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Published on Apr 27, 2021
National security salve for recalcitrant Hong Kongers: ‘Patriot’ template for society

The mainland China is going all out to beef up both traditional and unconventional security measures in Hong Kong. After rejigging the public representation system to stymie the influence of “pro-democracy” elements, Beijing is using themes like national commemoration and identity to increase its political control over the city-state to protect territorial and temporal borders.

Since “patriotism” has become a key qualification for getting into public office in Hong Kong, the authorities in the city-state have embarked upon transforming its citizenry into patriots. On April 15, schools in Hong Kong marked the ‘National Security Education Day’ with exhibitions on weapons and quizzes on the theme of national security. Hong Kong police switched from British-style foot drills to a new goose-step marching style in sync with the pattern followed in mainland China. This initiative to instill state-sponsored nationalism is aimed at weaning the city-state’s Gen Next off its colonial legacy.

There are two facets to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) campaign to promote awareness on national security in Hong Kong. First, Beijing seeks to ramp up its national security office. For this purpose two hotels with more than 600 rooms in the city-state has been taken on lease by the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government. This agency was established after the national security law for Hong Kong was promulgated. It is tasked with monitoring how the local governments enforces the legislation, which proscribes acts that the CCP describes as secession, sabotage, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.

It will also be responsible for vetting aspirants for elections to the Legislative Council and the chief executive elections after the electoral laws were overhauled. While augmenting its enforcement mechanism in the embattled territory is a traditional security measure, the CCP is experimenting with unconventional methods in line with Xi Jinping’s ‘overall national security concept’.

Under the concept, Xi posited to give “equal weightage to both development and security”. This means the CCP feels that mere economic gains are not enough, and it will have to prioritise security too. At a special politburo session convened to discuss on national security in December 2020, Xi enunciated that “people should be regarded as the basic force of national security” and “depending on them” to maintain internal security. He has also sought unconventional means to bolster national security. In China’s reckoning, Hong Kong represents a “weak link”, and may be used by the Western powers to effect a ‘colour revolution’. Thus, Xi has sought ordinary citizens mobilized to safeguard national security.

The CCP has taken the fight to protect national security to classrooms and campuses. Annie Wu Suk-ching, a businesswoman and member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, has sought greater emphasis on teaching Chinese history in educational institutes in the city-state. In April 2021, the authorities in Hong Kong undertook an exercise to review history textbooks for secondary school students to expunge “biased and misleading” references related to the first Opium War in the 19th century between China and Britain. The textbooks had included ‘discussion topics’ that sought the opinion of pupils in Hong Kong on whether or not the Opium War could have been prevented if China had adopted a more liberal policy towards trade and commerce, and if it was prudent for China to ban opium. In the mid-19th century, Britain had waged a war against China, then ruled by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), after it refusal to permit the trade in opium. The CCP narrative on the mainland blames Britain for pushing China to sign a series of unequal treaties, including ceding Hong Kong. In October 2020, the Hong Kong Education Bureau took the drastic step of revoking a teacher’s licence on grounds not related to criminal misdemeanour. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam justified her administration’s action of annulling the schoolteacher’s registration for “promoting ideas on Hong Kong’s independence”. Through re-evaluation of historical events, the CCP seeks to fuse themes of history, identity with the security of Hong Kong, and tailor a new narrative on colonialism that suits Beijing. Further, it wants to make an example of those who depart from the official narrative.

At the end of the Cold War, the CCP was confronted with a crisis over its legitimacy, and students taking to the streets demanding more freedoms that ultimately culminated in the Tiananmen Square Incident. In response, the CCP crafted the patriotic education campaign that deployed nationalistic themes to ensure loyalty in a population. The main focus of the campaign was to educate China’s youth about their nation’s “humiliation” during the Imperial era, and depict Japan and Western nations as villains. Today with commemoration of April 15 National Security Education Day, Xi is taking a leaf out of the post-Mao generation’s book to tame Hong Kong. Incidentally, the events that culminated in the June 4 Tiananmen Square Incident began on April 15, 1989, with the death of the CCP’s Hu Yaobang.

Political control is an important priority in an authoritarian state. Hong Kong represents a challenge for the CCP, given that the city-state has witnessed huge protests against its authority in the recent years. Many activists associated with the democracy movement in the city-state received prison sentences for their involvement in the demonstrations. Beijing perhaps reckons that such coercive methods may pay off only in the short run. However, the CCP feels that its strategy of co-opting sections of the civil society through social institutions like schools and youth associations may help it execute its agenda through informal control.

China’s attempts to subdue the troubled city-state are having the opposite effect. Some civil groups have termed the National Security Education Day as an attempt to “brainwash” students, and urged them to discard the literature disseminated on national security. Faced with the mainland’s growing interference in its education system, parents are mulling greener pastures for their wards. More than 35,000 Hong Kongers have submitted applications under a new scheme, which was launched this year, that allows them to live in the UK to find employment and study for up to five years. If this trickle becomes an exodus in future, then it is not really a vote of confidence for Beijing on an international stage. Emigres leaving the Soviet Union pushed the spotlight on human rights violations, leading to economic sanctions against it in the 1980s.

On April 19, Xi visited Tsinghua University ahead of its 110th anniversary and lauded its role in creating professionals who are completely loyal to the CCP, termed the institution as a role model for other universities. He had earlier spoken about the need for students based abroad to further the CCP’s goals. Over the years, Chinese students have become vocal on issues that the CCP perceives as its core interests. In 2017, Chinese students campaigned to rescind an invitation by the University of California to the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama. This has invited accusations that Beijing used students as an extension of its sharp power. In turn, it has led to Western governments hitting back with visa curbs on Chinese students.

Xi’s longevity as head of the CCP is directly linked to his political consolidation, and hence Hong Kong represents a challenge. China is trying a combination of formal and informal methods to assert its control. There is a reckoning that prolonged use of coercive strategies to subdue the city-state may be counterproductive. The CCP seems to have come round to believe that the strategy of using co-option of social institutions may work just like it did in the mainland. But Hong Kong’s youth exiting the island are a bad advertisement for the regime. The city-state’s efforts to turn its Gen Next into patriots may eventually end up hurting them.

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Kalpit A Mankikar

Kalpit A Mankikar

Kalpit A Mankikar is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme and is based out of ORFs Delhi centre. His research focusses on China specifically looking ...

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