Published: 01:20, March 8, 2021 | Updated: 23:27, June 4, 2023
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How a managed riot flummoxed the media
By Richard Cullen

On Monday, February 8, 2016, I returned home to Sham Shui Po in the early evening. Just before bedtime, the television coverage switched to the streets of Mong Kok, nearby. A major riot was rapidly gathering pace. Like millions of others in Hong Kong, I watched, transfixed — how could this be happening, as Chinese New Year was about to begin, within the heart of Hong Kong. I continued to watch for several hours, riveted and horrified.

Peace and order were restored by early next morning, and Hong Kong’s exceptional street cleaners were soon at work cleaning up the trail of destruction left by the rioters.

The riot was overwhelmingly condemned onshore and offshore. The Economist, for example, argued that February 8 began as a day of celebration in Hong Kong but ended in the worst outbreak of rioting since the 1960s. Leading opposition politicians, though, largely fell silent for a time trying to figure out what to say. Eventually they expressed disapproval of the violence, but some, incredibly, argued that the then-chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, was ominously responsible for fueling what had unfolded!

One radical opposition LegCo member, Albert Chan Wai-yip, was, however, less evasive, asking bluntly, who were the rioters actually against when they hurled bricks at police indiscriminately, and what did they want to achieve?

On Wednesday, June 12, 2019, I found myself, once more, gripped by live television coverage of a shocking riot in Hong Kong. Again, I watched for several hours. The obvious difference this time was that the rioting was taking place in broad daylight, and the overall consequences were plainly more serious.

As the horrific political violence was unfolding in the HKSAR, the US was feverishly ramping up its geopolitical confrontation with Beijing

In Mong Kok in 2016, normal life was badly disrupted. In Admiralty, in June 2019, that happened too. Far worse, though, LegCo, a pillar of the Hong Kong constitutional system, was completely prevented from operating. When an unprecedented riot in Washington on January 6 this year shut down Congress for about eight hours — until it reconvened — almost without exception media outlets worldwide aptly called this an insurrection.

Back in 2019, I was expecting that the widest media coverage would, at a minimum, report the events of June 12 as an egregious breach of the peace and an inexcusable attack on the fundamental constitutional order of the HKSAR. How wrong I was.

An extraordinary, alternative narrative very quickly emerged. It massively recast what had happened into an unforgivable assault by the Hong Kong Police on a legitimate protest. Moreover, this perspective was picked up and amplified by much of the local media and virtually all of the international media. Part of this brazen reformatting saw the rioters (with comprehensive opposition and often media support) demanding that what had happened not be called a riot — or else (implicitly) stand by for further riots.

We know what followed. The initial insurrection (using that apposite Washington metric) rapidly turned into a horrifically violent and damaging multi-month insurgency, which did all it recklessly could to bring Hong Kong to its knees.

But the mystery remained: How could the fundamental media and commentator reactions vary so dramatically?

Recently I read Nury Vittachi’s new book, The Other Side of the Story: A Secret War in Hong Kong (A Secret War). The puzzle was solved. In a nutshell, a highly polished, long-term, political organization most explains how the media-driven reaction to these two seminal political events diverged to such an extraordinary degree.

A Secret War comprehensively documents in Chapter 9, “Setting Up the Police”, how the June 12 event in 2019 was an orchestrated riot. It was successfully designed to draw police into making physical arrests of deliberately isolated, individual rioters, which arrests then visually led news bulletins locally and worldwide. Within 24 hours, certain leading commentators were expressing support for the pivotal argument that what had happened was an indefensible assault by the Hong Kong police on a legitimate protest.

This well-prepared, tilted narrative rapidly gained traction, and few if any in the media questioned it: They could see a monster-slaying story swiftly emerging. Never mind the facts, here was a politically curated story involving heroic protestors fighting for freedom and democracy ultimately pitted against a huge Chinese Dragon glaring across the Shenzhen River. Cast in this way, it had serious potential to be developed into a story which would keep on giving.

Late in 2019, the bank account for the insurrection-supporting Spark Alliance was frozen on the basis of claimed improper use of funds and suspected fraud. At the time, it held over HK$70 million (US$9 million). In fact, this account was set up some years earlier, in 2016, after the Mong Kok riot. This was but part of the substantial onshore and offshore funding put in place, much of it in advance, which supported the 2019 insurrection (A Secret War, Chapters 23 and 41).

A Secret War robustly documents the details of: long-term planning; international guiding hands, thorough offshore training, continuous local protest-riot management; and comprehensive funding, etc., which underpinned the 2019 insurgency. This estimable book also explains the science, in Chapter 12 (“A Brief History of Lies”) which demonstrates how the participant numbers in the major marches, though large, were wilfully and incredibly overstated by organizers much to the unquestioning satisfaction of countless media outlets.

As you finish reading A Secret War, it is hard to escape the conclusion that another attempted color revolution was promoted, aided and abetted in 2019. Cui Bono — who benefits? Remember this: As the horrific political violence was unfolding in the HKSAR, the US was feverishly ramping up its geopolitical confrontation with Beijing. And Washington has hardly missed an opportunity since to use events in Hong Kong in varied malevolent ways to advance its Sinophobia project.

In Mong Kok in 2016, the rioters were only crudely prepared, and the event flared and faded within 24 hours. Differing rickety excuses were proffered, and the broad opposition did not initially know how to react. Deep lessons were, however, absorbed from that stark but confused riot. A Secret War lucidly shows how, three years later in 2019, this advanced revolutionary understanding was applied to create a comprehensively organized and well-funded insurrection that was underway in violent earnest by June 12 and which endured for over six ghastly months.

The author is a visiting professor with the Law Faculty of the University of Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.