China Daily Interview with Laura Ruggeri — 23 April 2021
1.The National People’s Congress’ decision on Hong Kong’s electoral reform was made to ensure the principle of “patriots administering the city” will be implemented. How do you see the necessity of the changes to the city’s existing electoral system?
The HK electoral system was a hybrid system that didn’t please anyone. Which is hardly surprising because by definition hybrids are a cross between two different species, and even if they offer some beneficial traits, ultimately they are sterile. The system was open to abuse by anti-China elements, had many features of a colonial model. Its reform was long overdue. Now the real challenge is to harmonize form and content in its implementation. The principle of patriots administering the city is hardly controversial, who would want to live in a city administrated by those who don’t identify with their nation, don’t care about the broader national interest, refuse to pledge allegiance to their country and connive with foreign forces to sabotage it?
Let’s take for example the part of the reform that deals with the exclusion of district councillors from the future composition of the Election Committee.
One must acknowledge that the DCs were first established in colonial times, with the objective of improving the coordination of government activities at district level.
In 2010 they were granted a new power with the creation of “five super seats” in the legislature, together with 117 district councillors sitting on the city’s Election Committee. So the political power of the DCs in the electoral system increased.
Their role changed from providing culture, recreation and environmental services to the exercise of political power in LegCo and in the election Committe. Some of the district councillors cared more about furthering their pro-democracy agenda than liaising with the government to solve local issues. This over-politicization of district elections ultimately damaged the work of district councils because it hindered the necessary collaboration between government and districts.
2. There are opposing views about how Hong Kong’s democratic system has fared in the past few years. Some say it has made major progress and is on the course to achieve more. Some lament the opposite is happening. You have been living in Hong Kong since 1997, what do you think of it? Why?
Well, to put it bluntly, i don’t think HK stood any chance of implementing a truly democratic system in the past 20 years because the political debate was de facto stifled by an anti-China prejudice. The government had little scope for democratic reform because the process was hijacked by forces that paid lip-service to democracy but in fact aimed to subvert government institutions and destabilize HK. The political leaders of HK pro-democracy parties were openly colluding with foreign governments. That kind of foreign interference in local politics would be inacceptable anywhere, it poisons democracy and it’s incompatible with democracy.
3. The city will hold three important elections in the coming year, under the revamped electoral system. What is your expectation of the future path of Hong Kong’s democratic development?
What i would like to see in the future is a substantial rather than a formal change. I welcome the increase in the number of representatives who will select the new Chief Executive. That’s a step in the right direction. I also expect to see new political formations, new parties entering the contest.
I know some people have a problem with the term ‘patriot’, but I believe that loving your country should be the minimum requisite to stand for election. Criticism of the government is a healthy practice if it’s constructive, if you identify a problem and offer ideas and make realistic proposals to solve it. In the past i wasn’t terribly interested in voting, though i was eligible to vote in district council elections. To be honest, very few political leaders displayed the skills and political maturity that i appreciate and those who did were not candidates in my constituency.
I am optimistic about the current political development, many people in HK took a hard and honest look at what happened during the 2019 riots and certainly do not want to see their city descend into chaos again. HK deserves politicians who have a good track-record of serving the community rather than small interest groups or worse, foreign interests.
It’s important that officials understand that being patriotic is not just a label you put on your jacket to show loyalty, it’s the product of a deep understanding of your country, of its values, history, culture, traditions, including political tradition. Such understanding comes with study and direct experience. China has a long tradition of training cadres and the party school system plays a key role in it. It is a meritocratic system that rewards political and professional competence. What we need in HK is to create a similar system, which may take the shape of a School of Government and Public Administration, to nurture talent and train the next generation of administrators. Effective decision-making doesn’t happen in a vacuum, the political eco-system must be healthy both at a district and at a departmental level.
4. The National Security Law for Hong Kong has been in force for almost one year. For historic reasons, national security has been an elusive concept that many Hong Kong people were unfamiliar with. Could you tell us some of the changes you have observed in the city? What do these changes mean to Hong Kong and the people here?
I and many peace-loving Hong Kong citizens welcomed the introduction of the NSL. I actually celebrated it with a drink because i needed to let some steam off after being under pressure for so many months. At some point, when i became the victim of doxxing and threats i even feared that we had entered into a state of civil war. The NSL finally brought an end to the violence, chaos and destruction… and that was cause for celebration. Of course, i am aware that as i was celebrating many were busy erasing their social media history, some were packing their bags to flee HK for fear of retribution, and many activists were busy denouncing the NSL as an attack on…well, the usual freedom, democracy and human rights mantra.
The NSL was long overdue. In fact if article 23 of the Basic Law had been enacted, there would have been no need for this law to be drafted in Beijing. There are political leaders in HK — they claim to be pro-democracy — who opposed the enactment of article 23 and organized mass protests against it in 2003, they also promoted two colour revolution attempts in 2014 and 2019. These politicians were clearly acting against HK interests because there cannot be democracy without national security, unless you are a traitor and happy for your government to become the subsidiary of a foreign power that seeks to destabilize China. As far as i am concerned these politicians revealed their true colours when they marched against article 23 over two decades ago.
As a result of their betrayal HK lost nearly 20 years in its path to universal suffrage. The introduction of the National Security Law last year has finally cleared the air and the ground for further democratic reform.
5. The city held numerous events for the National Security Education Day. Now that the concept of national security has more or less taken hold. It is no longer an alien idea to people here. At this stage, to help the people here deepen their understanding about the civic duty to protect national security, could you share some of your experiences and observations, as someone who has lived in many countries and has extensive knowledge about practices in other parts of the world?
I have been living in HK since 1997 and as a trained semiotician and cultural analyst i am inevitably drawn to the observation of the sign systems that surround me, in the cultural, social and political sphere. To simplify, let’s say i am a bit like a human radar that can detect and analyse signals that may escape the attention of the layperson. What was most disconcerting to me was how easily HK civil and political society could be infiltrated and dominated by discoursive practices, let’s call them narratives, that were designed to subvert HK stability and governance. The general blindness to this subversive activities could be explained by the fact that after the handover, the post-colonial administration hadn’t been fully decolonized and little effort was made to address its political immaturity.
For sure Hong Kong had many good administrators, but they were not politically savvy and they underestimated the risks of foreign interferance and underestimated the importance of creating a sense of identification with China among the population. Again, to nurture this sense of identification one should pay close attention to the education system, media system and to the sphere of cultural production. Because the government downplayed the risks faced by HK it missed all the telling signs that a colour revolution was being planned under its nose. Transnational organizations, like Western NGOs, advocacy networks became entrenched in the Hong Kong civil society, to the extent that the views they promoted became hegemonic in academic, cultural and media circles. These organizations worked hand in hand with pro-democracy parties and subjected China and the local government to constant criticism, they exploited local grievances, tried to create fractures in our society and unfortunately they managed to make the anti-China narrative the dominant one in many sectors of society. China bashing became a career opportunity.
I am pleased to see that the Education Bureau is working hard to correct some of the distortions that were identified in the secondary schools curriculum. For instance the Liberal Studies subject, one of four core subjects, will be renamed as Citizenship and Social Development and the curriculum will cover three themes: Hong Kong, the nation and the contemporary world. Students will also be provided with study opportunities on the mainland.
6. Some call the implementation of the NSL and the electoral reform will pave the way for Hong Kong’s “second reunification” with the motherland. What do you think of this assessment? How would you describe the significance of the NSL and the electoral reform to Hong Kong in the long run, say, decades later
I agree with this assessment. The NSL has paved the way for HK’s second reunification with the motherland. My only regret is that we lost 20 years and one generation has been spoilt. The process should have started immediately after the handover. Unfortunately we can’t do anything about the past, we must look ahead, correct those mistakes, avoid making new ones. But i am optimistic. The NSL has cleared the air and by making it illegal to collude with foreign powers it will provide a level playing field for young, aspiring politicians. I expect new parties will appear, the political scene will be healthier and more mature, finally we will discuss and hopefully solve real problems, the issues that matter to HK because Legco won’t be paralysed by filibustering tactics. As political maturity increases HK citizens will have more say in the way our city is run, more electoral reforms will follow.
7. History and posterity will have a fair judgement. What do you think the judgement will be for high-profile people including Jimmy Lai, Nathan Law (granted asylum in the UK), Ted Hui (fled to Australia), and Joshua Wong? They owe much of their influence to foreign governments, politicians and media in the West. What does that say to you?
As a rule history is never too kind with people who betray their country. So i assume they will be forgotten or spoken about with contempt.
Paradigm shift in Hong Kong
8. Gradual changes are also coming to other sectors, including the revision of Chinese history textbooks, the adoption of Chinese mainland-style drills and “goose stepping” by the Police Force at a recent ceremonial event at the Hong Kong Police College. Some call these long overdue decolonisation measures. But some say that traditions passed down from the British-ruled era are abandoned. What is your take on these changes?
Hong Kong didn’t have to fight a liberation war to free itself from British rule. And because freedom from the colonial power wasn’t earned, many in HK didn’t appreciate its value and meaning, didn’t feel the need to oppose the colonial legacy, attitudes and mindset. When i moved to HK in 1997 i didn’t see a concerted effort to decolonize HK institutions, education, media, culture.
Decolonization doesn’t mean tearing down old colonial buildings or renaming them. It means revealing and dismantling colonialist and neocolonialist power in all its forms, including hidden aspects of that power that remain even after political independence is achieved. Actually the invisible legacy is far more toxic and insidious than the visible legacy.
The question of how Chinese history is taught in HK schools is very important, so finally the education department is addressing this issue. Also, more should be done to promote Mandarin as a medium of instruction, starting from kindergarten. HK parents place a high value on education, so maybe HK should invest more on raising the profile of Mandarin, for instance by ensuring that children who achieve proficiency in this language could gain access to the best education in HK.
Building a Chinese national identity in Hong Kong requires smart power, and a sustained and concerted effort. As to your question about the HK police and their adoption of a mainland-style of marching on National Security Education Day. That was a special occasion, but foreign and local media didn’t miss the opportunity to criticise the police for what was simply a display of national pride. Personally i don’t see anything wrong with it. HK was granted 50 years to lay the groundwork for a full integration with the mainland. It’s a long and complicated process but one has to start somewhere.
9. Are these culture wars, such as the mainland-style “goose stepping”; and some people’s aversion to speaking/hearing Mandarin and preference of Cantonese and English in Hong Kong? Are they the manifestations of something bigger in disguise, with the rivalry between different governance models of China and the West lurking behind? Or even a botched color revolution, as you once wrote?
These days culture wars are being waged everywhere, including in the West. Conflicts over divisive issues, values, morality, etc. have always existed, like geological fault lines, but when they are inflated by both mass media and social media it’s like an earthquake occuring on one of these faults, the rock on one side of the fault slips with respect to the other.
Families are split, teams are split, collectives are split, the fabric of society is torn apart and individuals become more likely to join radical or virtual communities that can be remotely controlled by so-called influencers. In these clusters, that are really like echo chambers, rational debate is absent.
Young people in particular identify with these virtual or sub-cultural communities and can be exploited for many different purposes, including political purposes. When an individual becomes separated from society and is totally atomized, confused and powerless, he may display narcissistic traits, the virtual group is there to make him feel valued and important. Another danger is that at this stage he can be radicalized and manipulated very easily. Culture wars damage people’s minds, destroy the cohesion of society, like carpet-bombing, they leave only ruins behind, but these ruins are not obvious, they are not immediately visible.
We should take culture wars very seriously because they are an integral part of the information war that the US have unleashed, this is their preferred terrain, their preferred theatre of war because they have a clear advantage over their adversaries. Information, or more precisely disinformation war, is one important element of hybrid, asymmetrical warfare, a type of warfare that also include colour revolutions. Any country that resists US hegemony should be extremely concerned and learn more about mind control techniques, because the Pentagon employes scores of neuropsychologists to fight on this terrain.
What makes these kind conflicts extremely dangerous for the fabric of society is that they trigger irrational behaviours, they mobilize people by eliciting an emotional, pre-rational response.
10. You wrote that many academics, educators and cultural workers still share a neocolonial mindset and ridicule the idea of national identity as obsolete in the age of the “global cultural supermarket”. Collectively they hold enormous power influencing and shaping people ’s views about Hong Kong, people in the city and also people in other countries. What results do you see from such a mindset? And what should the Hong Kong society do about it?
The groundwork for the subversive activities I witnessed in Hong Kong in the last few years was laid a long time ago, before the handover. This operation required concerted efforts, seed capital, both human, cultural and financial.
Hong Kong was, and still is to some extent, full of educators, academics and cultural workers who are either foreigners, foreign-educated or share a neocolonial mindset anyway. They are agents of influence, and their job is quite easy because, of course, the global cultural supermarket is dominated by the US thanks to its powerful cultural, media and education industries.
These agents of influence tasked with the destabilization of HK operated undisturbed in our city for many years, they built strongholds in academic circles, rose to positions of power and influence in the media and culture industry. Once the seeds that are sown by these agents of influence germinate, it’s extremely difficult to remove the weeds that strangle our society. It takes from 15 to 20 years to demoralize a nation. Why that many years? Because this is the minimum number of years required to educate one generation and now you can’t get through to those who have been educated to hate China. They are programmed to think and react to certain stimuli in a certain pattern. It’s extremely difficult to change their minds, their basic perception and behavior.
What should Hong Kong do about it?
HK needs to accelerate the process of integration with the mainland. Much has been done to integrate transport and infrastructures, communication, trade and logistics, but if we look beyond the economic integration we notice that other sectors have lagged behind. Some mainland cultural institutions are present in HK but still have a low visibility. If i want to get the pulse of the thriving Chinese music, art, film and theatre scene, especially fringe productions, i have to go to Shenzhen. In HK the Western-aligned gatekeepers showcase and promote foreign-based Chinese artists and writers who criticize China!
If we agree that an ideological battle is being fought in Hong Kong, the focus should be on winning the hearts and minds of the younger generations. That’s something that requires soft power not only in the education, cultural and media fields, but also in so-called ‘fringe cultures’ that’s where the opposition to mainstream cultural norms and values is elaborated. Some youngsters like to conform, others don’t. The latter tend to be more vocal and assertive, they can influence the more conformist types thanks to their leadership skills and many other important skills. I believe that a truly smart power can find a way for these non-conformist youngsters to make a positive contribution to society. Society is not a monolith, it can accommodate diverse opinions, values and behaviours, as long as their influence isn’t corrosive. Also HK must be more vigilant and monitor the pulse of society, influence operations can be carried out anywhere and one should know how to read their telling signs before it’s too late. Letting a foreign power occupy the field of cultural production, dominate public discourse, and frame the narrative is like inviting a burglar into your home.
11. Many people will find it difficult to accommodate all these changes, many of which involve practices they have long been used to. Do you have suggestions or thoughts to share to help them put these changes in perspective, process them in a rational way, and move forward?
I believe that people can accommodate change, but it has to be a gradual process. Too many changes or sudden changes may have a traumatic effect, which i don’t think is a desirable outcome. Political reforms were certainly needed and in the next elections we will see their result. The opposition camp considers Western democracy as some sort of fetish, they hold the naive belief that democracy could magically solve all our problems. By focusing all their efforts on formal issues, they let their voters down, they prefer to obstruct the work of the legislative council, rather than offer constructive criticism to government policies that ultimately affect ordinary citizens. Let’s take US-style democracy, which they consider a golden standard. It’s unable to deliver a decent standard of living to millions of Americans who lack safety, shelter, healthcare, work. The wealth gap has been constantly increasing and so is Americans’ dissatisfaction with their government performance. Maybe more should be done to open the eyes of democracy worshippers in HK.
Laura Ruggeri was born in Milan, and has lived in Hong Kong since 1997. She studied Semiotics in Bologna and Spatial Culture in London, and is a published author. Laura has taught at several Hong Kong universities – but found the neoliberal governance of HK academia intolerable.
Laura is well known in progressive media for her insightful analyses of Hong Kong society and politics, particularly the institutional capture of the “liberal” intelligentsia by anti-China, foreign forces and their part in the Anglo-US attempted “colour revolution” in Hong Kong.
Source: Previously published in segments by China Daily