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Joe Hildebrand on Hong Kong, Alan Jones and true courage

Almost 80 years ago a small but powerful island nation launched perhaps the most audacious attack of the 20th century.

The Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor turned a European war into a world war and in doing so, unleashed the world’s greatest industrialised power. It is said that when Winston Churchill heard about the bombing he rejoiced, because he knew that with America now fighting with the Allies, they could not lose.

Even the Japanese themselves never expected to actually beat the USA. They were trying only to break the yoke of a crushing trade embargo imposed on them for invading China.

They hoped that if they could disable the US aircraft carriers and conquer new territories and supply lines in South East Asia, the Americans would be forced to cut a deal with them.

Instead, they mistimed their assault and mistook the character of their enemy. There were no aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack and Americans do not negotiate so easily.

It wasn’t long before the Japanese war effort became a kamikaze mission — figuratively and literally.

Eight decades later, another besieged but ballsy Pacific island is rebelling against a global superpower. But this time, the omnipotent enemy is totalitarian China instead of Roosevelt’s America, and instead of warplanes their weapons are umbrellas.

Welcome to Hong Kong.

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As is perhaps now obvious, it’s impossible to overstate the enormity of the task Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters have set themselves. Nor is it possible to overstate the brilliance and bravery with which they have undertaken it.

The sheer numbers are in themselves spectacular — at times, perhaps a quarter of the region’s population of almost 8 million. But far more impressive to the more considered eye is the incredibly sophisticated strategy employed and remarkable restraint exercised over such an extended period.

Yet, as always with such movements, its greatest threat comes from within. This is the tiny number of hardliners within the protest movement who were behind such moves as the vandalism of the legislative building and the abuse of often sympathetic passengers at the occupied airport and who still seek to provoke confrontations with police when it is clear the police need little provocation at all.

It’s simply mind-boggling how idiotic and self-destructive this approach is, given the overwhelming sympathy the movement has internationally and the desperation of Beijing to find any excuse for an overwhelming security crackdown.

And it’s to the eternal credit of the protests’ moderate and mainstream organisers that they have managed to keep the extremist elements to a minimum.

It’s self-evident that there is no way the protesters — or even the entire population or state apparatuses of Hong Kong — could ever win in a physical confrontation with mainland China. It is equally obvious that, whatever sympathies and support may exist among other nations, there is no way any will engage with China militarily to resolve the situation.

In short, Hong Kong’s only hope is a deal — just it was Japan’s. But Beijing has a lot less at stake than wartime Washington and it knows it could instantly crush the protesters with a snap of its fingers. Indeed, its officials have openly said so.

The only thing China has to lose is face. And in a country where the government literally and physically controls the information received by all of its 1.4 billion inhabitants, that face has an iron mask.

As if to underscore this — in perhaps the most ironic of ways — Beijing’s latest tactic against the pro-democracy movement has been to unleash an army of bots on social media, painting the protesters as violent and dangerous radicals and itself as the benevolent provider of security and stability.

The irony is both delicious and redoubled: Not only does mainland China block its own citizens’ access to the very same platforms it is trying to use for propaganda, but social media monoliths such as Facebook and Twitter have now moved to blackout these accounts, employing just the same approach. Yes Beijing, censorship’s a bitch.

Meanwhile in Australia there has been a somewhat more niche social media war against the perennial antiquarian bad boy Alan Jones.

This time, instead of a communist superpower unleashing a Twitter army against its own people, it was a campaign against the 2GB broadcaster and his advertisers.

Critics slammed Jones for making some customarily extreme comments about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Honestly, when will these upstart Pacific island nations learn?

In an early morning rant, Jones reacted explosively to what was a rather mild admonishment from Ardern that Australia “will have to answer to the Pacific” for its policies on climate change.

As we all now know, Jones wondered out loud if Prime Minister Scott Morrison would be “fully briefed to shove a sock down her throat” and added later: “I hope Scott Morrison gets tough here with a few backhanders.”

The comments were undeniably vicious and the reaction was equally severe. Jones reportedly received death threats, which is another heavy irony given he was the one being accused of inciting violence.

As has become something of a pattern in the life cycle of scandals, Jones was initially defiant, then conciliatory and finally issued an unconditional apology. But was this a sudden moral epiphany? Hardly.

Advertisers were subjected to a concerted online campaign to abandon Jones’ show and 2GB in general and it was only after they started to pull their dollars that he and his employer experienced their moment of self-actualisation.

Now I am certainly not defending the comments — I have enough scandals of my own — but I do find it passing strange that the latest weapon of online activists is to encourage corporations to use their ad buying power to influence what can and cannot be said in the media.

We saw the reverse example of this when Crown Casino resorted to taking out newspaper ads to defend themselves against some excellent journalism by the newly acquired Nine stable of newspapers — which refused to run those same ads.

And yet it wasn’t so long ago that Crown and Nine were owned and operated by the same company. Would it have been equally cool for corporate pressure to come into play there?

Or would it be a good thing if Adani threatened to pull ads from any Queensland media outlet that questioned the environmental impact of its new coal mine? Or if the big banks threatened to pull ads from papers that exposed their wrongdoing?

Trust me, it’s not like it hasn’t happened.

Frankly, I don’t believe Jones was actually inciting violence against Ardern. Political and general colloquialisms that employ euphemisms like “backhander” or “put a sock in it” are limitless in Australia, just like “slap down” or “wipe the floor with” or Paul Keating’s magnificent election exhortation to John Hewson: “I want to do you slowly … There will be no easy execution for you.”

Jones sailed far closer to incitement of violence in the lead up to the Cronulla riots, when he read text messages on air that urged people to “support the Leb and wog bashing day” — even though he cautioned against anyone taking the law into their own hands. And for me personally, the worst comment he made was when he said Julia Gillard’s recently deceased father had “died of shame” — which was incredibly personal and cruel.

Yet every single one of the advertisers who so piously and publicly pulled their ads over the last week were happily giving him and his station their money long after both of those statements and plenty of others besides. And now they are grandstanding about how morally pure they are? Spare me.

Just as the Chinese government has now been black-banned by the very same kind of censorship it practises, these advertisers have now been burned by the same populism they once happily tapped into.

If you want to see true corporate courage then look no further than the CEO of Hong Kong’s airline, which was grounded by the pro-democracy protests. When the Chinese government demanded he hand over the names of all the Cathay Pacific employees who had taken part in the demonstrations, he produced a list with only one name on it.

His own.

Joe Hildebrand co-hosts Studio 10, 8.30am weekdays, on Network Ten. Continue the conversation @Joe_Hildebrand

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