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Interesting that the United States, the United Kingdom, and the UN General Secretary have all voiced concern about developments in Hong Kong and called for restraint.
In other words, what we see is creeping internationalization of the Hong Kong issue. Given the relatively minor and local character of the matter to date, at least, it makes one pause.
After all, the current toll in Hong Kong is a few dozen injured after some confrontational street protests, some tear gas got fired, now everybody’s sitting around waiting for Occupy Hong Kong’s latest move.
Why give a sh*t about a currently fatality-free civic ruckus inside China’s sovereign territory even as the US refeeds the Middle East through the military meatgrinder for the umpteenth time, mass graves of slaughtered civilians are uncovered in eastern Ukraine, and the U.S. can’t bring itself to censure Israel for a disproportionate military operation in Gaza that killed 2000 including 500 children?
Hate to say it, but the inference that the U.S. sees profitable mischief to be made in Hong Kong is inescapable.
I believe that Occupy Hong Kong is a legitimate local movement with legitimate local grievances and is pretty much a local phenomenon.
I also believe that its leadership has spent months planning the current campaign, and part of that campaign involved keeping the United States informed and coordinating sub rosa with the United States to exploit the unrest to apply pressure on the PRC.
Bernhard of Moon of Alabama unearthed a fascinating budgetary item for the NDI in 2012 (and also, I must own, rebuked me for my naivete in regarding the Hong Kong demos as home grown):
National Democratic Institute for International Affairs – $460,000
To foster awareness regarding Hong Kong’s political institutions and constitutional reform process and to develop the capacity of citizens – particularly university students – to more effectively participate in the public debate on political reform, NDI will work with civil society organizations on parliamentary monitoring, a survey, and development of an Internet portal, allowing students and citizens to explore possible reforms leading to universal suffrage.[boldface by Bernhard]
As I tweeted at the time, “Must admit it did not occur to me that the sophisticated civil society in HK would need a legup from US on this issue. What did they do with that $460K, dig up Cady Stanton’s corpse [Cady Stanton was an early suffragette heroine] & ship it to HK?”
The intertubes also disgorged a picture of Hong Kong democracy avatars Anson Chan and Martin Lee getting face time with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Washington on their way to an NED meeting. Biden was perhaps entrusted to share his insights on democracy but he is also the Obama administration’s go-to guy/flak target for the global regime managed-transition megilla.
Unreported in Western prestige media, unsurprisingly because as far as I can tell (the China Matters media budget precludes unrestrained clicking and reading of paywalled and quota’d coverage, and relies excessively on parsing journos’ self-congratulatory tweets) the Western coverage, without naming names, has been embarrassing to the cringe-inducing level.
OK, I won’t name names or outlets, but there is a certain prestige paper that has stockpiled a considerable inventory of journalists evicted or otherwise unwelcome in the PRC, and whose management has apparently decided that its investment in their reportorial excellence (unleavened, undoubtedly, by any sense of personal grievance) should be cashed in on a beat it considers the story of the year/maybe decade/maybe century. (And, as the Hong Kong brouhaha evolves, I wonder if the PRC will strike back at its media tormenters by hyping in its turn the burbling allegation that a certain PRC news honcho is facing the death penalty in Beijing because he leaked the skinny for a story that a certain paper claims as its unaided, crowning achievement in PRC coverage to date.)
Back to Hong Kong.
The prevalent media memes, as far as I can tell, are Darling, Darling Demonstrators; Tiananmen Redux; and Xi Jinping Is Totally Pwned!
Addressing the last one first, the obsession with CCP supremo Xi Jinping’s Hong Kong-related mindset, as far as I can tell, contrasts with rather skimpy coverage of a story that journos in Hong Kong are very well-positioned to cover, by virtue of location, sympathy, and contacts, which is the strategy of the Occupy Hong Kong movement.
For the edification of my readers, my take on the strategy is that the whole campaign has been carefully gamed and thought out: start with student demonstrators; expect/provoke police over-reaction; call for Chief Executive to resign (where we are now); bigger demonstrations; adult leadership represented by Dr. Benny Tai emerges; more sophisticated demands, perhaps for resignation of the Chief Executive through some legalistic process involving the Legislative Council, maybe followed by a formal pro-democracy referendum; ??.
As for the CCP’s response, it seems to also come out of its standard playbook: Local Guy (Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung) gets his chance to contain the crisis, predictably f*cks up, crisis portfolio turned over to elite CCP team for careful, focused management behind the scenes with Local Guy in the front man/fall guy role.
Yesterday, by the way, the first formal demand (after several days of parades/demos/confrontations) finally emerged from the Occupy side. Through the magic of Twitter, starting with a classic piece of inversion by the headline-writer at the Rappler (it has come to my attention that the most widely adopted slander/misrepresentation format is to print a reasonably accurate article under a misleading and inflammatory headline and/or descriptive slug. I wonder if this approach has been shown to be effective in gulling the general public, which maybe simply skims the headlines and can’t be bothered to read the supporting text):
China Hand (me) weighs in (several tweets strung together and blockquoted):
What Leung actually said is “I’m asking them to fulfill their promise”. This is more like a demand, from OHK: “If Leung announces his resignation, this occupation will be at least temporarily stopped in a short period of time, and we will decide on the next move.” I wonder if the CCP will find this package of concessions and threats attractive enough to can Leung. ”Dump Leung so we claim victory, go home, get some rest, and come back next week” doesn’t sound like an irresistible offer. Is this the sign of a deep game…or no game?
In my personal opinion, I don’t think the CCP plans to fire C.Y. Leung (reviled by the demonstrators as Beijing’s incapable stooge) on the say-so of a bunch of students led by a seventeen year old because a very big crowd of demonstrators showed up on the streets for a few days.
And I don’t think the demonstrators expect this either. The main objective is to trumpet Leung’s intransigence (with, it seems, a little reality-massaging help from outlets like The Rappler) to justify bigger demonstrations, more outrage and, I expect, if and when the demonstrations gain significant traction and Hong Kong is polarizing to Occupy’s advantage then the Occupy elders will emerge to make their demands on the Hong Kong government from a position of optimal strength.
And I strongly suspect the CCP knows the Occupy game plan, not just because of the reality on the ground but because Occupy is probably chockablock with moles feeding info to Hong Kong and PRC security forces (and Occupy I expect is running a few countermoles; I also take Benny Tai’s rather preposterous occasions of handwringing over “Occupy is fading” or “Occupy is outta control” over the last few weeks as disinfo meant to sandbag public opinion and manage its expectations, if not the PRC’s).
Won’t find much of this kind of ruminating over the Occupy strategy or the day-to-day mindset of its leadership in the Western press. In fact, one senior editor disgorged a tweet today that the Occupy movement was leaderless, a misrepresentation that I, in my current frame of mind, found more sinister than ridiculous.
Instead, there’s been a spate of articles purporting to get inside the faraway and unfamiliar territory of Xi Jinping’s head—as I put it in twitter terms “brilliant Western journos lecture Commie dictator on how to run his f*cked up country” pieces. The pieces pontificate on Xi’s lack of options, his rigidity, his lack of moral clarity, how he’s boxed himself into a corner on Hong Kong etc. with a declaration that he brought the crisis on himself by the PRC government’s issuing the inflammatory White Paper on Hong Kong governance.
(I think history will judge, once it gets around to the issue, that the Occupy activists seized on the White Paper—which primarily stated that the PRC ultimately runs the show in Hong Kong, an observation that I think was no surprise to anybody—as a pretext for kicking off the current movement. If it wasn’t the White Paper, it would have been something else.)
I also think, especially if Hong Kong doesn’t blow up in Occupocalypse (c) ! In the next few weeks, that a lot of journos should be pretty embarrassed about what they wrote and tweeted. But I kind of doubt it.
The key journalistic framing/expectation is that Hong Kong is Tiananmen Redux. As I discussed in a previous post, Hong Kong is a big and dangerous problem, but it is no Tiananmen. As a reminder, the CCP was shaken to its core in 1989 by a major economic and political crisis, a split leadership, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators camped out in the nation’s capital and demonstrations, violence, and factionalism in virtually all of China’s major urban centers while, on top of everything else, the Soviet Union—which was generally considered at the time the PRC’s military, economic, and organizational superior—collapsed in chaos.
Hong Kong 2014 not so much.
Nevertheless—and despite the fact that the CCP’s main job description is dealing every year with the literally thousands of admittedly less dire “mass incidents” prompted by the cruelties and inefficiencies of its rule without military force–the breathless prediction is that Xi can’t make concessions; so he’s gonna send in the tanks!
I find this scenario pretty unlikely. Could happen (throw in the necessary ass-covering hedge) but Hong Kong is still a special case, with the crisis largely limited to Hong Kong, with the PRC regime prosperous and united and with resources of money and influence that would dwarf anything that Li Peng could have imagined in 1989. And whatever combination of soldiers and People’s Armed Police the PRC decides to throw at Hong Kong if the local cops are overwhelmed and insurrection rears its head, they will probably perform their jobs more neatly and professionally than the disoriented blunderers of the 38th Field Army in 1989.
Hong Kong also has limited resonance inside China because the segment of the Hong Kong population alienated from the PRC and out on the streets is also the segment that has alienated the mainlander population with its abrasive and condescending chauvinism, an awkward fact apparently skated over in fawning Western coverage of the adorable demonstrators.
Though generations of journos, activists, and scholars would disagree, I find the Tiananmen analogy way past its sell-by date and a barrier to understanding what the PRC can and will do. I suspect the West clings to it because it provides that instantaneous good guy/bad guy framing so important to public diplomacy. Also, on a deeper level, the Tiananmen meme hearkens back to a happier, sunnier time when the US was the omnipotent and benevolent lawgiver in a unipolar world, and not a peer competitor in relative decline, increasingly perceived as an incompetent and resented mangler of nations.
Finally, of course, the prospect of a bloody crackdown, even if it currently exists primarily in the expectations of the foreign media, allows the West to claim humanitarian and/or security skin in the game. Call it R2P, call it solicitude for the immense importance of Hong Kong as a linchpin of the global financial system (forgetting the fact that Hong Kong’s jittery tycoons are still firmly lined up on Beijing’s side), and the West can inject itself into what is still a messy but manageable political crisis in Hong Kong.
And, if you’re going to hype a potential massacre, you’d better hype the innocent adorableness of the demonstrators. I agree, the demonstrators are adorable, but the extent to which Western and Hong Kong journos swoon over their umbrella-brandishing, trash-collecting, and banana-offering ways is ludicrous and misleading. The general intent appears to be to present the demonstrations as a spontaneous outpouring of indignation by innocents, thereby depriving them of agency (to trot out a sociological term) and make the other side responsible for anything that happens to them.
This is, of course, an important framing because, in addition to being personally adorable, the demonstrators will be engaging in actions that might be considered obnoxious: tying up roads, storming government buildings, etc. Heartfelt emotional expressions of unconditional student-love might be needed to paper over a few excesses.
All in all, I predict predictable if not coordinated synergies in escalating unrest, escalating BS in the media, and escalating handwringing by foreign governments.
As to where it all ends, my guess is that, thanks to the growing alienation of the Hong Kong population and its encouragement and celebration by foreign governments and media, the Hong Kong governance problem will never go away. The priority of the CCP will be to try to keep a lid on it, manage it, and try to divide and weaken the pro-democracy movement to the point that the Hong Kong populace becomes disillusioned and the city can return to business as usual.
The key question for me is, if the CCP keeps its cool, avoids the ultimate polarizing crisis, and settles in for protracted, slow-burn war, will the interests and strategies of the United States and the Occupy movement diverge?
The U.S. willingness to see the PRC hoisted on its anti-democratic petard—and encourage the process—should be apparent to anyone who follows these issues. And it’s Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow, as strategists are well aware.
Best case, for the US anyway, is the PRC commits some immense, irretrievable blunder in its handling of the Hong Kong crises, with major, debilitating knock-on effects in Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and maybe the Han heartland.
But that’s not necessarily the best-case situation for Hong Kong.
There is no conceivable scenario in which the US can project meaningful support for the movement inside Hong Kong. The best it can promise if things turn to sh*t is escape, asylum, and sinecures for the leaders.
Wonder if that will be enough for the leadership…or the people on the streets.
Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.