Kenny Coyle outlines how US institutions are supporting parts of the Hong Kong opposition in alliance with local millionaire Jimmy Lai
It seems Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution has started to fold up.
Protest numbers have dwindled dramatically, rival factions within the eternally fractious anti-government camp have already started mutual recriminations and public patience with the week-long student and Occupy Central demonstrations has worn thin.
As if on cue, mainstream opposition politicians, who remained strangely silent during the protests’ upsurge, have now come forward urging restraint and dialogue at precisely the point at which the movement appears to have exhausted itself.
Likewise the Hong Kong Student Federation leaders, who had earlier demanded what was effectively direct talks with Beijing, now seem open to dialogue with the local government.
Remaining protesters have been berated by irate commuters, traders and workers in the affected areas, especially those directly employed by the government or low-paid casual subcontractors who cannot afford the luxury of lost work days.
Occasional violent clashes, which the opposition swiftly claimed were orchestrated by triad gangs working for the government, have been used to revive the Western media narrative of brave and peaceful demonstrators standing up to tyranny and intimidation.
Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung appears to have been vindicated in the short term at least that the eroding tolerance for continued disruption by the “silent majority” has tipped the scales in his favour and isolated the radicals.
Despite scaremongering, epitomised by the seemingly obligatory BBC references to the “Tiananmen Square massacre,” there was never really any prospect of direct intervention by the central government in Beijing, nor by the People’s Liberation Army forces garrisoned in the former British colony.
After an ill-judged use of pepper spray and tear gas, police enforced a softly-softly approach toward protesters. This was done to such an extent that protesters later criticised the police for not having enough officers on duty to protect them.
Had it not been for this clumsy defensive use of force when protesters charged police lines and tried to break into government buildings, it’s likely the protests would have fizzled out much earlier.
However, key issues have not been resolved. Hong Kong’s government and indeed the central government in Beijing will need to reassess a number of their policies within the territory, which reverted to China in 1997.
While the immediate trigger for these protests was a dispute about electoral reform, behind this lurk several other factors — a multilayered crisis of post-colonial identity, especially among the young, and a yawning gap between rich and poor to name the most obvious. These are the determining internal factors but there are external ones too.
Since the 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty, there has been the hope that Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region could be manipulated by outside powers, principally the US, to complicate the territory’s relationship with Beijing and serve the wider purpose of obstructing China’s “peaceful rise.”
China’s concerns that the protests are being manipulated by outside forces have been presented in the Western media as yet another paranoid delusion from an insecure totalitarian state.
Yet as Wikileaks documents have shown, the US consulate in Hong Kong devotes enormous time and energy to monitoring Hong Kong’s political life. There’s money too, of course.
To take one example, the National Democratic Institute, the US Democratic Party-controlled wing of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), allocated $460,000 (US dollars) in 2012 alone to programmes directed at student activism on the contentious issue of the chief executive election.
Since 1997, the NED has funnelled millions of dollars into the territory to support supposedly independent human rights groups and trade unions affiliated with the opposition.
The latter funds are channelled through the Solidarity Center, NED’s labour wing run by the AFL-CIO, and go to “democratic unions” — that is opposition ones. This is in addition to funds earmarked for general China projects that also include the mainland.
Money plays a big part in Hong Kong politics and the local pro-Beijing forces are no strangers to donations from the city’s wealthy elite.
However, it is the internationalisation of the Hong Kong political scene that concerns Beijing. It fears that foreign forces seek to interfere in what it considers China’s sovereign affairs to polarise Hong Kong society and become a source of internal instability and international finger wagging.
The regular international tours by Hong Kong Democratic Party founder Martin Lee and former Chris Patten deputy Anson Chan to the United States and Britain have been followed up by pleas from the pair to the US and British governments to intervene — actions the Chinese government sees as at best unpatriotic and at worse verging on treachery.
Just some months ago, startling revelations appeared in the Hong Kong media about the largesse of Hong Kong millionaire Jimmy Lai, owner of Hong Kong’s main anti-Beijing newspaper Apple Daily and who has substantial interests in Taiwan.
Hackers had copied some 900 emails and documents from the computer systems of one of Lai’s senior executives.
As the daily Hong Kong Standard reported on July 22: “Leaked documents showed Lai has donated more than $40 million (Hong Kong dollars, £3.2m) to the pan-democratic camp and legislators since 2012, of which $9.5m was made to four political parties in April 2012.
“Lai also gave the Democratic Party $10m in two payments — $5m in October 2013 and $5m in June 2014. The Civic Party also got an additional of $6m during the period.
“Alliance for True Democracy convener Joseph Cheng Yue-shek and Occupy Central organiser Reverend Chu Yiu-ming received $300,000 in June 2013 and $400,000 in April 2013 and April 2014, respectively.
“Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang got $3.5m — more than twice the $1.3m she received from Lai between 2007 and 2009.
“Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun received $6m and Democratic Party founder Martin Lee Chu-ming got $300,000.”
Perhaps more surprising were donations to League of Social Democrats lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung $1 million and donations to the Hong Kong Labour Party’s Lee Cheuk-yan.
Long Hair is a charismatic semi-Trotskyist known for sporting a seemingly endless collection of Che Guevara T-shirts. Lee is the General Secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), the major partner of the Solidarity Center in the territory, which issued the rather hollow call for a general strike on October 1, the first day of a two-day holiday.
Millionaire Lai’s dodgy connections don’t end there.
The payments were made by Lai’s US financial aide Mark Simon, former head of the Hong Kong branch of US Republicans Abroad. Simon is the son of a career CIA agent and is himself a former US naval intelligence officer.
For the sum of $75,000 (US dollars), Lai also hired Paul Wolfowitz as a special adviser in 2013 on his business projects in Burma. Wolfowitz has served on the board of the NED and is the author of the Wolfowitz doctrine, whose core idea was how to prevent the rise of any rival power to the US in a post-Soviet world.
He was also the scandal-prone head of the World Bank and served in the US Defence Department in the administrations of George HW Bush and George W Bush.
Wolfowitz visited Hong Kong on May 27 this year and held a five-hour meeting with Lai onboard his yacht.
Not surprisingly, China suspects that these tangled links are far from coincidental.
It would be utterly foolish to imagine that this past week’s protests are simply manufactured or orchestrated by outside forces — there are too many genuine grievances for that.
However, in the era of Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” it would be the height of naivete to imagine that Washington does not shape and manipulate these crises as they have in so many other parts of the world.
Kenny Coyle was writing in the Morning Star