I’m no stranger to unreasonable authority using lies, tricks and stratagems to oppress the public. But China’s dirty tactics impress me, and admittedly top anything I’ve seen local government do here in Britain. On a personal level I’ve always been capable of admiration for the strategies of a competent adversary. So here is my analysis of the tactics deployed by Beijing, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and the Hong Kong police in their attempt to destroy Hong Kong democracy. As the Hong Kong police’s extreme brutality and the Chinese government’s acts of murder are well covered, this article will focus on nonviolent tactics.
1: Control of information
Like all democracies, Hong Kong has freedom of the press. But that means little when journalists are prevented from reporting the news or even seeing what’s happening. Journalists are routinely beaten by police, tear gassed and arbitrarily detained. One foreign journalist lost an eye. Police also shine torches at reporters’ cameras to obliterate photos of themselves violently attacking protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. The police use these violent tactics to prevent being identified while committing assaults on civilians. It is also feared that a temporary injunction banning civilians from identifying police officers on social media will affect reporters. Citizen journalism has been effectively targeted by this injunction.
Carrie Lam’s strategy of allowing police brutality against the press achieves her aim of preventing the media from reporting on how the Hong Kong citizens are suffering.
The Hong Kong Police force typically describe peaceful demonstrators as violent rioters. They probably hope to turn public and international opinion against the pro democracy movement, thus cutting off support.
The police and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam have perpetrated the spread of misinformation in official speeches and media interviews, reaching a global audience. Previously the protesters were slandered as Islamist terrorists. This segues neatly into…
Carrie Lam has consistently lied that she is protecting Hong Kong. The police maintain that the protesters are violent and that their brutality is necessary to keep the peace. While this isn’t a very creative lie, it’s an effective anti-democracy tactic, as it leads the naive to support Beijing.
2: International alliances by deception
China aims to trick other countries into officially declaring that Hong Kong (and Taiwan) are fully part of China and therefore subject to Chinese authority with no sovereignty of their own. The latest example is China’s “Sister City” deal with Prague in which China used the pretext of twinning Beijing and Prague to force Prague City Council to publicly adopt China’s stance on Hong Kong. In this case, both trickery and threats were used against ordinary civilian Council employees, culminating in intimidation from the Chinese embassy.
In my opinion, it is likely that the Sister City initiative was simply a cover to achieve support for China’s views on Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong. Beijing may hope to instigate multiple similar moves with different countries cloaked as cultural initiatives but designed to gain official-looking agreement with Beijing. This would mean Beijing would have global support for its “One China policy”. There would appear to be a legal basis underlying any future invasion of Hong Kong or at least more international support for any illegal actions against the Hong Kong people. It would also appear to the international public that China is in the right as multiple governments agree with their position. Thus, sanctions and other pressures- whether exerted by single states or collectively by the United Nations- could be avoided. China might also find it easier to mount a legal defence, if necessary, in an international court.
China has succeeded in making Donald Trump agree to honour the “One China policy” (the idea that Taiwan is not an independent sovereign nation, but instead part of China). In October 2019, Nepal’s leader agreed to uphold this claim. Therefore it’s not surprising that Beijing is using the same strategy of international alliance against Hong Kong as it is doing against Taiwan.
3: Divide and conquer
Almost all of the Hong Kong population is pro-democracy and wish to see Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam step down (there are now reports that she may be replaced). This includes Christians; the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong called on Lam to investigate police brutality and to “repent”.
Having lost the trust of the majority ethnic group, and that of Catholics and Protestants, Carrie Lam then wooed the Muslim population by visiting a mosque which had accidentally been spray-painted by police who were aiming at pro-democracy demonstrators. Carrie Lam and the chief of the Hong Kong police apologised to Kowloon Mosque during their visit. Neither have apologised to the thousands of protesters injured, including a young woman and a foreign journalist who both lost an eye, a student left with a brain haemorrhage and a teenager who was shot. Carrie Lam has consistently refused to order an independent investigation of the police brutality which has been ongoing for five months.
Police also claimed a water cannon truck was deployed to protect the mosque from protestors. This is despite the fact that demonstrators have never attacked the mosque or displayed any Islamophobia. The victims of tear gas and the water cannon truck, who were sprayed while peacefully demonstrating, have not been apologised to.
Police were later seen stationed outside the mosque while a demonstration took place nearby- probably an attempt to make those who use the mosque feel protected by the police, and to imply to the media and the Hong Kong public that it was protesters who sprayed the mosque instead of the police themselves. Carrie Lam and the police wanted to make it look as if the protesters are Islamophobic or racist, and that the mosque was in danger of being attacked by protesters.
Lam’s actions, and that of the police chief, represent a calculated attempt to get the Muslim community or ethnic minorities to side with Beijing. Additionally, citizens in mainland China are kept ignorant of the Hong Kong crisis by state media, depriving the protesters of mainland support. The worst thing for any oppressive government is a populace united against it.
Beijing’s spreading of rumours that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam will be replaced and her own assertion that this is untrue could be a deliberate attempt to sow confusion and divert the Hong Kong people’s attention.
Carrie Lam’s speeches typically never answer questions about investigation of police brutality and other issues over which she is facing criticism. Instead, denial, obfuscation and diverting attention to other topics are the features of Lam’s public utterances. She even used the masquerade of a pretend apology (not for any of her questionable actions) to waste time and avoid the issues during press conferences. The use of her Defamation tactic is also often utilised to divert attention from her own actions.
On 1 November an agreement with Beijing about the election of Hong Kong leaders was reported to have been reached. However, so far the details are nonexistent, meaning it is impossible to know whether this means a better situation or increased dictatorship. There isno reason to keep the terms of the deal secret. In fact, China should be delighted to prove to the world that it is now acting more daily towards Hong Kong. Therefore it’s likely that the agreement strips even more human rights, and/or that China has something to gain by keeping everyone in the dark for now.
The effect China hopes for could be to create discussion and speculation which would divert public attention from the protests and channel the protestors’ energy away from demonstrating.
5: Cultural Assimilation
Since several years ago, China has changed its immigration laws to allow many mainland Chinese people to settle in Hong Kong. Chinese banks and businesses have also bloomed. This is a calculated measure to slowly change Hong Kong society and ensure pro Beijing factions are in Hong Kong if dissent breaks out. Had Beijing not done this, there would be no pro Beijing support in Hong Kong. The entire Hong Kong population would be pro democracy.
Niccolo Machiavelli states in The Prince that in order for a leader to avoid the public rising against him, an “excellent expedient is to send colonies…so that these may become, as it were, the keys of the Province; for you must either do this, or else keep up a numerous force of men-at-arms and footsoldiers. A Prince need not spend much on colonies.” Xi Jinping has practised his immigration policy accordingly.
The above stratagems are of the social, political and legal type. But Beijing has consistently made use of violence alongside political strategy. Weakening both the pro democracy movement and Hong Kong’s democracy itself by force has become a hallmark of Xi Jinping’s strategy since a few years ago. And police brutality isn’t the only way force is being deployed.
Beijing has banned pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong from running in the upcoming district elections. This is a deliberate weakening of both the potential of the pro democracy movement and democracy itself. So were the abductions and murders of Hong Kong booksellers who stocked books which Beijing didn’t want Hong Kongers to access. On 4th November, the Chinese government warned that civil servants who protest or even silently agree with democracy are risking their careers and future, and “will burn”.
It is possible that attacks on pro democracy candidates and demonstrators, including driving cars into crowds and gang assaults with hammers, are the work of Beijing agents. A terrorist attack which wounded several people including a local politician was carried out on 3 November, a day after it was announced that Beijing would not tolerate protests and had concluded a deal to use law enforcement and security against the Hong Kong people.
And while most of the public are pro democracy – medical staff, pilots and teachers are frequently amo gthise protesting – one job stands out with most members being pro Beijing: taxi drivers. YouTube videos show rows of taxis displaying the Chinese flag. This could simply be coincidence. Perhaps these are real taxi drivers. But if they are Beijing plants, then the plan makes sense: demonstrators won’t dare take a taxi home. Taxis are cheaper in Hong Kong, especially if shared. They’ll be forced to pay more for a bus, the MTR (Hong Kong’s subway) or walk a long way home, possibly in the dark.
This can deter people from protesting or limit the amount of time they can protest for, since they will take longer to get to and from the demonstration or may not want to be out in the dark. Many protestors are young and some are still at school, making them particularly vulnerable to this tactic as they have to get up early for school and parents may not want them out at night. Walking to and from protests also increases the chance of being arrested (protest is now a crime in Hong Kong).
China’s president Xi Jinping threatened Tianenmen-style violence while on a state visit to Nepal. On 14th October 2019 Jinping was quoted as saying that dissent would end in “end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.” He has also threatened America with retaliation for passing a Hong Kong Human Rights Bill. This is an obvious attempt to stop support for the Hong Kong people by intimidation.
It’s not all stick, however. Reports that Carrie Lam will be replaced as Hong Kong leader (Pro democracy activists have been calling for her to step down) could be designed to appease the public, at least for the time being. If these reports are true, they may be a longer term effort to make protestors feel they’ve achieved some measure of safety for Hong Kong. Or, it could simply be that Beijing believes Carrie Lam is not enough of a dictator to destroy Hong Kong in the manner desired.
To conclude, Beijing uses force more than manipulation. While control of information is a form of mass manipulation and Beijing and Carrie Lam field a constant stream of lies blaming foreign agents and terrorists, they make no real attempt to trick the protestors into believing their freedom will be granted soon. There is also no clear indication – at least in the information available to the public-that China tried to charm or manipulate the USA into not passing the Human Rights Bill. Instead, police brutality and terrorist attacks purportedly committed by Pro Beijing civilians have been the hallmarks of the conflict so far. Therefore, as sublety isn’t Beijing’s strong point, the key to defeating them may lie in using deception rather than force (especially given that Jinping has a massive army).
Overall, China still deploys a wide array of tactics. However, media technology means the truth will out, and in fact always has done since the protest’s inception. While the struggle for human rights, democracy and an end to Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong may be a long one, history teaches us that dictatorships always collapse eventually, usually due to internal pressures, as they aren’t sustainable. However in the meantime Beijing’s game-playing is interesting to watch as- in my view- it’s done with a sense of style.