The United Front tacticians must be delighted: Hong Kong, China’s expulsion of the Financial Times’ Victor Mallet is forcing bystanders to pull their pants down and reveal their true ideological positions. Fence-sitters reluctantly and tortuously take a public stand for rule of law and freedom of speech, while the self-styled principled lose their spines and declare themselves loyal shoe-shiners.
An example of the former is the American Chamber of Commerce. In its initial response, its head (a former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club) gave the impression that bullying the press was no big deal so long as overseas companies in Hong Kong had a level playing field. (The local-establishment General Chamber’s guy opined that businesses don’t care about visas, yawn shrug sniff.)
After (we presume) some conscience-struggling, AmCham produced a statement criticizing Mallet’s ejection, while emphasizing its own non-political nature.
When the ‘One Country Two Systems’ deal meant what everyone thought it meant, there was no contradiction: an organization like AmCham fitted into Hong Kong’s ruling establishment naturally. Its businessmen-members could curry official favour by, say, joining in government Belt-and-Road blather, while local bureaucrats had no problem openly promoting Western values. Now that’s over, and you have to make a choice.
And this bring us to the other side – people who take pride in exhibiting some sort of independence and objectivity who are now awkwardly shuffling closer to Beijing’s new no-nonsense line.
Lawmaker Regina Ip has long managed to be pro-government while occasionally outspoken or critical, and apparently patriotic without being obnoxiously Red. It is calculated and cynical (which is why many right-thinking people can’t stand her), but it’s quite clever. Until it isn’t. She is now endorsing the Mallet visa decision as ‘reasonable’ because, put simply, she is screwed if she doesn’t. An even-handed I’m-above-this act is not an option.
She is hardly alone – the whole moderate establishment face this. Today’s South China Morning Post has an op-ed by a contributor who for whatever reason feels a need to be seen to back this latest step towards Mainlandization when he would plainly rather not. (Essentially, it’s miserable hand-wringing: ‘The FCC brought this on itself, Beijing has slapped its wrist, now can we all move on and be nice again?’) Not a comfortable read.
This phenomenon goes back decades. But as Hong Kong becomes more authoritarian, people will come under far more pressure to identify themselves as either cooperative or antagonistic towards Beijing. It will be interesting to watch public figures who hope they can carry on sitting quietly on the fence, and probably depressing to see how much the divide is along national or ethnic lines.