The Western media have gone from obscuring to exalting Hong Kong separatism, Benjamin Garvey observes.
There has been a sudden deluge of Western reporting on Hong Kong separatism over the last six months—and, interestingly, it has been sympathetic. China watchers who rely on mainstream Western media could be forgiven for thinking the Hong Kong Independence movement has emerged from nowhere just this year.
But it hasn’t. The Western media is playing catch-up, going into frenzied overdrive after having deliberately under-reported, wilfully glossed over, ignored, downplayed, dismissed and even disparaged a movement that challenged and confounded their—and their governments’—paradigm for understanding and reporting Hong Kong–China politics.
Hong Kong as a topic for reportage by the Western media died off quickly after the Occupy protests ended in late 2014, even amid a steady stream of events that reflected growing separatist sentiment. If foreign journalists reported these events—rowdy protests against the influx of Mainland Chinese tourists for example—the protesters were portrayed as ‘fringe’ or ‘extremist’.
New and old democrats
Before the emergence of separatism, Hong Kong politics was a simple, easy-to-report, easy-to-understand dichotomy: it was the democracy camp (the goodies) versus the pro-Beijing camp (the baddies). The original Hong Kong democrats have never advocated separatism; they see themselves as Chinese. Let’s call this group the old democrats.
The young democrats of today do not see themselves as Chinese. They see themselves as Hongkongers, a people, nation and ethnicity of their own, culturally distinct from Chinese to the same degree as Tibetans, Uyghurs or Mongolians. They are ethnic separatists and say Beijing’s rule is colonial. Let’s call this group the new democrats.
This fundamental ideological difference over identity-ethnicity-nationality between the new and old Hong Kong democrats requires some explanation, not least because ethnicity is a sensitive, contested subject with profound political implications. But such an exposition in a news report would take attention away from the simple goodies-versus-baddies narrative Western governments prefer their journalists to tell.
On top of that, the new democrats’ belief that the people of Hong Kong are, in fact, a nation distinct from Chinese requires subtlety. Anticolonial, separatist sentiment can be portrayed as Donald Trump-like—antiglobalisationist, ethnicist or xenophobic—by both resentful old democrats and pro-Beijing forces. Those who criticise the new democrats for ethnicising Hong Kong–China issues may truly believe that the peoples, societies and cultures of Mainland China, and of Hong Kong, are one and the same. But it is also possible their insistence that Hongkongers are Chinese is expediency that preserves the status-quo.
It was not until Western governments had befriended and come to trust some of the new democrats (the ethnic separatists) that Western journalists would (or could?) normalise and legitimise them through reportage.
On 9 March this year, US diplomats met with some of the separatist democrats, Beijing-friendly online media spectacularly revealed with photographs as proof. That rendezvous, dutifully relayed by other pro-Beijing newspapers, including the South China Morning Post, was less than two weeks after the new and old democrats competed against each other in a by-election. The old democrats’ candidate got 37 per cent of the vote and the new democrats’ 15 per cent, showing that separatists made up 29 per cent of the democracy movement. Obviously, the new democrats could no longer be written off as extremists.
The separatist democrats who met US diplomats in March met with the Dalai Lama the very next month in Dharamsala, India, and in Brussels in September. One even openly quipped he was colluding with foreign forces.
In June, in a first, US-funded Radio Free Asia quoted strongly separatist commentator SC Yeung in not one but two of its stories. In August, it even used the word ‘restive’ to describe Hong Kong, an adjective it had previously reserved for use to describe Tibet and Xinjiang.
In the same month, The Guardian fawningly described a separatist icon as ‘fashionable.’ Apart from The Guardian, Time magazine, CNN, the New York Times, The Economist, Quartz and even Reuters abruptly, in near unison, started reporting on Hong Kong separatism with gusto, usually with veiled sympathy.
Western journalists continue to avoid explaining the pesky ideological difference over identity and ethnicity between the new and old democrats by grouping them under the label of ‘anti-Beijing activists’ or ‘pro-democracy activists.’
I haven’t seen one Western news report devoted to explaining the fundamental ideological dispute among democrats. Some op-eds have mentioned the issue but their headlines have diverted attention from the key point. Western journalists themselves won’t touch the issue in their reporting. They either wilfully gloss over it or miss it out of sheer ignorance. In either case, it suits their governments.
In the blink of an eye, Hong Kong separatism is a thing, on par with Tibetan, Uyghur, and Southern Mongolian nationalisms—ethnic minority consciousness oppressed by an authoritarian regime. And the subtext of Western media reportage is that we should sympathise with it.
Whereas there is a variety of views and narratives among Western media when it comes to politics in their home countries, when it comes to sensitive international reporting—on China or Hong Kong for example—Western media organisations are tools of their governments, as critics including China sometimes charge. That, at least, is what I conclude from the deluge of sympathetic reporting on Hong Kong separatism since the US diplomats’ met with separatist democrats.
Protests during the Umbrella Revolution in November 2014. Hong Kong as a topic for reportage by Western media died off after the protests ended in late 2014. Photo: Pasu Au Yeung, Flickr, published under a Creative Commons licence.