Imagine a well-organized group of young British political activists, demanding greater input into governance decisions, taking over the House of Commons and occupying it for around four weeks — closing down all parliamentary operations — and also taking over key offices in Whitehall for a time. Next, imagine a similarly focused group of activists, later the same year, staging very large, mass political reform demonstrations — running for around three months — occupying key public thoroughfares in Central London, including Piccadilly Circus, Marble Arch and Whitehall, shutting down virtually all vehicular transit as they demand “true democracy” and the Prime Minister’s resignation.
How would the mainstream media in the UK, including, for example, the BBC and The Guardian, respond? In these circumstances, would they pay little attention to the pretexts for the protests and their proportionality? Would their coverage be dominated by a retelling of the narratives supplied by the protesters and intense coverage of all perceived lapses in official and police reactions — accompanied by a steady degree of support for the protestors?
It is hard to imagine that this would be so — that the coverage would be so tilted. Yet this is a fair summary of the way that much of the media from the UK covered the “Sunflower Movement” in Taiwan in early 2014 and the “Occupy Central Movement” (OCM) — also known as the “Umbrella Movement” — in Hong Kong later that year.
Regrettably, this eager manner of reporting remains robustly intact three years after the protests noted above. The Guardian has started publishing a series of columns — “from his cell” — by one of the leaders of the OCM, Joshua Wong. Alarmed at some claims made in the first of these columns (published on September 28, 2017) which could have easily misled UK readers with a limited knowledge of Hong Kong, a co-author, David Campbell (University of Lancaster), and I sent the following letter to The Guardian:
Joshua Wong has told The Guardian’s readers that, having originally been sentenced by a Magistrate to community service after his conviction for unlawful assembly, a Principal Official of the Hong Kong Government, “the Justice Secretary, Rimsky Yuen, overruled that decision and insisted on seeking harsher punishments and put me in jail for six months, making me Hong Kong’s youngest political prisoner.”
This will mislead The Guardian’s readers. The Secretary for Justice has no such power. Rather, as the law of Hong Kong empowers him to do, he appealed Wong’s sentence on the basis that it was too lenient. At a sentencing rehearing, the Hong Kong Court of Appeal, in a judgment highly critical both of Wong’s conduct in committing his offence and of the view of this taken by the Magistrate, sentenced him to imprisonment. Wong’s unlawful assembly involved violently forcing entry into a Government facility.
Wong’s account read literally is just factually wrong. His account read as generously as possible involves the claim that the Hong Kong courts are politically corrupt. On the basis of our own direct experience and academic study, we believe this claim is also wrong. In any case, it cannot be made out in the misleading way that Wong purports to make it. His supporters who, at the rehearing, chanted “shame on the judges,” convey what is at issue more clearly.
The letter was not published. That is the prerogative of the letters-editor at The Guardian. The factual points we made in this letter had, however, all been reported with equal clarity by independent commentators across the serious Hong Kong print and broadcast media prior to the publication of this first column by Joshua Wong. The Guardian still published the column with the text just quoted, while surely being aware of these well-grounded critical comments.
Even those convinced of the UK’s deep colonial guilt can see how much Hong Kong has achieved through combining the British gift for the creation of resilient public institutions with the remarkable strengths of the Chinese family-based enterprise.
How is it that the reporting of certain offshore political developments by much of the UK professional media has come to this? This is an intriguing question to which I do not have a definitive answer. I can, however, see certain pivotal elements which need to be considered in shaping such an answer.
First, there are the China-related matters. Increased democratization is plainly held out as a serious reform option in Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law. Twenty years after the reversion of sovereignty, democracy in Hong Kong has been enhanced (with effect from 2012, especially) but those changes were limited and frustration with the slow rate of reform is insistent and understandable. Over the same 20-year period the reestablished sovereign, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has continued to build the most formidable and successful One Party State (OPS) the world has ever seen. The capacity of this OPS to impose its political will with emphasis has increased significantly. This is a cause for real concern. Perhaps even more concerning, across the developed Western World, is the exceptional and positive economic and social transformation of China achieved by this OPS. China’s economy, using a raw GDP measure, is now over 11 times the size it was in 1997.
Next, the British political theorist John Gray has argued with force in his book Enlightenment’s Wake that for over the past 100 years, a core Western belief — engendered by what he terms the “Enlightenment Project” — has been the conviction that rationally-based liberal principles offer the foundational best option for the exercise and control of political power. It follows from this worldview that these principles have universal application and their universal standing is best confirmed by their increased application. Projects to advance true democracy fit within this narrative especially well. As it happens, Gray argues that this belief is ruinously undermined, inter alia, by the critical contradictions between Enlightenment, universalist principles, and unyielding historical political realities.
Third, any inclusive review would have to conclude that British Hong Kong was a singular success story arising from the British Empire. Even those convinced of the UK’s deep colonial guilt can see how much Hong Kong has achieved through combining the British gift for the creation of resilient public institutions with the remarkable strengths of the Chinese family-based enterprise. Hong Kong, thus, is a legacy of the Empire which is both durably and positively remembered. Moreover, given that the UK successfully governed Hong Kong using a non-democratic authoritarian legality system for almost 150 years — and only introduced limited democratic elements within the final decade of British rule — there is a lingering sense that not enough was done to foster political reform prior to 1997.
Fourth, if one has made more of a hash than otherwise of the vegetable garden at home, rather than try and deal with the difficult task of putting that right, telling a garden owner some distance away how they should cultivate their vegetables is an understandable and appealing option.
My judgment is that all these elements have worked together to help shape the broad adoption of an ultimately simplified template for much contemporary UK reporting on political activities and developments in the Far East.
The value of an authorized, simplified story is well recognized in the PRC, of course. The sanctioned political narrative about China, more than ever, is predictably positive and usually clear cut. Beijing audits or censors dissenting or complicating arguments seeking mainstream attention as a matter of course.
Early Westerns shot in that wonderful Californian sunshine required all horse-bound actors to wear hats. One standard marker of heroes and villains was white hats for the former and black hats for the latter. The very clever pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm famously crafted a slogan to energize all the other animals to rise up against the unloved farmer: “Four Legs Good — Two Legs Bad”. The appeal of a simplified story has been observed and put to work (in different ways) by both Hollywood and Orwell — and many others.