China’s big and tough, self-confident authorities ban Wu Rongrong, one of the high-profile ‘five feminists’, from leaving the country to study overseas (in supposedly-part-of-the-motherland Hong Kong, as it happens). On the Communist Party’s vindictiveness scale, the (10-year) ban is pretty soft. The Leninist system imprisoned and effectively killed Liu Xiaobo for writing essays, and it has just forced a public confession out of Taiwanese rights activist Lee Ming-che – and tormented his wife into the bargain.
Beijing makes no secret of the reason for this inhumane and humiliating treatment of people who speak out – it is to warn and intimidate everyone else. The message is: this won’t happen to you if you shut up.
The regime now insists that its local administration in Hong Kong also adopt this approach. That is why Joshua Wong and other student leaders are in prison, and it is why the authorities are trying so hard to bankrupt expelled lawmakers. The idea is to disrupt young activists’ studies, wreck their finances and damage their future career prospects – all to send others that same message: keep quiet, and this won’t happen to you.
Will such crude methods work in Hong Kong? One vague precedent could be the discrimination against leftist activists after the riots in the late 1960s. If that’s a bit of a stretch, we might look at Singapore, where dissidents are hounded to death or into exile – all in accordance with the law, of course.
Singaporeans seem to believe unquestioningly that their leaders are an elite, gifted with the sacred DNA of Lee Kuan Yew or otherwise of naturally superior breeding to the other 99% of humanity. Many Mainlanders (and some foreigners) swallow the notion that the Chinese Communist Party is similarly a rigorous meritocracy propelling the nation’s cleverest minds, with engineering degrees for added can-do, up to the top.
Of course, if these despotic leaders were really so smart they would not fear competing ideas or criticism – indeed, they would welcome and, most of all, ignore them. But Mainland and Singaporean rulers have become sufficiently competent in both governance and repression that their subjects largely submit to the idea that democrats, feminists and other ‘troublemakers’ get what they deserve.
Hong Kong is different. The culture of authority killing chickens to scare monkeys is alien, and if anything the tradition is that the population persecutes the officials. People already know that Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her grab-bag of losers in government have been chosen specifically for being lightweights, devoid of imagination or critical thought. Unless they are impossibly clever and subtle – or the opposition are seriously stupid and play into their hands – these unconvincing ‘leaders’ cannot suppress dissent without drawing greater attention to their own shortcomings.