Hong Kong is home to a host of democracy activists angering China but one rabble-rouser — a silver-haired former radio host — has been embraced by Beijing for targeting supporters of a split from the mainland.
Straight-talking and a seasoned media operator, Robert Chow is Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-Beijing activist, best-known for orchestrating a public campaign against massive democracy protests in 2014.
Now Chow is back, and this time he is taking aim at Hong Kong’s movements for independence and self-determination as they increasingly rile Beijing.
His pro-Beijing campaign group, “Silent Majority”, was originally set up to oppose the 2014 Umbrella Movement rallies which it said destabilised the city.
Those rallies failed to achieve political reform and since then the once taboo notion of a complete break from Beijing for semi-autonomous Hong Kong has gained support among young activists.
Chow, 66, says those activists are his new enemy.
“We are now ‘anti-Hong Kong separatists’ — we’ve made this our number one goal,” Chow told AFP.
Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” deal which protects its freedoms for 50 years, but there are growing concerns those liberties are disappearing.
The disappearance in 2015 of five Hong Kong booksellers known for publishing salacious titles about Beijing leaders triggered a wave of fear — all five men resurfaced on the mainland.
Attacks on journalists and interference from Chinese authorities in a range of spheres, from education to media, have also exacerbated anxiety.
Amnesty International Hong Kong last week said human rights in the territory are at their worst since the handover 20 years ago.
But Chow says that rather than discouraging freedom of expression, he wants to dispel political apathy.
“People don’t care! So you have to do something to arouse them and explain to them what the score is,” he said.
Silent Majority has just 50 members, including businessmen and academics, according to Chow, but it has 140,000 followers on Facebook.
Critics caricature Chow as a crass opportunist, grandstanding for Beijing to boost his public profile.
But he casts himself as a champion of the people, working for “the good of Hong Kong”.
His tactics are getting him noticed.
While he holds no official post in Hong Kong, Chow and 13 members of Silent Majority managed to secure a face-to-face meeting with top Chinese officials in Beijing at the end of last year, part of which was broadcast on state television.
As candidates put themselves forward for city leadership elections in March, Chow says he prefers to remain a political outsider.
“I think I’m more comfortable outside (the system),” he told AFP at his small office, minimally decorated with potted orchids and framed photos, including one of himself and former city leader Donald Tsang.
“If you’re inside, the parameters somehow box you in.”
Analysts say his outsider status makes him more valuable to Beijing.
Joseph Cheng, a political scientist and pro-democracy activist, said Chow’s meeting in Beijing represented a “typical United Front strategy”, referring to a party-led organisation working to expand the Chinese government’s influence outside the political sphere.
“Beijing certainly would like to recruit people of his kind, who seem to be outside the normal pro-Beijing circles and who have good skills in handling the media,” Cheng told AFP.
‘Rats and cockroaches’
A veteran journalist and media personality, Chow gets his message out through the gung-ho online tabloid he founded, HKG Pao, which resembles the far-right American website Breitbart.
The website is loaded with provocative language and graphics depicting opponents as rats, devils, witches and cockroaches.
Its Facebook page brands leading pro-democracy legislator Nathan Law, who supports the idea of self-determination for Hong Kong, as a “traitor”.
An online article written by Chow said the recent disqualification of two democratically elected pro-independence lawmakers from the legislature — after a controversial intervention by Beijing — was “just the beginning” of the fight against independence.
“All they want for Hong Kong is chaos,” he said.