Beijing Is Shooting Its Own Foot in Hong Kong

Political paranoia is making it hard for the Chinese Communist Party to sell its own narrative.

Students attend a rally at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong on Aug. 22.
Students attend a rally at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong on Aug. 22. Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

As protests continue to rock Hong Kong, Beijing’s efforts to contain the unrest and impose its narrative on the unfolding events, both at home and abroad, are beginning to have an impact—but perhaps not in the way that the Chinese leaders intended. Hong Kong just celebrated its first tear gas-free weekend in a month. Vast crowds—police estimated 128,000 protesters within Victoria Park alone, while organizers said a total of 1.7 million people marched on the day—braved tropical downpours in an entirely incident-free and peaceful march that demonstrated that enthusiasm for the movement has not waned.

This proved inconvenient for Beijing, as the official propaganda machine has continued to portray the protesters as violent rioters unrepresentative of the wider Hong Kong community. Beijing’s official media is becoming increasingly shrill and unhinged, with the state news agency Xinhua and tabloid the Global Times adopting Cultural Revolution rhetoric in depicting four key Hong Kong pro-democracy figures as a “‘Gang of Four’ endangering Hong Kong.”

During the same weekend, Hong Kong protest supporters—and their pro-China opponents—were making news elsewhere around the world, and the result was not flattering for Beijing. In London, a pro-China protester standing in front of a Chinese flag held up a poster reading, “Kneel down and lick your master’s ass.” In Vancouver and Toronto, Canada, Chinese flags were waved from revving Ferraris by pro-China supporters who mocked Hong Kong protesters for being “poor.” In Melbourne, Australia, as pro-China supporters sang the national anthem and clashed with demonstrators supporting the Hong Kong protests, one of their number attacked a television camera crew. Meanwhile, university campuses in Australia and New Zealand have been forced to post security guards to prevent vandalism of “Lennon walls,” hosting pro-Hong Kong and pro-democracy posters and slogans, by pro-China students.

Through a propaganda push in official state media as well as by taking the shackles off social media inside the Great Firewall, Beijing appears to be intent on whipping up vitriol against Hong Kong. Now this hostility fomented by Beijing is spilling out of the mainland and onto streets globally, often egged on by Chinese diplomatic representatives abroad who laud the patriotism of the pro-China demonstrators, much to the alarm of governments and communities around the world.

It cannot be lost on Beijing that the natural sympathies of Western audiences lie with the Hong Kong protesters—indeed, this gives force to Beijing’s narrative that the protests are the work of malign foreign forces out to harm China. But by encouraging these sorts of scenes on the world’s streets, China is hardly winning friends or influencing people in the West. To be sure, that is not the purpose of the exercise: These global displays of machismo are intended primarily for consumption by China’s domestic audiences.

Nevertheless, there is a growing risk that Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong will drive a wedge between China and the international community. And that’s without even mentioning the fraught issue of the thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers currently encamped in a sports stadium across the border in Shenzhen. The scenes playing out in recent days are serving to heighten awareness abroad of the impact of Chinese influence on campuses and, more generally, undermining those efforts. In recent days, Twitter and Facebook have terminated hundreds of accounts that Twitter said were part of a “coordinated state-backed operation” that was “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong.” Twitter also said it would no longer accept advertising by “state-controlled news media entities” after Chinese news outlets had been advertising anti-Hong Kong messages extensively on the platform in recent weeks.

This growing tide of sentiment was summed up when U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in a Wall Street Journal column this week, “[T]his crisis didn’t begin in Hong Kong and won’t end there. The turmoil is the result of Beijing’s systematic ratcheting up of its domestic oppression and its pursuit of hegemony abroad.”

But it’s not just a matter of sentiment—or sentimentality. Beijing’s attempts to bring Hong Kong to heel are having a real and direct impact on international companies and executives, and their perception of doing business with China, as two bombshell stories last week revealed.

Confirming weeks of anecdotes circulating over the office water coolers in Hong Kong’s Central neighborhood, the South China Morning Post reported that mainland border officials have been demanding travelers entering China from Hong Kong surrender their mobile phones for inspection. Those with photographs or messages relating to the protests have been detained for questioning.

The practice is already so widespread that Bloomberg reported businesspeople traveling to China are carrying only “burner” or clean phones to avoid trouble; one professional I spoke to was quizzed precisely because her phone was “suspiciously” clean. The practice is an astonishingly retrograde step, calling to mind travel to North Korea or China of the early 1990s, when flight attendants scoured the aisles of incoming flights to collect all foreign newspapers before landing in Beijing.

But in perhaps the most jaw-dropping development yet, and one that is bound to send deep shockwaves through the international business community, Rupert Hogg, the CEO of the Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific, and a key deputy were forced to resign as a direct result of the protests. The reason given for their resignation was “to take responsibility as a leader of the Company in view of recent events,” according to Cathay’s official statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which notably was filed half an hour after China’s CCTV broke the story.

Beijing had reportedly demanded Hogg’s head for the supposed political misdeeds of Cathay’s staff, some of whom had been involved in the protests in recent weeks or voiced messages of support. Also alarming was the comment made by one anonymous source to the South China Morning Post regarding the appointment of the replacement CEO, Augustus Tang, that Cathay’s largest shareholder Swire Group needed to “show Beijing they’ve got a Chinese face.” (Imagine the—rightful—outrage if a multinational company announced it had removed a person of color and installed a “white face” at the top to please President Donald Trump White House.)

Meanwhile, following the publication of a crowdfunded advertisement supporting the demonstrations in the name of “A Group of Big 4 Accounting Firms Employees,” the Global Times called upon the firms to “fire employees found to have the wrong stance on the current Hong Kong situation.”

Statements like this would appear to presage a “war on terror”-style “You’re either with us or you’re against us” campaign, demanding that businesses publicly declare their position on the protests and take action to back those words up. Some Western businesses will struggle in good conscience to do that. Others will face serious reputational or business consequences if it seems they’re bending to the Chinese Communist Party’s demands.

This may accelerate the process of decoupling already much-discussed in U.S. policy circles. This couldn’t come at a worse time for China as its economy slows, the trade war with the United States continues to grind on with no apparent resolution in sight, and President Xi Jinping continues to pursue the long-term goal of winning China acceptance as a global player and emerging superpower. It may be that Chinese ambitions founder on the rocky shores of Hong Kong island.

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong.

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