Michael Kelly SJ. Stopover in Hong Kong

John Le Carre (real name David Cornwall) has written a lot of books about the fairly predictable workings of spies. The Dirty Tricks manual doesn’t have a lot of chapters and you don’t have to be too smart to anticipate the moves and motives of different players. But they can make a thrilling read.

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution is petering out. Basically, for a business town, the behavior of the students was becoming an interruption to trade. And so business leaders joined with police and government officials in telling the students and their allies that the game is over.

But the denouement had a pointy end. Both on Hong Kong Island (in the area of Admiralty railway station) and on the Kowloon side (at Mong Kok) a gaggle of “anti-democracy” protestors started bashing up the students and pulling their tents down aiming to have them go away.

It was very important for the week to end on a winning note for Beijing because the Government in China – as anxious as any of its predecessors about national fragmentation – needed to send a forceful message about how it deals with dissent.

Allegations were everywhere in Hong Kong that the “anti-democracy” protestors were nothing of the kind but really thugs, mobsters and guns for hire from the notorious underworld of triads in Hong Kong, doing the bidding of their paymaster – the Chinese Communist Party.

And on the other side, when the student protests began, conspiracy stories were rife that the students and their allies were in fact the front people for something much more complicated – local Hong Kong activists surely, but as well agents from Taiwan and along with the secretive work of the ever active CIA.

In Taiwan, there is ever-stronger criticism of the country’s deeply unpopular President Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the KMT that, like the CCP, had its origins in Leninism. Ma has taken a positive and proactive approach to engaging China despite the traditional hostility to the government once led by Mao Zedong, the nemesis of KMT founder Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. That line is taken up now by Taiwan’s opposition parties who have a lot to gain from the weakly performing Ma, seen to be soft on the untrustworthy Chinese Communists. Now with HK students creating an event that brought the bear out of its lair, it’s all that the doctor could order for Taiwan’s opposition.

For the United States, its local interests can only be served by destabilizing Hong Kong’s Beijing focused government. China is at odds with many of its neighbours who look to the US as their ultimate underwriter.

Just consider the list: China’s aggressive oil searches in parts of the South China Sea that had been considered the territorial waters of Vietnam and the Philippines; its sabre rattling with Japan over the disputed ownership of the Senkaku Islands; and inconveniencing air travellers over the use of its air space without new and regularly sought permissions.

Creating trouble for Beijing in its own and very visible front garden makes good tactical sense for a coalition with the US of some surprising partners – Asia’s second largest Communist State (Vietnam); the world’s second largest capitalist economy (Japan); and the Philippines, the country in Asia with the most Catholics – who all have a common anxiety about China’s behaviour in the region.

And, strangely, it’s the entrance of the religious factor into the equation that may hold the most enduring force for China.

Christians are a growing minority in China to be measured in the many tens of millions. Accurate figures are not and, while the Communists run the country, will never be available. The only place the figures could exist would be on baptismal registers and no one who controls them will let the Government see them. Doing so would only let the Government know the scale of the threat it faces but credible estimates range between 60 million -100million.

In northern China, and especially around Beijing, being a Christian is synonymous with being a democrat. In the south, it’s not so much the agitation for democratic processes that focuses the effort. It’s creating a space in civil society where Christians can be seen and heard that is the preferred way and also a central tenant of business networks in cities such as Wenzhou.

The Catholics become an easy target if they get politically active because generally they are visible and well organized. There’s not much evidence of any political activism and after the way Catholics copped it in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, there is no surprise there.

The Catholic champion and much-praised democrat in Hong Kong is Cardinal Zen. Growing up in Shanghai, the Salesian Cardinal and retired bishop of Hong Kong has spent most of his life in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Cardinal Zen’s political energy comes as much from his positive appreciation of the values and institutions of a democratic society as it does from his profound loathing of Communism and anyone who compromises in any way with them.

Chinese governments from Imperial times to the present have always been suspicious of the capacity of religions to provide enclaves for dissidents, especially Daoist and Christian groups. The revolution that killed more people than any in history per head of population was the 19th Century anti-Imperial Taiping Rebellion led by a madman who thought himself the reincarnation of Jesus.

What happened last week in Hong Kong was made possible and successful for the demonstrators by a few factors: the presence of reinforcements in the secondary and tertiary students who played truant from school (with their teachers’ permission) to revive the spirits and campaign of groups who have been at this agitation for some time; the choice of two public holidays as the major days of protest, thus making the city free for gathering and marching; the inept use of tear gas and pepper spray by Hong Kong police – when it was used against the students it aroused massive public sympathy for them; and finally the appearance of thugs to break up the demonstrations at week’s end.

That should be the end of it for some time. But it will simmer for the next twelve months before reappearing in the build up to the 2016 Legislative Council elections and then – the big one – the election of the next Chief Executive the following year. By Beijing fiat, the election of that person will be only from among those chosen by authorities in Beijing. Hong Kongers are unhappy about the way they are governed and Beijing’s rising influence and this is highly unlikely to change.

 

 

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