Call it what it is

The ‘open letter’ is a rhetorical device that pretends to address one person (who in fact is too grand to take notice) in order to attract a broader audience to the message. The SCMP-OpenLetterexample in today’s South China Morning Post’s op-ed page is ostensibly written to the next Chair of the University of Hong Kong Council, when the office has not yet been filled. As a further twist, the author clearly does have a specific individual in mind: a hypothetical ‘reactionary chair’, which readers will take to mean Professor Arthur Li. Who is, indeed, too grand to take notice.

Up to just a year ago, no-one with any sort of life had ever heard of Hong Kong U Council, let alone paid the slightest attention to its other-worldly academic proceedings. Today, it is the most visible spearhead of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front mission to extend its influence into Hong Kong’s traditionally free and pluralistic institutions. The Council’s compliant worthies played their role in Beijing officials’ obsessive and vindictive campaign to deny pro-democracy professor Johannes Chan a promotion. And now all eyes are upon it.

Many in academia believe that the abrasive Arthur Li – for his own reasons – shares the Communists’ distaste for pro-democrat-ridden HKU. It is hard to believe that the government is going to be stupid enough to appoint him to the Chair; it looks counter-productive and more trouble than it’s worth. (Then again, the year-long smearing of Johannes Chan was overkill. Maybe some Liaison Office agent’s bonus depends on it.) But to the author of the SCMP’s open letter, and to many at the university, the independence of their institution is under real threat.

They are surely right. But their response is delusional. They demand reform of university governance. In other words, they are asking the Hong Kong government – which takes orders from Beijing – to voluntarily abdicate its right to influence university affairs via stooges on the Council. That would make an interesting open letter: “Dear United Front, please kindly refrain from your Leninist strategy of tightening your grip and ultimately strangling our pluralism and freedom of thought. Thank you.”

It is also insular and ignores the much bigger picture. Some 10 years ago, leading Catholic figures denounced and rejected a government policy to broaden membership of publicly funded schools’ governing bodies. (As it happens, Arthur Li was Education Minister at the time.) The outspoken Cardinal Zen pretty much claimed that the Communist Party would try to exert control over Christian education. Many observers thought he was being paranoid. Beijing’s increasingly overt intervention in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs in the last year or two suggests he knew what he was talking about.

The United Front process is not aimed simply at undermining one university’s governing body, or even education as a whole. It long ago infiltrated parts of the local business world – capitalists selling the rope to their hangman. The media, of course. Law enforcement. Legislative Council committees. And from now on, every supposedly independent advisory or governing body with officially appointed members.

Yet despite the sinister creepiness, United Front tactics are clumsy and almost childish in a modern, pluralistic society. The Liaison Office has expended a lot of stooge-capital just to blunder its way into HKU Council. In order to fight back, people defending pluralism need to be blunt and open about what is happening.

Note how apologists for the Communist Party are getting away with accusing those who resist of being the ones using smears and tricks or, incredibly, of McCarthyism. Next thing, the almost self-fulfilling notion that HKU Council had no choice but to reject Johannes Chan in order to protect the university from (implicitly, Beijing) interference will become received wisdom.

There is no room for politeness here. Any column or speech – or open letter – on the subject that fails to mention the phrase ‘Communist Party’ or at least ‘Liaison Office’ by name is giving ground. The Communists smear with lies; the good guys should smear them back with the truth.


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11 Responses to Call it what it is

  1. PD says:


    (This paragraph is just filler, to reach the no. of words guideline.)

  2. Cassowary says:

    Of course United Front tactics are clumsy and cack-handed. Who needs finesse when you can rely on all these Great Worthies being timid and self-interested enough to pretend like everything is normal. Telling the truth would only undermine their own positions, and the entire system which pays them so handsomely. Anyone who refuses to play along is a shrill, paranoid obstructionist, coincidentally, with a conveniently truncated career. Move along. Nothing to see here.

    I’d call it governance by mass delusion, but it’s not really a delusion when everybody knows it’s fake, they just think it’s too impolitic to admit it. So I’ll just call it bullshit. But if you call it “fairy dust” it almost sounds nice, doesn’t it?

  3. Chinese Netizen says:

    HK is doomed. Hang on a sec whilst I find my fiddle, though I’m no Nero…

  4. Nimby says:

    Visit HKIE, charged with preparing the future educators of Hong Kong. You’ll find native mandarin speaker # are nearly par with local students, and have a near lock on post-graduate studies. The former is pretty critical as it’s where the future principal teachers are drawn. Nearly all of the mandarin speakers are youth league members of the CCP on scholarships. Hence the real genius of this subversion is it is mostly being paid for by anyone who’s renting or buying property in Hong Kong. Eddie the slime ball Ng is racking up big bonus points with both Beijing and pro-CCP property developers.

  5. Gooddog says:

    Brilliant stuff. Resist and rage. Its an Orwellian struggle.

  6. Wanchai Dreamer says:

    @ Nimby
    It’s no different at HKU. Walking around campus Mandarin is now the most commonly used language outside class. This process of swamping goes back to the mid-1990s when HKU itself offered generous scholarships to supposedly the best Mainland students (actually the second/third best ones who couldn’t get into top universities at home or abroad!). Many of these students – docile, hard-working and productive – provided laboratory fodder for scientists whose research teams grew and whose research outputs expanded dramatically. Since then who has been paying for the vast majority of Mainland research students (studying for PhDs and MPhils) at HKU and other tertiary institutions?- the Hong Kong taxpayer! Maybe they should be told!

    The question no one seems to asking is to what extent the current crisis afflicting HKU – which goes well beyond the Chan affair – is due to its own serious failings in management, internal governance and leadership. I do not doubt that a deliberate attempt has been made to do Johannes Chan down – undeservedly in my view – but the spineless response from HKU itself and the lack of a concerted effort to counter many unwarranted criticisms is appalling. So too is the complete absence of any effort to unite the university community.

    Cue the Dixie Chicks – “I’m not ready to make nice!”

  7. PCC says:

    “Who is, indeed, too grand to take notice.” Nice touch.

  8. Knownot says:

    Last week, there was King John’s Magna Carta.
    This week, there was King Edward III’s
    Statute of Labourers. The first restrained the king,
    The second, peasants. Now, another king:
    James II, a true-believing Catholic
    Who wouldn’t understand
    He ruled a Protestant Land.

    He got a panel of judges, carefully picked,
    Who ruled he did not have to carry out
    The laws of Parliament; he could ‘dispense’
    With them. In the army, he appointed
    Catholic officers. In Oxford U,
    When vacancies arose
    It was Catholics he chose.

    There is a place whose all-transcendent leader
    Rises above the other powers; a place
    Whose former faith is, like a tired army,
    Being worn away by a new force.
    Without the people’s backing
    James was soon sent packing.
    But in the little bit of Cathay
    Where we live today,
    History may not be repeated;
    The past may be defeated.

  9. Cassowary says:

    An open letter to Leonie Ki:
    Dear Ms. Ki,
    Being asked impertinent questions by the media is not “intimidation”. Being criticized in a public forum because people (correctly) believe that you’re going to do something dishonest and cowardly is not “coercion”. Either you don’t know how to use a dictionary, or you think we don’t. You are running a university. This is embarrassing. Please stop. Yours truly,
    Anyone with half a brain.

  10. Laguna Lurker says:

    Great post, Hemmers, and many fine comments thereon.
    This was special. Thank you.

  11. The last time I looked, making threats and intimidation were criminal activities. If Leonie Ki has any evidence of criminal activity by Johannes Chan, surely she should report it to the police. Otherwise she should stop talking bollocks.

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