Thursday, September 08, 2011

HK's fear of 'mainlandisation'

About 300 journalists and photographers, members of Hong Kong Journalists Association, took part in a protest march against what they said was heavy-handed security during Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Hong Kong last month. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

THE unusually tight security thrown around China's Vice-Premier Li Keqiang during his recent visit left Hong Kongers furious that their freedoms were being eroded, and fearful of more 'mainlandisation' to come.

By Ching Cheong, Senior Writer

Mainlandisation - perhaps a twist on the term Finlandisation - refers to the gradual acceptance of values and norms prevalent in mainland China but alien to Hong Kong. Put another way, it means the erosion of freedom, plurality, tolerance, respect for human rights and the rule of law - core values embraced by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).

Hong Kongers accuse the city's politicians and police of compromising these values in deference to Beijing.

They pointed to the security arrangements for Mr Li, who is widely expected to be promoted to the premiership next year.

For example, Hong Kong police threw a 200m cordon around the Chinese leader, which effectively prevented anyone, including journalists, from approaching him. Those who breached it found the police at the ready to stop them.

A man wearing a June 4th T-shirt, which is not an offence in Hong Kong, was stopped near his home and removed from the scene by police. Three students were wrestled to the ground at the University of Hong Kong and prevented from attending a ceremony there.

Such rough treatment by Hong Kong police during visits by other Chinese leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao, is unheard of. Many recalled that during Mr Wen's visit in 2003, people were allowed to get close to him.

Local journalists complained that they could not do their job properly because they were kept so far away from the Chinese leader. They could not report on many of Mr Li's activities because nearly half of them were not open to the media.

Instead, for the first time, they were told to use articles, TV scripts and photos provided by the Hong Kong authorities.

After Mr Li's visit, more than 300 journalists wearing black shirts marched to the police headquarters to protest against infringement on press freedom.

Chief Secretary Henry Tang, the No. 2 official in Hong Kong, defended the security arrangements and admitted that it would become the norm.

Ming Pao Daily News immediately pointed out, in an editorial, that this was a major step backward for press freedom.

Many people saw the SAR's police force morphing into China's gong an (public security) or wei wen (maintain stability) force, and practice of government-supplied news as being borrowed from China's propaganda department.

Security Secretary Ambrose Lee and Commissioner of Police Andy Tsang were taken to task at a special session of the Hong Kong legislature.

Hong Kongers have jealously guarded their freedom to speak and to protest since the city was returned to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997.

They were promised a high level of autonomy under a 'one country, two systems' arrangement but many see this being curtailed over the years.

'Mainlandisation' can be best illustrated by Mr Li's visit to the University of Hong Kong (HKU) for its centenary ceremony. The visit itself was shrouded in secrecy, typical of the Chinese way of doing things. As the event was not on the university's calendar or its centenary celebration programme, it was reasonable to conclude that it was held at Beijing's request.

At the ceremony on Aug 18, Mr Li was accorded centre stage and seated in the the Chancellor's chair, a symbol of the highest authority in the university, which made many alumni uncomfortable.

He was one of the two keynote speakers, the other being Sir David Wilson, the penultimate governor of Hong Kong, who was given a seat in the second row.

The university, as host, drew flak for the inequitable seating arrangement for the two men, both of whom were guests of honour after all.

In the introduction, Sir David was referred to only as an alumnus of HKU. The fact that he was both a former governor of Hong Kong and former chancellor of HKU was not mentioned, perhaps in order not to displease the Chinese guest. Such protocol arrangements were unprecedented.

As an official function of HKU, the centenary ceremony should have been open to all HKU alumni. Yet only those who are clearly pro-Beijing were invited. A glaring omission was Mrs Anson Chan, who served as Chief Secretary both before and after the 1997 handover. Another was Dr Martin Lee, a pro-democracy advocate.

HKU vice-chancellor Tsui Lap Chee came under fire for not safeguarding freedom of speech and for allowing some 1,000 police officers - or 5 per cent of the police force - to be deployed in the university grounds and surroundings areas.

A petition signed by more than 1,000 students and alumni called Aug 18 'the darkest day in the university's history'.

The events during Mr Li's short visit have led many people to fear that this 'mainlandisation' process, unless reversed, would erode the values that the SAR holds dear.