Hong Kong’s new television show: “Big Mamma is Speaking to You” | Benedict Rogers
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam is doing everything she possibly can to be a parody of a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatchik. In her latest move, she will present a television show on RTHK every day, four times a day. As popular, witty and controversial presenters quit the previously well-respected public broadcaster, RTHK has slots to fill — and the Chief Executive has seized the opportunity. In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 we had “Big Brother Is Watching You”. And while Xinjiang and the rest of China moves in that direction with the terrifying expansion of the surveillance state, in Hong Kong — on top of surveillance — we now have a new concept: “Big Mamma Is Speaking to You”.
At the height of the anti-extradition protests in June 2019, Ms Lam made one of her most ridiculous remarks — one among a long list. She presented herself as a “mother” and the protesters — many of whom were grown adults her own age, as well as younger professionals and students — as children who needed to be disciplined. That was an early warning signal of the metamorphosis of Ms Lam from humble civil servant to CCP cadre. And now you’ll have “Big Mamma” lecturing you four times a day.
Imagine the scene in a hypothetical, fictional Hong Kong household. The Lee family. The kids come home from school, they have some homework and further study to do, but first they’re allowed half an hour of television. “Well kids,” says Mrs Lee as she prepares dinner, “you can watch a cartoon, you can play Super Mario on your Nintendo Switch, or — guess what — you can watch Carrie Lam’s show. Which would you prefer?”
A little later, Mr Lee returns from work. The family has dinner, the kids do their homework — academic study and national security law studies — and Mr Lee relaxes in front of the television. With the remote controller in his hand, he flicks through the channels. Manchester United playing in a football match, a Bruce Lee movie, a South Korean drama or — excitement of excitements — Carrie Lam burbling through the screen. Which will he choose? The suspense is extraordinary.
After watching a football match, Mr Lee is feeling tired. But he isn’t quite ready for sleep. Mrs Lee joins him on the sofa, after the kids have gone to bed. Finally they switch on Ms Lam’s show. Within seconds they are fast asleep in each other’s arms, and they move from the sofa to the bedroom to retire for the night. Ms Lam is a cure for anyone’s insomnia, even if she is the embodiment of the dehumanization of Hong Kong’s politics and the repression of its freedoms.
It is no wonder tens of thousands of Hong Kongers are preparing to leave the city. Never mind the fear of arrest, the brainwashing in schools, the dismantling of basic freedoms. The mere thought of Ms Lam’s televised burblings four times a day every day is enough to drive anyone to want to escape.
For she is the epitome of what the whole of China under Xi Jinping has become. I have been reading a superb new book by the journalist Ian Williams called Every Breath You Take: China’s New Tyranny. The title comes from the 1982 hit song by the band known as The Police, written by its frontman Sting, who later described it as “a nasty little song. Rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.” It refers to “every move you make … I’ll be watching you.” A stalker, not a lover; an oppressor, not a partner. In every sense, the CCP regime. Yet not only watching you. Now, in Hong Kong, lecturing you every day.
The only difference currently between Hong Kong and mainland China is of degree, rather than of systems. In Hong Kong if you are arrested and prosecuted you might still receive some legal representation and your case is at least reported in the media. And if you are jailed, your prison conditions are somewhat more comfortable than in the mainland. You may be able to read, you are less likely to be tortured, you receive better food, accommodation and access to visitors and medical care. And if you are simply watching television at home without fear of arrest, you can at least change channels when Carrie Lam’s show comes on, or switch it off, or use her as a cure for insomnia.
But as the last Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten of Barnes put it in a testimony to the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee recently, it is now becoming increasingly apparent that there is a growing clash of values between open societies and the Chinese regime, and that Hong Kong is at the apex of that clash. When Xi Jinping’s regime calls on its officials — including Ms Lam — to “wage intense struggle” against constitutional democracy, universal values of human rights, civil society, “neoliberalism”, journalism and any attempt to criticize the CCP’s history, there is a problem. “It is difficult to suggest there is no clash of values … when reading these instructions and others from the party in recent years about, for example, education as a way (in Stalin’s words) to ‘engineer the soul’”, said Lord Patten.
It’s wrong to say Hong Kongers don’t have a choice. They have a few choices. But they are hard ones. Speak out — and risk jail. Stay silent, keep your heads down and watch your kids indoctrinated at school. Switch on the TV — and change channels when Comrade Carrie appears (or watch her if you so wish). Or leave the city, to build a new, free life abroad.
Yet that last option could be curtailed for some by the passage of the immigration bill in the Legislative Council two days ago. The bill gives Hong Kong authorities the ability, without a court order, to bar anyone from entering or leaving the city. The Hong Kong Bar Association has argued that this would give officials unbridled power to impose “exit bans” similar to the ones that currently exist on the mainland. It could have a profound impact on the freedom of movement that has until now existed.
For the free world, we do have a choice. Do we ignore the continuing takeover of Hong Kong by the CCP in every sphere: government, legislature, academia, education, media, judiciary, religion and even business? Or do we respond?
The democratic world has taken some steps. But it needs to do more, especially as the CCP threat grows closer to home. Defending our values, our freedoms, not just for ourselves but for Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Uyghurs, Tibetans and Chinese dissidents, activists and religious practitioners who come to our shores is crucial, especially in British universities. As Lord Patten — who is Chancellor of Oxford University — highlights in his House of Lords testimony, “it is clearly vital for all universities to make clear … that any bullying of Hong Kong students or reporting on their activities, or on the teaching of academic staff, will be regarded as a clear breach of the obligations on the student body to respect the values of open academies.”
Furthermore, it is incumbent on us in the free world to ensure that in the field of research we are not inadvertently equipping the CCP regime. A recent report by the think-tank Civitas, titled Inadvertently Arming China?, points to this very real danger. It concludes that there is a “pervasive presence of Chinese military-linked conglomerates and universities in the sponsorship of high-technology research centers in many leading UK universities and in their research relationships”. It finds that over half of the 24 Russell Group universities and many other UK academic bodies have or have had productive research relationships with Chinese military-linked manufacturers and universities. Up to 15 UK universities have established relationships with 22 Chinese military-linked universities as well as weapons suppliers or other military-linked companies. This madness has to stop.
There is much more we can do. But for now, there are four clear steps: we should condemn the attempts by “Big Brother” — in the form of “Big Mamma” — to co-opt the press and destroy Hong Kong’s freedoms; we should encourage small acts of dissent that don’t endanger people but make a point, such as switching off RTHK when Ms Lam’s show appears, so that the viewing figures serve as an opinion poll on her performance; for those who wish to leave the increasingly dystopian Hong Kong and recover a life of freedom, those of us in the free world must do all we can to ensure that lifeboat avenues are available and that those who leave Hong Kong are welcomed into our societies; and we should finally, collectively, stand up to the CCP regime that threatens us all.
(Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a founding trustee of Hong Kong ARC.)
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