A week ago, mischievous students celebrated the start of the new academic year by putting up ‘Hong Kong Independence’ banners at Chinese University. After the media swiftly reported the shock-horror incident, university authorities panicked, and security guards removed the offensive items. Similar posters sprouted at other campuses – surprise, surprise. Government officials went into panty-wetting mode trying to insist such displays are illegal without specifying how; lawyerly shoe-shiners suggested the use of archaic sedition law. Mainland students attending local institutions contributed to the ongoing free-speech debate by tearing down posters.
Before anyone had time to say ‘Well, that escalated quickly’, much-loathed pro-Beijing kid-brainwashing-proponent Under-Secretary for Education Christine Choi’s son committed suicide. Widespread hateful mockery about her karma ensued, mostly on-line, but also in the form of a poster at Education University. Officials and loyalists, trying not to appear too opportunistic about the common thread – namely, the evil of banners/posters in general – responded with mass-formation mouth-frothing against abhorrent, immoral, debauched, sub-human, disgraceful radical youth. University authorities freaked out and more-or-less wept, campus CCTV footage of the perpetrators was leaked to media, and the university authorities freaked out even more. Thousands of businesses reportedly/supposedly swear never to hire another Education U grad.
Ideally, calm and reason would enter the picture at this stage. Instead, a poster similarly celebrating the death of Mainland dissident Liu Xiaobo appeared at Education U. It looked obviously to be the work of Mainland students – if you credit them with the awareness and subversive flair of their Hong Kong counterparts. Some might suspect scurrilous locals dabbling in black propaganda. Either way, radical students grasped the opportunity to mouth-froth against abhorrent, immoral, disgraceful, etc, and criticize the campus administration for not freaking out, sobbing, etc.
This is not just a succession of storms-in-teacups. The Great 2017 Campus Banner Horror highlights the extreme fear of our establishment lightweights (college administrators, local government officials, all-purpose shoe-shiners) when publicly faced with sheets of cloth or paper bearing the wrong words. They are caught between the vindictive and ruthless Communist Party on one side and an angry younger radical population who know exactly what buttons to push (examples here and here).
Voices of moderation – apparently, some still exist – hope that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive will show leadership and assure Beijing that it does not need to go ballistic over mere banners. This charming idea assumes that a paranoid Leninist regime will take advice from the hapless figurehead stooges it appointed while the wayward city undergoes rectification. Chinese official media meanwhile call for any mention of independence to be criminalized in Hong Kong, ‘as Nazi activities are in Germany’.
The use by both sides of Christine Choi’s family tragedy shows how far Hong Kong has descended in the last few years. The exploitation of someone’s loss of a child is vile – but brainwashing people’s kids is vile. Beijing has ordered United Front intimidation and government persecution of opponents, and an assault on local institutions and values. Its supporters and hangers-on must conform. That means rejecting the relatively decent mutual respect of the old days, and no longer expecting civilized political discourse, or even much sympathy.