Western media’s perception of the 2019-20 Hong Kong democracy protests, to some the riots, is a carefully cultivated and curated version of events. Testimony of those who witnessed them first hand should not be pushed aside to give space to the dominant narrative of the media.
I have spent around 25 years living in Hong Kong since I first arrived to work at the new Law School at the City University of Hong Kong in late 1991. In early May 2019, I returned to Hong Kong from a visit to Melbourne and have not left since then.
I have discussed the detail of what I have seen happen in Hong Kong over the last two years in a book and in a number of articles. Far too much of the coverage in the Western media has ranged from sloppy to tilted, through to actively fallacious. From time to time, as I have made this point to those I know back in Australia, one recurring response has been, well that’s what you say. These responses are underpinned by deep scepticism merging with determined disbelief.
Quite recently, I listened, on the BBC, to yet another insistent interview of a local establishment politician. The well-known interviewer slipped immediately into his trademark harrying, though never vulgar, style. The Hong Kong interviewee remained composed and directly responsive throughout the interview, despite the badgering questions based on pugnaciously virtuous assertions.
As I drew these two aspects of how Hong Kong is discussed today together in my mind, I realized that they each raised a central question about the standard of the evidence used to support the contrasting viewpoints.
Many years ago, when we studied evidence at Melbourne Law School, a fundamental rule was drummed into us: direct, first-hand evidence was the best evidence. Indirect or second-hand evidence was always inferior. The legal term used for such indirect evidence was “hearsay”, evidence based on repeating what you had heard – or possibly read. Because it was regarded as being inherently less reliable, there was a prima facie rule that it should be excluded from presentation to reduce the danger of injustice arising in both criminal and civil proceedings. There are exceptions to the hearsay rule but they are highly circumscribed.
Those of us who have lived right through what has happened in Hong Kong over the last two years (and longer) do have access to the best direct evidence. What we may draw from this differs but it is still first-hand evidence.
Allow me to offer a brief summary of my own direct testimony, based on eye witness experiences and from watching unedited television coverage. I saw three riots first hand and dozens of live, televised political riots of varying intensity from early June 2019 until early 2020. Two of the political riots I personally witnessed, very close at hand, were minor but still patently intimidating.
The third event was a major, local riot, which I could see from the windows of my high rise flat. All residents were trapped inside our building for about six hours due to the intensity of the riot outside. The next day I went to survey the resulting damage. It was on a massive scale and it is still evident today. Almost all the local Mainland Chinese banks retain external, solid, floor to ceiling, comprehensive metal protective barriers. We used to have an excellent large bookstore that set aside a spacious area for children’s books, which always had children visiting. Alas, it was a Mainland-owned bookstore. It was on the first floor of a shopping mall but it was still singled out for the most barbaric attention. It was unforgivably trashed from top to bottom by the fanatical anti-China, democracy crusaders and books were burned. It is gone, never to return. Many other Mainland businesses were torched and vandalized.
All those responses from people I know in Australia were primarily based on second-hand, indirect and measurably slanted evidence. By reading and watching external accounts, I saw that offshore television coverage was regularly and systematically edited to cast the Hong Kong Police in a grim light and to sanitize the base excesses of the rioters.
Worse still, it is clear that the BBC experts, not least those in the business of sharp interviewing, base their pressing questions on a picture of Hong Kong constructed, willingly, from a mass of hearsay evidence. The fact that the belief in the validity of this evidence is so widely shared across the Western media does not render this evidence less untrustworthy. On the contrary, this evidently shallow, shared perspective amplifies the menace of a tilted conventional-wisdom repeatedly seeking confirmation.
The offshore, mainstream investigation framework related to Hong Kong thus buries any serious concern about the pivotal need for vigilance directed at comparatively untrustworthy information embodied in the Common Law hearsay rule.
Finally, it is instructive to consider how, within this system, the “umpire” decides on the validity of competing presentations.
Think about the umpire. What we have, as this huge debate pivoting around the most important geopolitical shift in over a century gathers momentum, is not just a self-appointed but a primary, self-accredited umpire who is also a principal and increasingly truculent contestant: America.
From the standpoint of basic fairness, this is outrageous. Yet, until recently, at least, most of the world has accepted this extraordinary pact. It is an arrangement that has been “normalized” through long-standing practice. The US has asserted this right for well over 70 years and most of the rest of the world has acceded to (or been forced to accept) this understanding. To be fair, one has to acknowledge that the US has used this remarkable standing with some wisdom, too, to endorse positive outcomes. These though are positive outcomes which almost always jell with or support US interests.
Increasingly, this self-made umpire-power is now being used to amplify hostile agenda setting and to intensify primal campaigning against any serious challenge to US-led, Western global hegemony. Nowhere is this more starkly clear than in its deployment within the extended, confrontational Sino-containment project, with which the US appears to be still more narrowly preoccupied under President Biden.
Secretary of State Blinken recently pushed this envelope of understanding rather far when he greeted his Chinese guests in Alaska by immediately switching to pious umpire mode in order to read out a schedule of American-decreed, Chinese mortal sins.
When Beijing’s senior Alaska team, Yang, Jiechi and Wang, Yi, aptly raised arguments directed at the lack of US standing to make such judgments – on behalf of the world – about China, they shone a light on the perverseness of an emperor claiming that they could switch from referee garb to fierce competitor clothes – and back again -as they wished.
The existing, extraordinary, American geopolitical umpire edifice is not going to dematerialize soon. But it wobbled visibly on its ageing foundations in Alaska.