The United Front’s self-defeat

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Occupy Central movement was wilting several months ago. Only hardcore enthusiasts came to its ‘deliberative’ sessions or expected to take part in its pretentious-sounding ‘referendum’ on obscure election technicalities. Then the Chinese Communist Party came to the rescue. Rather than ignore the struggling band of academics and activists and let them fade away, the Leninist instinct was to treat them as a serious challenge to the state, separatists attempting to usurp power.

It organized all the resources at its disposal to crush the threat to one-party control, wheeling out shoe-shining businessmen to spout ridiculous alarmism, publishing a poorly worded White Paper to redefine the official reality, and even resorting to cyber-attacks and smears. One of its tactics was to get a sorry group of pro-establishment worthies to change its title from ‘Silent Majority’ to the ‘Alliance for Peace and Democracy’ and launch a signature drive against Occupy Central to try and match the participation rate of the ‘referendum’, which the heavy-handed United Front campaign had inadvertently turned into a huge success.

The well-funded and staffed ‘Anti-Occupy’ petition showed all the signs of desperate overkill: barely literate villagers unsure what they were signing, acceptance of signatures from Mainland tourists, and similar opportunities for rigging the outcome. (Two anecdotes that have come my way in the last 24 hours: a guy pushing an empty trolley through Central stopping to sign every time he passed one of the many petition stations; and unenthusiastic staff at a private Mainland-owned company being dragged to yam cha to complete papers, which were then sent to Beijing’s local Liaison Office.)

The whole Anti-Occupy exercise has been hugely flattering to Occupy Central. There was no need for them to return the favour. But for some reason, they couldn’t resist lowering themselves and dignifying the semi-charade with a response. They did this through a series of Tweets, which seemed laborious if you were on the receiving end of them yesterday, and maybe not so bad when presented as one list – but which still hardly needed to be said. It seems it’s not only Beijing’s officials who can’t master the art of ignoring trivial things and treating people who are beneath as if they’re not there.

Rather than nitpick about a contrived copycat petition driven by losers commanded by the Liaison Office, we should look at the big picture. The Communist Party has been employing classic United Front tactics in the hope that it can coalesce enough of the Hong Kong population to freeze out Occupy Central and leave it isolated and vulnerable. Even top government officials have had to take part. But the attempted citywide ‘struggle session’ has backfired, and society is more deeply divided than ever, not simply between reformists and conservatives, but between free-thinkers and shoe-shiners, the better- and worse-educated and the older and younger generations. Families have feuded over it. If anything, Beijing’s assault has left the pro-democracy forces looking stronger and maybe even a bit less disunited (since the propaganda/smear barrage picked on moderates as mercilessly as on radicals). By raising real fears for press freedom and rule of law, it has alerted skeptics and moderates and attracted overseas attention.

It’s hard to see how the pan-dems can leverage this to great effect. Beijing is too thick-skinned to notice or care much that its battle to crush the democracy movement was counterproductive. Local officials like Chief Secretary Carrie Lam will be left to get Hong Kong back to being one big happy family, and specifically to beg and plead with moderate pro-dems to accept the political reform package when it is unveiled. They are currently trying to lure them with hopes of further reform post-2017, though the frenzied United Front campaign has hardly left would-be waverers in a receptive mood.

So the bottom line: The Chinese Communist Party has shown us its true obnoxious bullying self up-close; Hong Kong people inexplicably still do not universally love and adore the Party; and we remain no more or less on course for guided quasi-democracy.


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