January 11, 2012
Beijing's allies assail two academics for telling the truth.
Beijing is turning up the Cultural Revolution rhetoric in Hong Kong again. In recent months, state-owned media and Chinese officials vilified a businessman for donating money to opposition politicians, labeling them American stooges. Then they threatened to expel the U.S. consul general for allegedly interfering in local politics. Even the local head of the Catholic Church was blasted as a "political mercenary."
Now the rectification campaign is focusing on two academics, Robert Chung and Dixon Sing. The main target is Hong Kong University's Mr. Chung, director of the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong and the city's leading pollster. For the last 15 years he has conducted surveys every six months on how strongly local residents identify as Hong Kong citizens, Chinese citizens, and other permutations.
In December, the Hong Kong citizens score hit a 10-year high, while the Chinese citizens score fell to a 12-year low¡Xalmost certainly as a result of vote-rigging in the District Council elections, which local media have tied to the Communist Party's underground organization in in the territory.
Beijing's newspapers in the territory, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, promptly accused Mr. Chung of being a "political fraudster" with "evil intentions" to "incite Hong Kong people to deny they are Chinese." One columnist wrote without irony that merely asking people whether they consider themselves Chinese is subversive: "From this we can see that Robert Chung's supposed 'scholarship' is the slave of political dirty money."
The frenzy only intensified after Hao Tiechuan, spokesman for the Central Government Liaison Office, joined in the attacks two weeks ago, calling the survey "unscientific" and "illogical." One columnist suggested obliquely that Mr. Chung should lose his job: "If he lacks even basic common sense, then he is really unfit to continue working in the statistics field."
Mr. Chung rejects the charge of bias and denies meeting last November with a British official who, the Beijing-owned papers claim, is a spy. The professor released a statement that "Cultural Revolution-style curses and defamations, no matter at whom they are directed, are not conducive to the building of Chinese national identity among Hong Kong people."
Then there is Dixon Sing, an associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The pro-Beijing media targeted the political scientist last December as an anti-China "Western-trained vicious dog," apparently because he gave interviews to Falun Gong-affiliated media. But his real sin may have been to defend opposition legislators' plan in 2010 to resign and force by-elections that were de facto referenda on democratization. At least two of the approximately 14 attack articles that appeared in the last few months asked the university to fire him.
Mr. Sing says no university administrator has contacted him so far, though as a junior professor he is more vulnerable than Mr. Chung. There is also a worrying precedent: After the pro-Beijing media attacked Ng Chi-sum, a popular radio talk-show host, the government-owned broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong cancelled his contract effective this month.
Hong Kong is supposed to elect its Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017, and if the attacks on Messrs. Chung and Sing are anything to go by, it appears Beijing wants to neuter the opposition along the lines of Vladimir Putin's Russia. But as even Mr. Putin is discovering, that's no easy task.
Beijing would do well to remember that the last time they tried to restrict civil liberties, with the introduction of antisubversion legislation in 2003, more than half a million people turned out on the streets to protest. Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa and several of his chief officials were eventually forced to resign. Now the Communist Party risks another backlash from a territory that continues to value the rule of law and a modicum of political accountability. Beijing should not count on the people of Hong Kong to surrender these things lightly.