Beijing’s United Front Campaign Against Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement

Report: Written by Kahlil Stultz.

Despite the focus on China’s external national security in academic and journalistic mediums, the threat of internal movements, deemed by the ruling regime to be subversive, are in the mind of Beijing a clear national security threat. In the case of the latest addition to Chinese territory – the former Crown Colony of Hong Kong, the assurances of one country/two systems have been wrung hollow by the increasing agitation of students and liberals unsatisfied with Beijing’s increasing abrogation of democratic rights and local institutions.

Hong Kong in the last twenty-five years has been – and remains – a Gordian knot for the CCP. Thus it policies towards the former colony have been ones less of violent intimidation, but rather manipulation, counter-narratives and what scholar Sonny Lo describes as a “quiet, slow but extensive penetration”.  

Unwilling to repeat the trauma, international excoriation and economic freefall that a crackdown similar to the one seen at Tiananmen Square in 1989 would bring, and still desiring to maintain the appearance of one-country/two-systems, Beijing has employed an old and formidable means to suppress political dissent known as the “United Front Strategy”.

These political warfare devices are described by University of Adelaide scholar, Gerry Groot as the CCP’s collation of economic and social structures meant to safeguard pro-Mainland interests in its peripheral holdings through the manipulation of neutral and friendly factions in order to outnumber and fight opposition.

The United Front Strategy, as seen in Hong Kong, is implemented and disseminated by a unique organ within the CCP – the United Front Work Department (UFWD). Having both intelligence, economic and public affairs responsibilities and under the direct purview of the Party’s Central Committee,  the UFWD’s aim has been the same since 1949: to expand the influence and protect the interests of the Chinese Communist Party abroad.

If one asks historian Cindy Yik-yi chu, the primary aim of the United Front Work of the CCP’s United Front Department has been to soft-sell Beijing’s ideology and political views and shift narratives towards ones of patriotism and nationalism.

Likewise, Brendan P. O’Reilly finds that the narrative pushed by Beijing and championed by its allies has become one of patriotism, security and economic wellbeing versus western backed anarchy and economic decay. It does this by a savvy appeal both to the economic and cultural elites who hold sway over Hong Kong’s mainstream culture, as well as agitation of the fears, prejudices and concerns of the wider Hong Kong population against democracy movements.

In terms of the appeal to Hong Kong’s elites, the best tool in the use in the United Works Department’s arsenal is the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – an organization which, among other things, gives overseas Chinese businessmen and public figures the opportunity to gain access to the high ranking CCP heads and formulate policy.

In addition, it also allows for political protection, access to coveted contracts and protections for business expansions on the Mainland with the only stipulation being political loyalty. In commerce and finance fueled Hong Kong, the support of the business community is integral for any movement or narrative. One of the most profound successes of the United Front Strategy and the United Fronts Work Department in Hong Kong has to be the mobilization of famous and high-ranking business personnel to Beijing’s ideology as “consultants”. Pre-eminent Hong Kongers – mostly famous and wealthy businessmen became, as Sonny Lo describes it: “spokespersons to emphasize the importance of patriotism among Hong Kong people and to isolate opponents”.

When human rights groups and liberal political factions staged massive demonstration against the Hong Kong government in 2003 and 2005, decrying eroding civil liberties and suspicions about increased manipulation of the government by Beijing, the Chinese government responded not with arbitrary force but with a political campaign.

Definitive figures of the city’s growth and economic splendor such as Gordon Wu Ying-Sheun – a preeminent Hong Kong businessman and longtime member of CPPCC decried both demonstrations, characterizing them as mobocratic and treasonous. In the 2005 protest, the legendary gambling tycoon and scion of one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most elite families – Stanley Ho, himself a member of the CPPCC, went further stating sheepishly that Hong Kongers were culturally unsuited for democracy.

Fast forward to more recent years; the business community has been under pressure from Beijing to not only criticize the democracy movement but also support Beijing’s goals and narratives. Since the Xi era, the stakes have grown higher and the position of Beijing even more inviolable.  When in late October 2014, industrialist James Tien criticized the Pro-Beijing Chief Executive of Hong Kong – C.Y. Leung, and was expelled from the CPPCC and the United Front Works Department. While those CPPCC members such as entertainment magnet Lui Che-Woo who have consistently taken a strong stand and championed Beijing’s interests have been endorsed by Party mouthpieces.

Just as effective as its elitist CPPCC options, has been its grass roots agitation among more conservative elements of the general public of Hong Kong. The Chinese Communist Party and its UFWD have proven successful at manipulating narratives, and in line with its previous behavior has chosen not to physically flex its internal security muscles, but to marginalize those challenging its rule and policies.

Key to this, is demonstrating that the pro-democracy forces are not a vox populi and that they do not command the respect of a wide range of Hong Kongers. During the 2014 Yellow Umbrella protests, Beijing and its allies countered the narrative of local identity with a counter-narrative of respect for authority, care for economic stability, as well as patriotism. Through one of the United Front Works Department’s affiliates  – Patrick Ko Tat-pun, a former director of the United Works Department’s “Shenzen overseas liaison committee” grassroots groups such as the pro-Beijing organization Voice of Loving Hong Kong have been established in order to counter and disrupt pro-democracy demonstration have been established to form counter-demonstrations and antagonize those who disagreed with Beijing publicly.

Beijing’s United Front tactics have gained groups as disparate as Triad affiliates, lower middle-class shopkeepers and mainland immigrants to join pro-Beijing groups and brawl on the streets for the CCP. Some were mobilized out of a sense of anger at protestors disregard for local businesses, others allured by pay from United Front Works Department affiliated operatives or simple loyalty to the CCP and skepticism about the western style democracy fought for by Hong Kong protestors, they have provided the united front with the manpower needed to oppose Beijing’s enemies.

Some attacked foreign or western sympathisers at the protests, others isolated democratic activists and some attempted to bypass police lines to get the main host of democratic protestors. For Hong Kong political scientist and democratic sympathiser Joseph Cheng, these reactions are all apart of the United Front strategy and are organized by the UFWD. As he said in an interview with New Tang Dynasty Television: “In the past few years, the Communist United Front has founded 4,000 to 6,000 groups in various sectors. These groups are mobilized to attack the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong.” In addition, Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily has accused Beijing and the UFWD of using the United Front to coopt violent triads to terrorize democratic activists.

Since the 2014 Yellow Umbrella protests, Reuters journalists James Pomfret and Greg Torode have observed that United Front tactics and the United Front Works Department have become increasingly integral to China’s policy in Hong Kong. When during June 2015, the Hong Kong Legislative Council debated and eventually declined to pass a Beijing backed electoral reform law which would effectively allow all Hong Kongers to be able to vote in the election but only those candidates approved by Communist Party and the United Front Works Department could compete in the election, United Front tactics and the United Front Works Department took action.

At one point nearly a thousand pro-Beijing supporters mobbed LegCo headquarters, waving the flag of the PRC, singing Party anthems and harassing the small host of democracy activists also protesting that day. As the passage of the law was coordinated by the United Front Works Department it is believed by Reuters that the protest was also organized by them.  

With raucous Chief Executive Elections expected on March 26th 2017, the United Front tactics and the United Front Works Department will hardly be far from the surface of Beijing’s campaign to maintain its interests. Since 2014, the visits of senior UFWD officials has increased substantially, and as Beijing has engaged in kidnappings and intimidation tactics against impertinent journalists, bookseller and activists, it is highly likely that the United Front strategy of Beijing shall grow increasingly more aggressive, with greater rewards for those in Hong Kong’s business community which follow Beijing’s line (and punishments for those that betray or try to remain neutral) as well as more provocative and unabashed demagoguery among ordinary Hong Kongers.

While 2015 and 2016 saw a relative quieting down of protests and brawling in the streets, 2017 may see full blown political warfare with the CCP and its allies using United Front strategies to utterly outnumber and outmaneuver dissent.

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