An Open Letter to the CCP Regarding the HK Protests

umbrellapropagandaRecent events in HK present the Chinese Communist Party with an unprecedented opportunity to consolidate power in the territory.

After the teargas used on the first night backfired, figuratively and at least once, literally, it’s time to reassess your options.  The “guerilla strategy” of occupying many locations simultaneously to spread out the police, combined with the sheer number of protesters and their continued commitment to the movement and to non-violence have created a crisis for China.  But in crisis, there is opportunity.  Since more teargas is unlikely to disperse the protesters, and they seem determined to stay, what options are available to you?

  1. Shut down communication and transportation infrastructures
  2. Escalate the violence
  3. Wait, agitate, infiltrate, and intimidate
  4. Negotiate

Option 1: Shut down the communication and transportation infrastructures

Since the guerilla strategy relies on HK’s excellent communication and transportation systems, shutting down that infrastructure could cripple the movement.  This strategy didn’t work particularly well for the Arab states that attempted to block parts or all of the internet to disrupt protester communication in 2011, and it’s likely to be even less effective in HK, which is small, and densely populated with technologically literate and innovative citizens.  Moreover, to the extent that it does work, it gives protesters part of what they want (disruption of the financial sector as a means of gaining bargaining power) while alienating your most important private sector allies (that same financial sector).  As much as shutting down Facebook and Twitter may seem to work in the Mainland, or in Iran, the reality in HK creates a situation where stifling freedom of expression and movement will cause the government to lose more than it would gain.

Option 2: Escalate the violence

The second option is something you must be considering.  It worked for you in Beijing in 1989, though at considerable cost.  It would be costly again if you tried it again in HK today, likely more so.  As I’m sure you’re aware, the Western “democracies,” particularly the US and the UK, are caught in a bit of a dilemma regarding HK.  While they have to publicly support the democratic aspirations of HK people, their real interest is in the stability of the HK financial system, and in maintaining trade ties to China.  Violence would likely force Obama, Cameron, Merkel, et al. to issue face-saving sanctions against China.

Further, violence might not work as quickly and easily as it did in Beijing.  HK people have long felt like they are having something taken away from them (both in the form of promised “universal suffrage” and in the form of the perceived regional autonomy and individual rights they see slipping away).  The protesters in Beijing in 1989 were fighting for things they had never had, things that remained mere ideas to them.  Much psychological evidence demonstrates that humans are considerably more motivated to avoid losses than they are to make gains.  The motivational logic of loss aversion, as well as the feeling of being coerced by an external other make the psyches of the protesters today in HK potentially more difficult to crack than those in Beijing in ‘89.  The violence necessary to break the collective will of the HK people might be too great to avoid international repercussions.  Much like the communications and transportation infrastructure, it is the human capital of HK that makes it useful to Beijing and its corporate and financial allies.  Violence risks damage to that human capital, just as it risks valuable trade relationships with other nations.

Option 3: Wait, Agitate, Infiltrate, and Intimidate

Waiting is the default option, and the one you are currently engaged in after the teargas brought out more protesters.  Along with waiting, there is concern about the use of provocateurs and intimidators infiltrating the protests, particularly in Mong Kok.  The protesters have contained these efforts so far by remaining calm, and even forming lines to block off provocateurs who seek violent confrontation.  Spies have been spreading disinformation, which may have led to a temporary loss of control of the Mong Kok site by the protesters, but it has been regained.
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Because the HK people are so much more creative and devoted than the paid thugs of the CCP, subverting the movement in any meaningful way is likely to prove difficult, similar to the way that governments and corporations struggle to stay ahead of hackers when designing internet security.  The 50 cent army is no match for a decentralized, determined movement that feels like it has a lot to lose.

Perhaps you think that you can wait out the protesters, that by next week, after the holidays and the weekend, they will lose steam, and go back to work/school.  I advise you to give that a try.  It would be wise to wait until at least Monday before either escalating or negotiating.

But there is risk in waiting too long.  First, while you wait and attempt to subvert the movement, the protesters gain valuable organizing experience. They become better at handling your tactics, tactics which in comparison will be slow to adapt to a situation in flux.  They may organize to the point that they can occupy in shifts, allowing protesters to participate in the movement while still going to work and taking care of their families.  Second, emboldened and organized, protesters may increase their demands beyond the relatively modest goals of the present and ask for complete independence from China.  Third, you risk the democracy movement spreading to the Mainland, as tourists visit HK and learn from protesters.  If you can’t subvert the movement by next week, you should consider co-opting it instead.
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Option 4: Negotiate

While seemingly the least attractive, it is the fourth option option that presents the greatest opportunity.  The demands of the protesters are modest, for now.  It seems likely that they can be appeased by an amendment to the Basic Law that allows for public nomination of candidates for Chief Executive, and of course C.Y. Leung’s resignation. The focus on the Chief Executive has caused people to forget about the fact that the CCP has democratically unalterable control over the Legislative Council, control provided by the UK’s parting gift to the CCP, the Orwellian-named functional constituencies.  So you could keep functionally permanent control of Legco, and in the negotiations over the nomination process for Chief Executive, you could strengthen the role of the legislature (don’t call it weakening the Chief Executive) by enacting changes to the Basic Law that allow LegCo to check the power of the Chief Executive, since the legislature is the branch you currently don’t risk losing control over.  But if you wait too long, the people might remember that true universal suffrage means abolishing the functional constituencies as well.

Even with public nomination of Chief Executive candidates, the chances of a member of the Pan-Democratic camp being elected are small, even in a free and fair election.  I’ve mentioned before that one-off elections tend to favor two centrist candidates and are typically easy to manage.  The median LegCo member is still in your camp, as the Pan-Democrats have less than half the elected seats (43 Pro-Beijing to 27 Pan-Democrats).  The current political climate favors the Pro-Beijing camp, but the longer the protests go on, the more that may shift.  At some point, elections in the Mainland may be your best option to quell discontent, and just as your special economic zones gave you experience managing market economies, HK could give you valuable experience managing elections.

The Value of Democratic Cover

The fact of the matter is, you have given in to protesters in HK many times, much more than any “democratic” government does.  CY Leung backed down on the National Education mandate when Joshua Wong, now a leader of Occupy Central, and others led a protest against it.  You have repeatedly given up on attempts to pass an anti-subversion law based on Article 23 of the Basic Law in the face of protests, and you have were forced to sack Tung Chee-hwa  because of it.  If you take advantage of the present opportunity, you will never have to give in to the demands of the people ever again.  All you need is a little “democracy”.

In response to the protests, the US State Department pointed out that, “the Hong Kong chief executive’s legitimacy would be enhanced if people have a genuine choice of candidates.”  And the US should know.  In 2008, the legitimacy of the office of president of the United States was badly damaged.  An deeply unpopular president had just bailed out the bankers who had caused the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, and he was prosecuting two unpopular foreign occupations.

Barack Obama was elected on a message of “hope” and “change” and then proceeded to retain Bush’s secretary of defense (Robert Gates), appoint Goldman Sach’s chosen successor (Timothy Geithner) to Bush’s secretary of the treasury (Henry Paulson), and bail out the bankers at taxpayer expense again, while the bankers foreclosed on people’s houses.

When it became obvious to many that Obama’s election had not solved the problems of crony capitalism like many naively had hoped, Occupy WallStreet protested. Obama gave in to none of their demands, and was generally able to label them as a fringe group that didn’t represent the people.  Why was he able to do this when your labeling of Occupy Central as fringe radicals is ignored and ridiculed?  Democratic cover.  Obama was elected, and Occupy WallStreet was not.  The fact that many of the Occupy WallStreet’s demands were Obama campaign slogans was irrelevant.

Obama has been able to roll back civil liberties and and assert presidential powers that only a liberal could get away with asserting.  When Obama asserted the authority to kill anyone in the world, including American citizens, with no checks on his power from any other branch of government, he got away with it despite the fact the people who would have opposed a Republican president doing the same thing, because the people who would have opposed such an overreach from Bush were his supporters.  A two-party system has it’s advantages.  The HK people are asking you to create one.  Want that anti-subversion law passed?  Once your next chosen Chief Executive is “elected,” you can have an anti-subversion law and so much more.  But without public nomination, you have no democratic cover.

Because the US Constitution is perceived as a document that embodies hard-fought freedoms, freedoms Americans believe they fought the British over (even though the Constitution was written more than a decade after the Revolutionary War), Americans defend that document as if it were sacred.  The Constitution sets up a system that is hostile to Americans’ democratic aspirations, much more so than constitutions written more recently in more European countries, whose constitutions include proportional representation and therefore do not set up a two-party system.  Many Americans despise the two-party system; they know that choosing between two candidates who have both been pre-approved by corporations is not really much of a choice.  Yet these same Americans defend the Constitution that creates the system they despise.

Similarly, if you make HK people fight just a little bit more, and then appear to “give in” to their meager democratic demands, you will create a citizenry that will defend the Basic Law, defend the system that allows you to control HK’s politics in perpetuity (you could have a system that works so well for you that you won’t want to change a thing in 2047).  But if you wait too long, those demands may become less modest as the people’s distrust grows.

The unpredictability of the current moment

Understandably, authoritarian infallibility can go to one’s head.  While it’s possible that your propaganda can turn the majority of the Hong Kong populace against the protesters, or that the protests will run out of energy, it’s also possible that they will gain in experience and confidence, and increase their demands to include abolition of functional constituencies or even regional independence.  The reality is that in the midst of history-in-progress, nobody really knows how things will turn out.  Realities are changing too fast for anyone to follow, much less predict.  The safest way to consolidate your power in HK is to give these protesters, who in their naive faith in “democracy,” brainwashed by British imperialists, want nothing more than for you to throw CY Leung to the wolves and allow public nomination of the Chief Executive.  The moment of opportunity to tighten your control is now.  Seize it.  As the protesters say: if not now, when?

(Special thanks to quelky for providing information and links for this post)

An Open Letter to the CCP Concerning Press Freedom in HK

Dear Chinese Communist Party,

I’m not one of those Americans who thinks the way we do things in ‘Murica is always better than the way others do them, but when it comes to propagandizing and controlling its population…well…USA #1!.  Comparing the elegant sophistication of the US authorities to the brutishness of the Chinese is like comparing a samurai sword to a meat cleaver.  US propaganda is so good that many Americans don’t even think of their media as propaganda.  Not so in China, and increasingly not so in HK.  So my advice to my current masters is to be a little more like my former masters (or HK’s former masters).  Try a subtler approach when it comes to HK people.

You see, HK people are not like Mainland Chinese people.  I know, you guys like to think the difference is that they have been conditioned by the British into believing in all this civil liberties crap, but the history is a little more complicated than that.  When HK people were rioting in 1967 and China Commie sympathy was reportedly prevalent in the colony, the British behaved very much like you might have: they locked up journalists and closed down newspapers.  But they quickly realized that this did them more harm than good.  Tony Elliot, the political advisor to HK at the time, stated, “The experience of the last six months has shown that interference with the press produces more violent reactions than anything else.”  HK got freedom of the press because the people fought for it, not because the Brits wanted them to have it.  Press freedom was the lesser of two evils for the British authorities, and I believe it is the lesser of two evils for Big Beijing as well.   You know that anti-subversion law that you’ve been trying to pass for so long?  You know, the one that HK people protest every time you try to pass it?   My advice is to drop it, and control the press in ways that won’t stir up so much animosity.  The more bluntly  you exert control over the HK media, the less useful that control becomes.

The way they do things where I come from is less obvious and therefore more effective.  The rulers of my country are the financial and corporate elite; they control the politicians and they control the media, and they do it mainly by (quietly) giving gifts.  You guys could totally do the same thing; a “free press” and “democracy” make control easier, not harder (I’ll explain the democracy part in another post).  In my country, we have a “polarized political debate” because Republicans and Democrats shout at each other on Fox News and MSNBC.  We have “liberal” newspapers like the New York Times, and “conservative” ones like the Wall Street Journal, but when something is really important to the political elites, as during the lead up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, everybody falls in line.  Then they go back to shouting at each other over gay rights and abortion, while both sides support the same basic foreign policy and economic agendas.  This “polarized” political climate makes anyone who speaks outside of these bounds look like an extremist, and extremists/dissidents are better ignored than brutalized (compare Amy Goodman/Ai Weiwei).  In the US, the mainstream (note the adjective, meaning not extremist but also meaning constrained by the profit motive) media are controlled through advertising and ownership.  Nothing that’s against the interests of corporate/finance hegemony can be published by the mainstream media in the US, because nearly 100% of advertizers are corporations.  Questioning corporate hegemony is simply not profitable, no conspiracy, no corruption necessary.  I notice that you guys have gotten into this game too, and that you’re pretty good at it in fact.  Unfortunately for you, some people in Taiwan have also noticed your press control prowess.  Again, a more patient approach will get you more of what you want, in the long run.

That article I just linked to is instructive, not because it documents how the CCP influences media outlets around the world by withholding advertising, denying visas for foreign reporters, and rewarding loyal journalists in HK and Taiwan while using China’s economic might to punish disloyal media groups (of course y’all know all about that).  It’s instructive because the institution that wrote it (Freedom House, a “Non-Governmental Organization” financed largely by the US government) would never be so impolite as to turn such analysis against its sponsors.  See how that works?  The US can criticize you, and it looks like an impartial NGO is doing it.  But when you criticize the US in your state controlled newspaper, the propagandistic nature of the criticism is just too obvious to have any effect on people (like those in HK) who grew up with a “free press.”  Speaking through state-controlled media detracts from your message, completely overshadowing the legitimacy of many of your claims.  What you need is an institution with a reputation for objectivity and independence.  There are no such institutions in Mainland China.

The other thing that detracts from your message is your tone.  You see, to those of us with Western sensibilities the way  you write just sounds childish.  So let me give you some advice that I give my students.  Be judicious with your adjectives and adverbs.  Just as the use of “very” tends to weaken whatever it was intended to strengthen, when your propagandists write something like, “China on Friday responded to the United States criticism and irresponsible remarks of its human rights situation by publishing its own report on the US human rights issues,” the sentence is rendered ineffective as propaganda by the word “irresponsible.”  It just makes it too obvious that the reporter is not objectively reporting what the CCP says, but is actually a mouthpiece for the CCP.  This is why the South China Morning Post is a much more useful propaganda tool for you than is the China Daily.  The fact that the SCMP is published in HK, and is at times mildly critical of your policies is precisely what makes it more credible.  Notice that the New York Times was so much more useful to the Bush administration in making its case for the invasion of Iraq than was Fox News, which was too obviously allied with the Republican party to be taken seriously by anyone who was the least bit skeptical in the first place.  To liberal-minded Westerners, the China Daily and Fox News sound exactly equally ridiculous.

A free press in HK can be useful to you, but only if you use a softer touch.  If you want to be able to effectively influence media savvy people all over the world, the legacy of press freedom in HK is your most valuable asset.  Currently HK’s reputation for press freedom is depreciating so quickly that the credibility of its independent papers may reach the level of the China Daily or Xinhua.  Once lost, it will be nearly impossible to restore.  So use your financial muscle to encourage self-censorship, but be patient.  Use the carrot, avoid the stick.  Eventually, you’ll find that journalists have subconsciously adopted your frames to the point that they don’t even think of it as self-censoring, and the public won’t either.  But if you’re too eager to take control of HK, you risk destroying the very institutions you wish to control.

In exchange for what really is my bestest most honest advice to you, all I ask for in return is a better CCP troll.  I don’t want to sound ungrateful.  Kayo and I were flattered that our lowly blog had enticed a seemingly enthusiastic Commie troll to comment on our posts about attitudes toward Cantonese as a language!  But that guy was a bit of an amateur.  No offense.  With his emotionally charged anti-Cantonese bigotry, he did such a good job of making himself look foolish, I felt like there was nothing left for me to do!  So if we could have a slightly more culturally sensitive troll, that would be super duper awesome  (for all involved parties) 🙂 🙂 Promise we won’t censor 😉

-W