legislative Council on July 1, 2019 and the vandalization of China-linked businesses including the Bank of China.

"Public services were blocked, primary and secondary schools and kindergartens were shut down for a prolonged period, while shopping malls were unable to operate," the narration says.

"Hong Kong, once known as one of the safest cities in the world, had become a city of violence."

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Hong Kong politician Martin Lee [left] and publisher Jimmy Lai march during a protest to demand authorities scrap the extradition bill with China, in Hong Kong, March 31, 2019. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

It blames "anti-China and disruptive Hong Kong elements" for a bid to "seize" seats in the Legislative Council through a democratic primary in July 2020 that aimed to maximize the number of pro-democracy seats in the legislature and through the establishment of trade unions with a vote in industry-based constituencies.

"The anti-China disruptors and external forces in Hong Kong claimed to be campaigning against the amendment [that would allow extradition to China], but their true goal was to seize control of Hong Kong and then subvert the People's Republic of China," the narration says.

Western influences blamed

It blames Western media for "cooperating" with them, and Western internet companies for helping them out with "security protection" for their online mobilization.

"The storm over the [extradition] amendment bill was, in essence, a color revolution," it concludes.

Chan said the language used in the training videos is very similar to that used by Chinese Communist Party-backed media like the Wen Wei Po and the Ta Kung Pao.

"It's all very biased ... talking from the perspective of the communist regime," he said. "It made me feel very uncomfortable."

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A man sprays paint over the emblem of Hong Kong after anti-extradition bill protesters stormed the Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong, July 1, 2019. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

"I joined this department because I wanted to use my expertise," Chan said. "I never thought I'd be brainwashed."

He said some of his colleagues at the back had shown their impatience with the process, while others leaped to their feet when it was done, looking very pleased it was over, and saying "Great! Time to go!"

"You could tell from their expressions that they were forced to attend the screening," he said.

The training doesn't look likely to let up any time soon, either.

The government set up a Civil Service College in 2021 to make sure incoming civil servants are well-versed in the new political regime.

But Chan said such training sessions are likely to affect morale.

"We should be allowed to just go back to our professional lives, now that things have gotten more stable, but they have to force so much political and national security content on us that actually has nothing to do with our work," he said.

"On the contrary, it takes up a lot of time and effort and gets in the way of our work," he said. "Civil servants were supposed to be politically neutral in the past – I think it's sad."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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