The 'foreign forces' China fears the most

The role of 'foreign forces' in Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests has Beijing deeply worried. But it's not the US or other foreign nations they're most concerned about -- their real target is much closer to home.

Since the outbreak of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in late September, the role of "foreign forces" in the protests has been an ongoing issue of contention.

Foreign interference in Chinese domestic affairs is a common theme for Chinese state-owned media, and the Hong Kong protests have been no exception, with a People's Daily editorial early in the protests alleging that protest leaders had "sought the support of anti-China foreign forces".

This theme became a constant refrain in Chinese media, and was subsequently echoed by Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung in an October television interview, in which he stated -- without citing any evidence -- that the protests are "not entirely a domestic movement", and that "external forces" are involved. 

The PRC state-owned media also found an ally from an unexpected source. In a controversial and much-criticized report, the BBC alleged that the Hong Kong protests were planned at the Oslo Freedom Forum two years ago, a claim Occupy Central with Love and Peace and other Hong Kong protest organizers strenuously denied. More than a week later, the BBC article was belatedly updated to include Occupy Central’s denial, but the report and allegations were never withdrawn by the BBC, and in any event the damage was already done: mainland PRC media, in a propaganda triumph, had already picked up the story and reported with glee that as august an authority as the BBC had confirmed that the protests were "plotted nearly two years ago with the involvement of overseas forces".

In response, Scholarism leader Joshua Wong cheekily confessed that he was indeed subject to foreign influence: "Korean cell phone; American computer; Japanese Gundam. Of course all Made in China."

During his visit to China in November, US President Barack Obama specifically denied any U.S. involvement in the Hong Kong protests, stating, "These are issues ultimately for the people of Hong Kong and the people of China to decide."

Numerous other commentators have also ridiculed the claims, notable among them Hong Kong corporate governance activist David Webb, who wrote: "The Central People's Government insults the intelligence of HK Chinese citizens by claiming that they are mere tools of foreigners."

However, to look to the US or other foreign nations for the source of China's concern with so-called "foreign forces" is to look too far. Their real target is much closer to home, and in fact lies just across the Taiwan Strait.

This was made clear in a revealing op-ed piece by pro-Beijing legislator Regina Ip published in the South China Morning Post on Sunday.

Ominously for Hong Kong, the main purpose of Ip's article seems to be to lay the groundwork for so called "Article 23" anti-subversion laws, previously championed by Ip during her tenure as Secretary for Security in 2003 and scrapped in the face of massive public protest. Ip resigned along with inaugural Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa in the aftermath. In the article, Ip talks about a need for "clever legislation" to outwit these "pernicious" foreign forces by outlawing subversion and other activities "calculated to instil instability by fomenting protests and calling for the head of government to step down". (Heaven forbid people voice their views on the their leaders.)

However, Ip also let slip the real source of Beijing’s anxiety of the "foreign forces" at work in Hong Kong: "There is strong evidence that Hong Kong's "umbrella movement" -- the colour symbolism, the wording of the slogans and the mode of mobilisation -- owes much to Taiwan's student-led "sunflower" movement."

The "Sunflower Movement" was a protest led by student activists in Taiwan earlier this year, in which they occupied the Taiwan parliament to protest against President Ma Ying-jeou pushing through a cross-Straits trade agreement with China without full legislative scrutiny. 

Ip states, seemingly with some regret, that Hong Kong's current laws "cannot possibly be used to proscribe the sort of inspirational relationship which is likely to have existed between Taiwan's "sunflower" student moment and our Occupy protest".

Ip is quite correct that the Taiwanese student movement has been one of the inspirations for the Hong Kong students. Taiwanese student leaders have been warmly received on visits to speak to the crowds at the Hong Kong protests sites over the past two months. 

At the same time, there has been significant attention in Taiwan paid to the progress of the Hong Kong movement. This can be seen from the official level, with President Ma's public support for the Hong Kong protesters, down to the posters and flyers around the Hong Kong protest areas expressing support from Taiwan with messages such as "Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan". 

It is a sentiment the Beijing mandarins have no doubt also frequently expressed, although they probably had something rather different in mind.

The real fear for the Chinese Communist Party is not that the CIA is seeking to get a toehold in Hong Kong and push some kind of reverse-domino theory back into China. Their nightmare is Hong Kong and Taiwan, united in values not shared with those of Beijing -- and against Beijing's rule - right on their doorstep. 

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based international lawyer. Follow his photographs and ongoing updates on the Hong Kong protests via Twitter @antd