Tea Leaf Nation

Mainlander Runs for Hong Kong Student Office, Pandemonium Ensues

A miniature red scare briefly grips the former colony.

HONG KONG - SEPTEMBER 22:  A man supports the student strike during a rally at Chinese University of Hong Kong on September 22, 2014 in Hong Kong. Thousands of students from more than 20 tertiary institutions start a week-long boycott of classes in protest against Beijing's conservative framework for political reform in Hong Kong.  (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
HONG KONG - SEPTEMBER 22: A man supports the student strike during a rally at Chinese University of Hong Kong on September 22, 2014 in Hong Kong. Thousands of students from more than 20 tertiary institutions start a week-long boycott of classes in protest against Beijing's conservative framework for political reform in Hong Kong. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Affiliation with China’s ruling Communist Party is a must for many young Chinese, but it’s a resume-killer in Hong Kong. After a mainland student running for Hong Kong student government was outed as a former Communist Youth League member, a brouhaha ensued in cyberspace and mainstream media that has deepened mistrust between China and the former British colony now under its control.

Like most mainland Chinese, Lushan Ye, now a sophomore at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), grew up surrounded by party ideology. Children as young as six are asked to join the Chinese Young Pioneers, an organization dedicated to preparing young children for entry into the party — or at the very least, accepting its rule as a fact of life. When they graduate from high school, most Chinese students become members of the Communist Youth League. China’s government refers to members as “assistants” and “reservists” for the Communist Party, but those in the League are not in fact party members. Ye herself graduated high school as a League member, but never joined the party.

Ye’s trajectory seemed unremarkable until she ran for a position in the Students’ Union at the University of Hong Kong. (Students run as groups, or “cabinets.”) The student organization was founded in 1912 and is known for active participation in pro-democratic movements; no mainland Chinese has joined before. Ye suddenly became famous on Jan. 24, when a short video made by HKU campus television outed her as a former member of the League — and alleged she had connections high within Beijing’s government. Local media soon picked up the story, in some cases complete with zesty headlines about HKU television “blowing the whistle” on a potential “red cabinet.” Ye’s response the next day — that “I came here because I admire the freedom and democracy” at HKU — was largely ignored. But her subsequent (and statistically incorrect) comment on Feb. 3 that “99 percent of mainland students in HKU used to be League members” struck a chord among Hong Kongers already worried about encroachment from Beijing. A blogger at The VJ Media, a local left-wing website, claimed that even mainlanders who had not joined the League had nonetheless “received red ideological education.” Passion Times, a stridently anti-Beijing protest group, wrote that Ye’s candidacy was “the tip of the iceberg” of communist penetration of Hong Kong campuses.

Many mainlanders found the whole thing grimly hilarious. When the official news outlet of China’s Weibo microblogging platform reported the story on Feb. 4, mainlanders laughed at the Hong Kong reaction. One Weibo user wrote, “Those separatists are crazy, and beyond saving.” Another echoed a common mainland refrain: “Hong Kong is completely spoiled!” Hong Kong papers Takung Pao and Wenwei Po, both perceived as sympathetic to Beijing, published an interview with Ye on Feb. 4 titled, “Can I not run for the Students’ Union just because I used to wear a red scarf?” On Feb. 6, the state-run and often nationalistic Global Times published an opinion article criticizing HKU for “letting McCarthyism into the school gates,” undermining “the democracy and freedom you Hong Kongers are so proud of.”

Lost in much of the cacophony is the fact that Ye likely had little choice about whether to join the League. This author grew up in the northeastern province of Shandong and never knew of anyone who openly refused an invitation to membership. Chang Ping, a famous mainland columnist now living in exile in Germany, claimed in an article in German outlet Deutsche Welle that when he demanded to quit the League in college, his teacher refused, saying that “only the League can quit you.” That may explain why the League’s membership exceeds that even of the actual (and more selective) party. According to the official data, there were 89.5 million League members in China by the end of 2013, more than half of them students. Chang warned that the League was an organization meant to prepare members for a party “that completely controls all social resources,” and thus had great “coercive force,” an argument that both implicates and exculpates Ye’s candidacy at the same time.

Smear campaigns are certainly not the norm in Hong Kong student elections. The attention that Ye’s League affiliation has drawn in Hong Kong signals an abiding mistrust and dearth of understanding between Hong Kongers and mainlanders, particularly in the wake of the Umbrella Movement, student-driven protests in late 2014 animated by Beijing’s increasing involvement in Hong Kong’s electoral process.

While it’s very hard for the former British colony to imagine life in mainland China’s authoritarian-style education system, it’s equally difficult for mainlanders to accept many Hong Kongers’ notions of democracy. As one user on Q-and-A site Zhihu wrote on Feb. 4, “Some people are surprised how ignorant Hong Kongers are about the Communist Youth League,” but in fact, “there’s no surprise at all; it simply shows our lack of understanding towards each other.” On Feb. 7, a blogger at grassroots Hong Kong news site Independent Media asked, “What exactly is the Communist Youth League? How does it operate? Who joins? How does one join? What does one do after joining? We actually know nothing about this, and nobody cares enough to find out.” One blogger urged Hong Kongers to think about Ye as a freedom fighter: “No environment, no political pressure can stop a free soul from growing… As soon as it has a chance, it escapes to seek a freer world.”

Ye may have escaped, but she will have to wait if she wants to make (minor) political history in Hong Kong. On Feb. 14, Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily reported that Ye and her cabinet, called the “Smarties,” had lost the student election handily.

Correction, Feb. 19, 2015: Shandong is a province in China’s northeast; an earlier version incorrectly described Shandong as being in China’s northwest.

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Ran Liu is a doctoral student of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and writes regularly for CNPolitics, a grassroots website based in China. She is originally from Shandong province in China. 

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