Are ‘Hong Kong people’ still Chinese? Depends on how you define ‘Chinese’
“Hong Kong people! Hong Kong people!” shouted tens of thousands of Occupy Central demonstrators on the streets of downtown Hong Kong as they braved police pepper spray and tear gas this weekend. So simple and self-evident, the slogan gets to the heart of the matter, because beyond the immediate causes of contention are the much larger existential issues of who gets to define just exactly what it means to be part of China, and to be Chinese.
Hong Kong, normally the most civil and efficient of cities, has been swept by an enormous wave of characteristically polite and peaceful protest directed against the Beijing-leaning government’s dilution of long-promised reforms. These would have allowed direct election of the chief executive, under the much touted but perhaps never well understood “One Country; Two Systems” formula.
It was never going to be easy, to have one country where there is still a border dividing the two sides, separate currencies, cars driving on opposite sides of the road, and mutually incomprehensible languages; let alone competing political systems with vastly different ideas of citizenship, rule of law, and transparency.
China is a one-party state; Hong Kong has many political parties, all operating freely. China has the Great Firewall that just now has blocked Instagram, fearing people on the mainland would see the protests; Hong Kong has open Internet. These and countless other contrasts may outweigh — perhaps far outweigh — the shared cultural heritage and economic prosperity that bind these two Chinas together.
For 150 years, Hong Kong was a British colony. Especially during the Cold War, it felt like that would be the case forever. But Hong Kong was first occupied during the gunboat imperialism of the 19th century Opium Wars, so even fervently anti-Communist and Westernized Chinese always felt great ambivalence towards the British: gratitude and admiration terribly tempered by sufferance of arrogance and injustice.
As it turned out, Britain’s last great colony was also its most successful. The racist exploitation of previous generations gradually transformed into Hong Kong becoming a sanctuary for refugees and an entrepot for free trade and manufacturing. It was as if the decline and fall of the once mighty British Empire somehow mellowed the colonizers and colonized both. The British had never run Hong Kong as a democracy; they simply appointed governors. But at the eleventh hour before the handover to China in 1997, perhaps out of guilt or repentance, they negotiated a deal for the protection of civil liberties, open markets, and gradual democratization in Hong Kong for 50 years. China’s leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, not wanting to kill a gold-egg-laying goose, agreed.
Seventeen years into the arrangement, the honeymoon of reunification is long over. Despite tremendous economic development and rising wealth in China, political evolution has not kept pace. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration has backslid in terms of civil society, cracking down hard on dissidents and flexing military muscle abroad on the South China Sea, entering into confrontations with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and the other Southeast Asian countries.
So when the Chinese government, backed by Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s current chief executive, announced that only candidates approved by a pro-Beijing committee would be permitted to compete in what were promised to be free elections, there was, as Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch said Monday, a “profound sense of betrayal that the Chinese government has reneged on its commitment to allow universal suffrage in 2017.”
Democracy, even applied to the seven million citizens of Hong Kong as opposed to the nearly 1.4 billion population of China, seems a dangerous harbinger of chaos and tumult for the regime. And yet that fear is already self-fulfilling, as Mr. Kine describes: “Hong Kong has a long history of peacefully managing mass protest, so the excessive response really suggests that the police might have been under the political influence of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.”
Kine continued, “Every October 1, (China’s National Day) many Chinese come to Hong Kong, it’s a favored holiday destination to watch the huge fireworks; humiliatingly for the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, the fireworks have been cancelled, apparently in a move to reduce the numbers of people on the street.
That means that instead of a fireworks display, large numbers of mainland tourists are going to get a hands-on, real-time lesson in peaceful protest by the citizens of Hong Kong, who are seeking to pressure the government to grant a right that was promised, a right routinely denied in China.”
Polls have steadily shown that larger and larger percentages of Hong Kong citizens identify as “Hong Konger” rather than “Chinese” even as the government seeks greater conformity.
To many in Hong Kong, then, “Chinese” may primarily mean a cultural, ethnic, or racial marker of identity rather than of political nationality. There are “Chinese” of various types who make up the majority population in Taiwan and Singapore, a significant percentage in Malaysia and Thailand, and large numbers around the world.
So when the demonstrators chant “Hong Kong People!” they are asserting that to be a citizen of Hong Kong is emphatically not the same as being Chinese. For the authorities in Beijing, this may send shivers down their spines. Because there is nothing they hate and fear more than the center not holding, torn apart by rough beasts. They are unable to see that it is China’s own political shortcomings that encourage this fundamental debate and resulting protest.
On previous occasions, the Hong Kong government backed down after opposition to pro-Beijing proposals and initiatives. The higher the temperature, though, the harder it is for them to do this in a face-saving manner. But also, it becomes harder for them to do anything that won’t escalate the situation further.
From Beijing’s perspective, Hong Kong is an integral part of China, two systems or not. Mindful of violent unrest at the peripheries of Tibet and Xinjiang, tantalized by the prospect of eventually reuniting with Taiwan as well, and haunted by the ghosts of Tiananmen Square and 1989, the Communist Party sees itself as masterfully navigating a minefield of external and internal threats to enforce stability and continue incubating growth.
Within its own perverse dynamics of logic, Beijing actually works hard to prevent another full-on explosion. Even the violent and repressive operations in Xinjiang — where the ethnic Uighurs have striven for autonomy — and Tibet have occurred with, from their point of view, relative restraint, that is, restraint compared to massacring people outright with machine-guns. Hong Kong isn’t Lhasa or Urumqi, far from global witnesses and attention. It’s highly doubtful that Beijing wants to actually spill blood on the streets of Hong Kong.
But a frightening fault line has been crossed. It’s never been more overt just how controlling Beijing wants to be in Hong Kong, and how distinct and different Hong Kongers see themselves. In any Chinese context, that’s an explosive collision course.
Pushed between a highly articulate movement mobilizing tens of thousands of people at any given moment, and the more conservative and authoritarian bent towards maintaining an iron grip on power, it’s highly uncertain what the regime is actually planning to do, and what degree of autonomy the Hong Kong police and government will have in implementation. For many people in Hong Kong right now, there can only be hope for the best stuggling with utter fear of the worst.
TOP PHOTO: A protester sleeps under an umbrella as she blocks a street outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
INSET 1: A protester raises his umbrellas in front of tear gas which was fired by riot police to disperse protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, September 28, 2014. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
INSET 2: Riot police use pepper spray as they clash with protesters, as tens of thousands of protesters block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong September 28, 2014. REUTERS/Bobby Yip