Hong Kong’s political situation can be confusing at times as events whirl about in a never ending maelstrom, but when seen through simple classic Sino-idioms, the absurdity becomes clearer and understandable. These idioms are often in the form of short narratives, sometimes historically based, which explains the meaning behind the idioms or where the saying originated, or sometimes from which historical literature the phrases were coined. Below is an example which highlights a pressing issue in Hong Kong’s politics, especially for the pro-democracy factions. There are variations of the stories, but the example used here goes by the version used in an old Hong Kong cartoon show known as the Animated Gallery of Sino-Idioms (成語動畫廊).
The Fox Exploits The Tiger’s Might (狐假虎威)
The story went that Fox was caught by Tiger on the prowl and in its quick thinking Fox told Tiger that he cannot eat him for Fox is the lord of the jungle. Tiger was a bit dense in the head but doubted Fox, so Fox said he will prove it and asked Tiger to follow him. As they walked through the jungle, all the animals upon seeing Fox fled to hide, and at the end Fox said to Tiger, “Didn’t you see? All the other animals fled upon seeing me. Am I not then the lord of the jungle?” Tiger was convinced and beg to be allowed to leave, not realising the other animals fled on the sight of Tiger walking behind Fox. This meaning behind this Sino-idiom describes how some people pretend to be all powerful by having someone more powerful backing him.
Last weekend, the pro-china “blue ribbons” held a rally to protest against the recent talks of Hong Kong independence amongst university students. During the rally, the lawyer and legislative councillor Junius Ho was captured on video, calling for anyone who advocates independence to be killed without hesitation and confirms his position when interviewed by the media, asking why separatists shouldn’t be killed since they are trying to divide up China.
Since prior to the Legislative Council election in 2016, Junius Ho have been known for making outrageous statements of aggression against pro-democracy and anti-China Hong Kongers. During the said rally on the weekend, he was calling for the University of Hong Kong to fire Benny Tai – a staff member – for his role in organising Occupy Central and briefly showing up during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, even though this motion transgresses tertiary education institutions’ autonomy and freedom from political interference. Yet, when reporters asked Secretary of Justice Rimsky Yuen if Ho has violated the law by openly threatening Hong Kong independence advocates with murder, Yuen replied that he cannot comment based on words alone. When asked about the incident, incumbent Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam also declined to directly address what Ho had said.
Junius Ho is an example of the Sino-idiom “The Fox exploits the Tiger’s Might”.
Kindly step into the vat (請君入甕)
In response to Junius Ho’s threatening comments against Hong Kong independence advocates, many Pan-Democrat legislative councillors signed a petition condemning Ho’s threats of murder, calling for the government to charge Ho with criminal offence under Public Order Ordinance Section 17B (Disorder in Public Places), which says that:
(1) Any person who at any public gathering acts in a disorderly manner for the purpose of preventing the transaction of the business for which the public gathering was called together or incites others so to act shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine at level 2 and to imprisonment for 12 months.
(2) Any person who in any public place behaves in a noisy or disorderly manner, or uses, or distributes or displays any writing containing, threatening, abusive or insulting words, with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be caused, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine at level 2 and to imprisonment for 12 months.
The irony of this is that the same ordinance had been cited and employed by the HKSAR regime to prosecute pro-democracy activists before, as the ambiguous nature of the ordinance provides a great deal of grey areas whereby the SAR can issue trumped-up charges against protesters at the slightest pretence, to which pro-democracy activists and LegCo councillors have often condemned for its unjust and opaque nature. By using the same ordinance against Junius Ho, are those LegCo councillors legitimising the ordinance they once condemned?
Some Hong Kong netizens have noted that Civic Passion’s Cheng Chung-Tai did not sign the petition, lambasting Cheng for allowing Junius Ho to get away with his threat of murder, but Cheng has cited the exact reason mentioned above why it is plain stupid to use the double-edged sword that is Public Ordinance Section 17B. This led me to recall another Sino-idiom known as “Kindly step into the Vat”.
The story goes that during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian, a chief of her secret police Lai Junchen was ordered to interrogate a fellow secret police official Zhou Xing for sedition. Hoping to lure Zhou into a trap, Lai invited Zhou to dinner and told him of a prisoner who refused to confess his crimes, asking Zhou what he could do to make the prisoner talk. Zhou suggested that Lai could fill a terracotta vat with water over a pyre, then place the prisoner within and slowly boil him alive, saying that surely the prisoner would confess to anything while in the vat. Immediately Lai ordered his servants to do exactly as Zhou said, then “invited” the latter to step into the vat filled with water over a slow fire, telling Zhou that the Empress is displeased that he is suspected of sedition.
By suggesting that the HKSAR regime to prosecute Junius Ho for his threats of murdering Hong Kong independence advocates, they are in fact legitimising Public Order Ordinance Section 17B; when the HKSAR regime employs the same ordinance against pro-democracy activists, it would be impossible to condemn its use without seemingly hypocritical and double-standard. It would be a case of “kindly step into the vat”, thus Cheng Chung Tai is wise not to be included in this petition.