Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Occupocalypse Now! ©

I’ve copyrighted the term Occupocalypse ©, Hong Kong Occupocalypse © and Occupocalypse Now! © as you can see.  Please contact me for T-shirt and umbrella licensing, etc.

But seriously...

Interesting that the United States, the United Kingdom, and the UN General Secretary have all voiced concern about developments in Hong Kong and called for restraint.

In other words, what we see is creeping internationalization of the Hong Kong issue.  Given the relatively minor and local character of the matter to date, at least, it makes one pause. 

After all, the current toll in Hong Kong is a few dozen injured after some confrontational street protests, some tear gas got fired, now everybody’s sitting around waiting for Occupy Hong Kong’s latest move.

Why give a sh*t about a currently fatality-free civic ruckus inside China’s sovereign territory even as the US refeeds the Middle East through the military meatgrinder for the umpteenth time, mass graves of slaughtered civilians are uncovered in eastern Ukraine, and the U.S. can’t bring itself to censure Israel for a disproportionate military operation in Gaza that killed 2000 including 500 children?

Hate to say it, but the inference that the U.S. sees profitable mischief to be made in Hong Kong is inescapable.

I believe that Occupy Hong Kong is a legitimate local movement with legitimate local grievances and is pretty much a local phenomenon.

I also believe that its leadership has spent months planning the current campaign, and part of that campaign involved keeping the United States informed and coordinating sub rosa with the United States to exploit the unrest to apply pressure on the PRC.

Bernhard of Moon of Alabama unearthed a fascinating budgetary item for the NDI in 2012 (and also, I must own, rebuked me for my naivete in regarding the Hong Kong demos as home grown):

National Democratic Institute for International Affairs - $460,000
To foster awareness regarding Hong Kong's political institutions and constitutional reform process and to develop the capacity of citizens - particularly university students - to more effectively participate in the public debate on political reform, NDI will work with civil society organizations on parliamentary monitoring, a survey, and development of an Internet portal, allowing students and citizens to explore possible reforms leading to universal suffrage.[boldface by Bernhard]

As I tweeted at the time, “Must admit it did not occur to me that the sophisticated civil society in HK would need a legup from US on this issue.  What did they do with that $460K, dig up Cady Stanton's corpse [Cady Stanton was an early suffragette heroine] & ship it to HK?” 

The intertubes also disgorged a picture of Hong Kong democracy avatars Anson Chan and Martin Lee getting face time with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Washington on their way to an NED meeting.  Biden was perhaps entrusted to share his insights on democracy but he is also the Obama administration’s go-to guy/flak target for the global regime managed-transition megilla.

Unreported in Western prestige media, unsurprisingly because as far as I can tell (the China Matters media budget precludes unrestrained clicking and reading of paywalled and quota’d coverage, and relies excessively on parsing journos’ self-congratulatory tweets) the Western coverage, without naming names, has been embarrassing to the cringe-inducing level.

OK, I won’t name names or outlets, but there is a certain prestige paper that has stockpiled a considerable inventory of journalists evicted or otherwise unwelcome in the PRC, and whose management has apparently decided that its investment in their reportorial excellence (unleavened, undoubtedly, by any sense of personal grievance) should be cashed in on a beat it considers the story of the year/maybe decade/maybe century.  (And, as the Hong Kong brouhaha evolves, I wonder if the PRC will strike back at its media tormenters by hyping in its turn the burbling allegation that a certain PRC news honcho is facing the death penalty in Beijing because he leaked the skinny for a story that a certain paper claims as its unaided, crowning achievement in PRC coverage to date.)

Back to Hong Kong.

The prevalent media memes, as far as I can tell, are Darling, Darling Demonstrators; Tiananmen Redux; and Xi Jinping Is Totally Pwned!

Addressing the last one first, the obsession with CCP supremo Xi Jinping’s Hong Kong-related mindset, as far as I can tell,  contrasts with rather skimpy coverage of a story that journos in Hong Kong are very well-positioned to cover, by virtue of location, sympathy, and contacts, which is the strategy of the Occupy Hong Kong movement.

For the edification of my readers, my take on the strategy is that the whole campaign has been carefully gamed and thought out: start with student demonstrators; expect/provoke police over-reaction; call for Chief Executive to resign (where we are now); bigger demonstrations; adult leadership represented by Dr. Benny Tai emerges; more sophisticated demands, perhaps for resignation of the Chief Executive through some legalistic process involving the Legislative Council, maybe followed by formal pro-democracy referendum; ??.

As for the CCP’s response, it seems to also come out of its standard playbook: Local Guy (Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung)  gets his chance to contain the crisis, predictably f*cks up, crisis portfolio turned over to elite CCP team for careful, focused management behind the scenes with Local Guy in the front man/fall guy role.

Yesterday, by the way, the first formal demand (after several days of parades/demos/confrontations) finally emerged from the Occupy side.  Through the magic of Twitter, starting with a classic piece of inversion by the headline-writer at the Rappler (it has come to my attention that the most widely adopted slander/misrepresentation format is to print a reasonably accurate article under a misleading and inflammatory headline and/or descriptive slug.  I wonder if this approach has been shown to be effective in gulling the general public, which maybe simply skims the headlines and can’t be bothered to read the supporting text):

China Hand (me) weighs in (several tweets strung together and blockquoted):

What Leung actually said is "I'm asking them to fulfill their promise". This is more like a demand, from OHK: "If Leung announces his resignation, this occupation will be at least temporarily stopped in a short period of time, and we will decide on the next move." I wonder if the CCP will find this package of concessions and threats attractive enough to can Leung.  "Dump Leung so we claim victory, go home, get some rest, and come back next week" doesn't sound like an irresistible offer.  Is this the sign of a deep game...or no game?

In my personal opinion, I don’t think the CCP plans to fire C.Y. Leung (reviled by the demonstrators as Beijing’s incapable stooge) on the say-so of a bunch of students led by a seventeen year old because a very big crowd of demonstrators showed up on the streets for a few days.

And I don’t think the demonstrators expect this either.  The main objective is to trumpet Leung’s intransigence (with, it seems, a little reality-massaging help from outlets like The Rappler) to justify bigger demonstrations, more outrage and, I expect, if and when the demonstrations gain significant traction and Hong Kong is polarizing to Occupy’s advantage then the Occupy elders will emerge to make their demands on the Hong Kong government from a position of optimal strength.

And I strongly suspect the CCP knows the Occupy game plan, not just because of the reality on the ground but because Occupy is probably chockablock with moles feeding info to Hong Kong and PRC security forces (and Occupy I expect is running a few countermoles; I also take Benny Tai’s rather preposterous occasions of handwringing over “Occupy is fading” or “Occupy is outta control” over the last few weeks as disinfo meant to sandbag public opinion and manage its expectations, if not the PRC’s).

Won’t find much of this kind of ruminating over the Occupy strategy or the day-to-day mindset of its leadership in the Western press.  In fact, one senior editor disgorged a tweet today that the Occupy movement was leaderless, a misrepresentation that I, in my current frame of mind, found more sinister than ridiculous.

Instead, there’s been a spate of articles purporting to get inside the faraway and unfamiliar territory of Xi Jinping’s head—as I put it in twitter terms "brilliant Western journos lecture Commie dictator on how to run his f*cked up country" pieces. The pieces pontificate on Xi’s lack of options, his rigidity, his lack of moral clarity, how he’s boxed himself into a corner on Hong Kong etc. with a declaration that he brought the crisis on himself by the PRC government’s issuing the inflammatory White Paper on Hong Kong governance.   

(I think history will judge, once it gets around to the issue, that the Occupy activists seized on the White Paper—which primarily stated that the PRC ultimately runs the show in Hong Kong, an observation that I think was no surprise to anybody—as a pretext for kicking off the current movement.  If it wasn’t the White Paper, it would have been something else.)

I also think, especially if Hong Kong doesn’t blow up in Occupocalypse (c) ! In the next few weeks, that a lot of journos should be pretty embarrassed about what they wrote and tweeted.  But I kind of doubt it.

The key journalistic framing/expectation is that Hong Kong is Tiananmen Redux.  As I discussed in a previous post, Hong Kong is a big and dangerous problem, but it is no Tiananmen.  As a reminder, the CCP was shaken to its core in 1989 by a major economic and political crisis, a split leadership, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators camped out in the nation’s capital and demonstrations, violence, and factionalism in virtually all of China’s major urban centers while, on top of everything else, the Soviet Union—which was generally considered at the time the PRC’s military, economic, and organizational superior—collapsed in chaos.

Hong Kong 2014 not so much.

Nevertheless—and despite the fact that the CCP’s main job description is dealing every year with the literally thousands of admittedly less dire “mass incidents” prompted by the cruelties and inefficiencies of its rule without military force--the breathless prediction is that Xi can’t make concessions; so he’s gonna send in the tanks!

I find this scenario pretty unlikely.  Could happen (throw in the necessary ass-covering hedge) but Hong Kong is still a special case, with the crisis largely limited to Hong Kong, with the PRC regime prosperous and united and with resources of money and influence that would dwarf anything that Li Peng could have imagined in 1989.  And whatever combination of soldiers and People’s Armed Police the PRC decides to throw at Hong Kong if the local cops are overwhelmed and insurrection rears its head, they will probably perform their jobs more neatly and professionally than the disoriented blunderers of the 38th Field Army in 1989.

Hong Kong also has limited resonance inside China because the segment of the Hong Kong population alienated from the PRC and out on the streets is also the segment that has alienated the mainlander population with its abrasive and condescending chauvinism, an awkward fact apparently skated over in fawning Western coverage of the adorable demonstrators.

Though generations of journos, activists, and scholars would disagree, I find the Tiananmen analogy way past its sell-by date and a barrier to understanding what the PRC can and will do.  I suspect the West clings to it because it provides that instantaneous good guy/bad guy framing so important to public diplomacy.  Also, on a deeper level, the Tiananmen meme hearkens back to a happier, sunnier time when the US was the omnipotent and benevolent lawgiver in a unipolar world, and not a peer competitor in relative decline, increasingly perceived as an incompetent and resented mangler of nations.

Finally, of course, the prospect of a bloody crackdown, even if it currently exists primarily in the expectations of the foreign media, allows the West to claim humanitarian and/or security skin in the game.  Call it R2P, call it solicitude for the immense importance of Hong Kong as a linchpin of the global financial system (forgetting the fact that Hong Kong’s jittery tycoons are still firmly lined up on Beijing’s side), and the West can inject itself into what is still a messy but manageable political crisis in Hong Kong. 

And, if you’re going to hype a potential massacre, you’d better hype the innocent adorableness of the demonstrators.  I agree, the demonstrators are adorable, but the extent to which Western and Hong Kong journos swoon over their umbrella-brandishing, trash-collecting, and banana-offering ways is ludicrous and misleading.  The general intent appears to be to present the demonstrations as a spontaneous outpouring of indignation by innocents, thereby depriving them of agency (to trot out a sociological term) and make the other side responsible for anything that happens to them.

This is, of course, an important framing because, in addition to being personally adorable, the demonstrators will be engaging in actions that might be considered obnoxious: tying up roads, storming government buildings, etc.  Heartfelt emotional expressions of unconditional student-love might be needed to paper over a few excesses.

All in all, I predict predictable if not coordinated synergies in escalating unrest, escalating BS in the media, and escalating handwringing by foreign governments.

As to where it all ends, my guess is that, thanks to the growing alienation of the Hong Kong population and its encouragement and celebration by foreign governments and media, the Hong Kong governance problem will never go away.  The priority of the CCP will be to try to keep a lid on it, manage it, and try to divide and weaken the pro-democracy movement to the point that the Hong Kong populace becomes disillusioned and the city can return to business as usual.

The key question for me is, if the CCP keeps its cool, avoids the ultimate polarizing crisis, and settles in for protracted, slow-burn war, will the interests and strategies of the United States and the Occupy movement diverge?

The U.S. willingness to see the PRC hoisted on its anti-democratic petard—and encourage the process—should be apparent to anyone who follows these issues.  And it’s Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow, as strategists are well aware.

Best case, for the US anyway, is the PRC commits some immense, irretrievable blunder in its handling of the Hong Kong crises, with major, debilitating knock-on effects in Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and maybe the Han heartland.

But that’s not necessarily the best-case situation for Hong Kong.

There is no conceivable scenario in which the US can project meaningful support for the movement inside Hong Kong.  The best it can promise if things turn to sh*t is escape, asylum, and sinecures for the leaders.   

Wonder if that will be enough for the leadership…or the people on the streets.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

From Xinjiang to Hong Kong, the PRC Reaps the Bitter Fruits of Alienation

It’s becoming easier to understand why the PRC landed on Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur “public intellectual” like a ton of bricks.

Judging from the admittedly selective excerpts used at the kangaroo court to damn him to “indefinite detention”, reported perhaps not inaccurately in the West as a “life sentence”, Ilham hoped to use his bully pulpit at a Xinjiang university to nurture a cadre of students with a strong sense of Uyghur identity, alienated from the PRC regime, and convinced of the right and need to agitate for greater Xinjiang autonomy in the face of an alien occupying power.

Then, perhaps, Xinjiang politics would have evolved into the politics of perpetual, continually aggravated, and burgeoning grievance and ever-more-entrenched spirit of resistance that one sees in Palestine…or on the streets of Hong Kong today.

The Hong Kong police showed a poor understanding of the street theater of populist politics in response to the provocations of the student vanguard of the Occupy movement, trotted out the tear gas and rubber bullets in a misguided effort to clear roads in the Admiralty district, and have lost the public relations battle for now, and perhaps forever.  [As a commentator pointed out, the use of tear gas and rubber bullets in Admiralty was a tactical move by the police to clear certain areas, not a response to a potential storming, as was the case of the pepper spraying at the government headquarters the day before.] 

In retrospect, perhaps the strategists in Hong Kong and Beijing might have concluded it would be better for the police to stand by and allow the students to storm their way into various government offices--over the weekend, for goodness sakes!—and let public opinion chew for a few days over the issue of whether it welcomed this kind of confrontational politics.  After all, that’s how the much-maligned KMT government in Taiwan handled the Sunflower occupation of the Legislative Yuan a few weeks back; as a result, the PR gains of the students appear to have been relatively transitory, and the uneasy balance between “let’s give the PRC the middle finger” and “don’t rock the boat” factions seems to have been preserved.

Based on dismal results in places like Egypt, Pakistan, and Ukraine, I am not a big fan of “student activists raise a ruckus in the main square” brand of democracy.  If Hong Kong democracy activists had wanted to give voice to the popular mood, instead of driving the opinion process through confrontational street action, they could have organized boycotts of the 2017 polls (which, if the relevant bill passes the local legislature, will involve universal popular suffrage to vote for candidates screened by a committee of presumably PRC-inclined worthies).

However, the alienation of many Hong Kongers, particularly Hong Kongers on the younger side of an increasingly stark generational divide, toward the PRC and the disruptions that PRC citizens have brought to the economic and social life of the city, is profound; and the PRC’s disturbing (and perhaps violent) efforts to put a tighter leash on the local media indicates that Beijing is actively attempting to manage and restrain political expression in Hong Kong.

An unofficial civic referendum (actually offering democracy supporters a choice between three different pro-democracy options) attracted almost 800,000 voters, equivalent to about 1/5 of the city’s electorate.

So, there was a big fat fuse just lying there, and Occupy Hong Kong decided to light it, starting with a class boycott and demonstrations organized by the Hong Kong Federation of Students.  And, since I’m never afraid to mix a metaphor, the Hong Kong government poured fuel on the fire by pepperspraying and teargassing it.

Over at Reuters, John Pomfret provided some context for the police response.

Hundreds of pro-democracy activists stormed government headquarters late on Friday after student leaders demanding greater democracy urged them to charge into the compound. 

Police used pepper spray as the protesters smashed barriers and climbed over fences in chaotic scenes in the heart of the Asian financial centre, following Beijing's decision to rule out free elections for the city's leader in 2017.

One student leader, Joshua Wong, a thin 17-year-old with dark-rimmed glasses and bowl-cut hair, was dragged away by police kicking and screaming as protesters chanted and struggled to free him.

Wonder how much of that context will be remembered by the media, much of which has put on its Tiananmen! Today! goggles as well as teargas goggles to report the unrest.

The Tiananmen analogies are, in my opinion, a barrier to understanding what’s going on.

Tiananmen 1989 was a remonstrance/petitioning movement that eschewed disobedience beyond passive resistance and had no political endgame beyond hopes that the regime would respond to its moral suasion by implementing democratic reforms.  If there were political calculations to utilize the demonstrations to advance a concrete agenda, they came from reformers inside the elite.

Occupy Hong Kong is a carefully planned program of civil disobedience, escalation, and provocation meant to provoke a political crisis that will polarize Hong Kong opinion on behalf of the democracy movement and force the elite to support the demands of the movement in order to maintain their local positions of power and prosperity.

And, to make an observation that will probably not endear me to the democracy movement, the 1989 student movement was a popular response to a marked crisis of governance, economic management, and corruption by the PRC regime.  On the other hand, it appears to me that the Occupy Hong Kong movement was sparked by the announcement of a proposed reform for the 2017 election—universal suffrage—and the calculation by democracy activists that the experience of actually voting for some candidate, albeit Beijing vetted, might fatally beguile Hong Kongers with the PRC’s implementation of managed democracy and make agitation for full democracy more difficult.

It should also be said that  Dr. Benny Tai, one of the organizers of the Hong Kong movement, is no Wuerkaixi, the grandiose, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately feckless face of the 1989 movement.  He is a law professor at University of Hong Kong, smart and savvy, and I think he has envisioned plausible endgames that don’t involve Beijing sending in the army to crush local unrest a la Tiananmen and martyr his student activists—though I’m sure this is one of the critical scenarios he has to game.

For me, a key “tell” as to the fortunes and strategy of the democracy movement as the political crisis evolves will be whether and how it focuses its ire on the business elite that provides the local support and financial muscle for Beijing’s control of the territory.

Will some tycoons be tagged as collaborators and find their local reputation and interests threatened?  While others are quietly approached to suggest the advisability of hedging their bets between Hong Kong and Beijing?  Time, as they say, will tell.

I imagine that the first reaction of Xi Jinping and the CCP will be frustration with their local cats’-paws in Hong Kong for failing to keep a lid on the situation and, when things got out of hand, inflaming it.  So I guess the Hong Kong portfolio will be handed to some clandestine crisis-management team.

As to the options available to Beijing, one is, of course, Send in the Tanks! and endure international obloquy and the undying hatred of the citizens of Hong Kong.  

Another, which attracts less interest among the Tiananmen-fixated, is to let Hong Kong stew in its own juice, allow the dysfunction to burgeon until a local backlash is triggered or, failing that, at least the local worthies have had enough and publicly petition Beijing to help them out of the mess, perhaps through an ultimatum coupled with some post-2017 legal legerdemain relating to the electoral commission.

Western reporting seems to be all over the map, albeit with a heavy Tiananmen Redux overlay in many occasions.

There is a significant population of journos that Beijing has expelled or otherwise mistreated, some of them are in Hong Kong or itching to get there, and I suspect many of them, while maintaining the strictest standards of reportorial objectivity, will not be unhappy for this opportunity to put the boot in on the regime.

One of the most irritating canards that is presumably a Occupy Hong Kong meme that some journalists have picked up is “Xi Should Be More Like Deng” i.e. adopt Deng’s flexible, pragmatic ways in dealing with the Hong Kong situation.

As a reminder, Deng was not afraid to play the Hong Kong invasion card in his discussions with Margaret Thatcher:

The Chinese were ready to resort to "requisition by force" if the negotiations had set off unrest in the colony, said Lu Ping, who later headed negotiations with Chris Patten, the last governor.

Baroness Thatcher said later that Deng Xiaoping, then China's leader, told her directly: "I could walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon."

Deng was also the architect of Hong Kong’s managed democracy structure.

And, of course, Deng greenlighted the entry of the armed forces into Beijing on June 3-4, 1989.

With Tiananmen on the lips of so many commentators, the assertion that Xi Jinping should take his grievance-management cues from Deng Xiaoping is borderline ludicrous.

Selective memory has also found its way into reporting (or at least headline-writing) broadcasting Occupy’s claims that the current democracy movement was triggered by Beijing “reneging” on its promise of democracy for Hong Kong by scheduling universal suffrage for 2017, but insisting that only candidates vetted by the commission could run for office.

As far as I understand it, the commission set-up was integral to Beijing’s foundational plan for Hong Kong.  In other words, the PRC would commit to fifty years of free rein for business/society only if the direct democracy genie could be kept in the bottle by controlling the list of candidates eligible for office.

I also suspect that the PRC told the Thatcher government that, if the UK tried to belatedly introduce full direct democracy in Hong Kong prior to 1997 (as Chris Patten championed) and burden the PRC with the unpleasant task of rolling back a democratic status quo when it claimed sovereignty over the territory, that would be a trigger for the real Occupy Hong Kong…by China.

As noted above, Deng Xiaoping was the conceptual architect of the strategy to install a “kill switch” on Hong Kong democracy and balance Hong Kong’s economic and social freedoms under the “one country two systems” formula with political control by keeping hostile administrators out of the Hong Kong political mix.  

Here’s what Deng Xiaoping said about the Hong Kong rule in 1984:

Some requirements or qualifications should be established with regard to the administration of Hong Kong affairs by the people of Hong Kong. It must be required that patriots form the main body of administrators, that is, of the future government of the Hong Kong special region. Of course it should include other Chinese, too, as well as foreigners invited to serve as advisers. What is a patriot? A patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong's prosperity and stability. Those who meet these requirements are patriots, whether they believe in capitalism or feudalism or even slavery. We don't demand that they be in favour of China's socialist system; we only ask them to love the motherland and Hong Kong.

And here’s how that intention was implemented in Article 45 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, which became the effective constitution of Hong Kong upon reversion in 1997:

The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People's Government.

The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.

Clearly, the PRC’s envisioned terminus (the “ultimate aim”) of the democratic reform line is universal suffrage to vote for candidates put forth by a nominating committee, not universal suffrage in the nomination as well as election process, which is the Occupy Hong Kong movement’s demand.

If the PRC government revised, promised to revise, or hinted it would revise this understanding to do away with its most important tool for controlling electoral politics in Hong Kong, the nominating committee, please let me know.  Until then, I will regard the “China reneged/broke its democracy promise” line as a canard peddled to provide unnatural enhancement to the legitimacy of the Occupy movement.

“We don’t like the Basic Law and want to overturn it after 17 years through street action” is, I suppose, a tougher sell than “China broke its promise” but, in my opinion, it’s more honest.

But I have a feeling that legalistic quibbling has been overtaken by the outrage that “the Hong Kong government gassed its own people” which, perhaps, is the place that the democracy movement hoped the debate would end up in the first place.