Western media backflip from obscuring to exalting Hong Kong separatism

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Hong Kong separatist democrats Edward Leung and Ray Wong meet the Dalai Lama in Brussels

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 media could be forgiven for thinking the Hong Kong Independence movement has emerged from nowhere just this year.

But it hasn’t. Western media are playing catch up, going into frenzied overdrive after having 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. When foreign journalists reported these events — rowdy protests against the influx of Mainland Chinese tourists, for example — the protesters were portrayed as “fringe” or “extremist.”

Indeed, 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). These 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, Uighurs 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 and 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 that are not easily captured in a news report.

On top of that, analysis of the new democrats’ belief that Hong Kong people are a people and a nation distinct from Chinese requires subtlety, as anti-colonial, separatist sentiment can be portrayed as Trump-like, anti-globalist or xenophobic by both resentful old democrats and pro-Beijing forces. Those who criticise the new democrats for leading an ethnic interpretation of Hong Kong-China issues may truly believe that Mainland China’s and Hong Kong’s peoples, societies and cultures are one and the same. But it is also possible their moralist de-ethnicisation — that is, insisting Hongkongers are Chinese — is in their status-quo-preserving interests.

It was not until Western governments had befriended and come to trust some of the new democrats that Western journalists began to normalise and legitimise them through reportage.

On March 9 this year, US diplomats met with some of the separatist democrats, which Beijing-friendly online media spectacularly revealed with photographs as proof. The rendezvous was dutifully relayed by other pro-Beijing media outlets, including the South China Morning Post.  This was less than two weeks after 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 and could no longer be written off as extremists.

The next month, separatist democrats who met US diplomats in March met with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, and in September at Brussells, Belgium. 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 when describing Tibet and Xinjiang.

In the same month the Guardian fawningly described Edward Leung, 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, and usually with veiled sympathy.

Western journalists fail to explain ideological differences over identity and ethnicity between the new and old democrats by grouping them under the labels 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 away 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 has become a thing in the eye of Western media, on par with Tibetan, Uighur and Mongolian nationalisms — a case of ethnic minority consciousness oppressed by an authoritarian regime. The subtext of the Western media reports is that we should be sympathising with it.

Though there are a variety of views and narratives delivered by Western media organisations when it comes to politics in their home countries, when it comes to sensitive international reporting —  on China or Hong Kong for example — these organisations are simply tools of their governments. That, at least, is what I conclude from the deluge of sympathetic reporting on Hong Kong separatism since the US diplomats’ meeting with separatist democrats.

Benjamin Garvey is a PhD candidate at the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University.

A version of this article was first published in Asian Currents, a publication of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.