The Black Hands

Hong Kong is entering its 9th consecutive week of protests against Carrie Lam. She is the Beijing figurehead appointed to govern Hong Kong. Her proposed extradition law sparked the protests. It would have allowed criminal suspects arrested on Hong Kong soil to be sent to China for prosecution. Hong Kongers believe — and rightly so — that such an extradition law would blow a tank-sized hole into their system of civil rights.

Protesters include students, their mothers, civil servants, unions, pilots and stewardesses, university professors, Hong Kong PEN, the business community, and those wild and crazy guys at the Hong Kong Law Society. It’s hard to imagine a broader cross-section of Hong Kong. To me, it sounds like the masses are speaking.

To Beijing, this is the unmistakable sign of the black hands. These hands are to blame for the unrest in Hong Kong. Soon, Beijing will have to take action.

So, who or what are the black hands?

A rose by any other name

Black hands is apparently not a common phrase in Chinese. So the linguists at the Language Log have been working overtime to trace its origins. Aside from a single 10th century reference in the unabridged dictionary of Sinitic, all other references to black hands originate outside of China. The Italian or Jewish mafia, Spanish anarchists, militant groups fighting for unification or separation in Mandatory Palestine or Serbia.

“Black Hand” has also been the name of various wrestlers, artists, drug cartel hitmen, comic book figures, punk bands, books, and films.

Victor Mair, “The enigma of the black hands” on Language Log, 25 July 2019

The other linguistic possibility is the Japanese puppetry form bunraku. Puppeteers manipulate large, colorfully clothed puppets while wearing black gloves. If this linguistic connection is correct, then the term black hands is doubly insulting. As of last weekend, it’s a crime in China to be spiritually Japanese.

Whatever the etymological origins of the black hands might be, there is no doubt as to who Beijing blames. On 23 July 2019, men in white shirts beat Hong Kong subway passengers with metal rods. The Chinese Foreign Ministry pointed the finger at the US. Spokesperson Hua Chunying issued a warning.

“The U.S. should know one thing, that Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong, and we do not allow any foreign interference,” she said.
“We advise the U.S. to withdraw their black hands.”

Reuters, “UPDATE 1-China tells U.S. to remove ‘black hands’ from Hong Kong”, 23 July 2019

Same old, same old

In the 1950s, China also accused the United States for interference, though of a more virulent sort than mere black hands. When the Korean War began in October 1950, China fought on the side of Communist North Korea while the Americans allied with the South Koreans. In November 1950, Beijing launched a campaign called Resist America, Aid Korea, Preserve Our Homes, Defend the Nation. This campaign used mass meetings and newspaper propaganda to whip up anti-American sentiment. Mao Dun, minister of cultural affairs, called Americans veritable devils and cannibals. The South China Daily ran an article calling the US thoroughly reactionary, thoroughly dark, thoroughly corrupt, thoroughly cruel.

In December 1950, the government issued a central directive to order its people to reject any admiration and respect for the US. Instead, the Chinese should Hate America, Despise America and Look Down on America.

In April 1952, Beijing claimed that the US was airdropping infected insects over North Korea, Manchuria and as far south as Qingdao, the port of Shandong province.

Germ warfare
Image source: Wikimedia

Endless articles on anthrax-laden chickens or brittle bombs filled with tarantulas appeared in the newspapers, with photos showing clumps of dead flies, close-ups of diseased insects, microscopic images of bacteria and smudges identified as germs. In Beijing there were reports of germ-laden joints of pork, as well as dead fish (forty-seven of these found on a hilltop), corn stalks, medical goods and confectionery.

Frank Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation (Bloomsbury 2013)

There were no black hands in 1952. Just evil Americans out to destroy the Chinese people.

The end game

When the Hong Kong protests started in April this year, it was one of the largest since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Pictures of those early days show gaily dressed families waving signs and yellow umbrellas.

Contrast that with images from this past weekend. Teargas is used to disperse angry crowds. Demonstrators are beaten, harassed, arrested.

[Tonight, Hong Kong is not sleeping yet] Wong Tai Sin, not sleeping, Mong Kok, not sleeping, Tsim Sha Tsui, not sleeping, Jordan, not sleeping, you are not sleeping, to see them sleepless tonight

Google Translate

The New York Times suggests that blaming the Americans is a way out for Xi Jinping. Hong Kong is the greatest challenge to Beijing’s authority since Tiananmen Square. Meanwhile, the Chinese economic growth is at a 27 year low. The US-China trade talks look certain to fail. Trump is unpopular inside and outside of China. Why not blame him for the turbulence in Hong Kong, too?

The propaganda machine is running full throttle. Kang Hui, an anchor at the normally tame Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV, described Americans as acting like a shit-stirring stick. In a subsequent video on CCTV’s social media account, Kang vowed:

We will bash you till your faces are covered in mud. We will bash you till you are left speechless.

Jane Perlez, “China finds scapegoat for unrest in Hong Kong” in The New York Times, international edition, 3-4 Aug 2019

When the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, Beijing claimed that there were black hands at work. Those black hands belonged to the progressive premier Zhao Ziyang and the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi. Their lives did not end well.

How can the protests in Hong Kong possibly end differently?