CONTENT WARNING: Violence
The ongoing anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong have entered a turbulent new phase. Over the past few months, what began as a political protest initiative spearheaded by activist sections of Hong Kong’s vibrant civil society, has gradually seen its ranks swell with ordinary citizens. The proposed extradition bill, now indefinitely suspended, provoked alarm among the residents of the highly autonomous Chinese city-state for its threat to erode the “one country, two systems” principle. At present, the separate Hong Kong and mainland China legal jurisdictions embody two radically different approaches to the rule of law and judicial independence – an arrangement that Hong Kongers, millions strong, took to the streets to defend. But despite the bill’s sidelining, the political conflagration in Hong Kong continues on.
The collective struggle of Hong Kongers, striving to have their political input validated, has captured global attention and resonated particularly with Western liberal democracies that have long taken their democratic civil rights for granted. But closer to home, across the border to the mainland, a different narrative about the causes and consequences of this heady political ferment is gaining traction. Where it has not been pruned and sanitised by party censors, mainland Chinese coverage of the protests has been roundly critical, and the reaction correspondingly unsympathetic. Unfavourable perspectives are not merely the domain of self-interested political elites but have rather filtered down to the mainstream. On Chinese social media platforms, such as Tianya, a BBS-based discussion forum, and various public discussion groups on Wechat, reactions to the protests oscillate between contempt, bemusement, and nationalistic indignation.
On these platforms, the darker, more chaotic underbelly of the protest movement, featuring violence, vandalism, rioting and social disorder is magnified and dominates discussion. Political pejoratives from the lexicon of Maoist China like ‘running dog’ (‘走狗’), denoting a despicable imperialist lackey, have been revived from political obsolescence and given wholesale application to designate (and denigrate) protestors of all motivations. More concerning still, this antagonism has, rather than being quarantined to cyberspace, demonstrated its potential to spill out into the real world. The recent showdown at the University of Queensland between pro-Hong Kong protestors and the pro-China counter-protestors who engaged them is a sobering reminder of the global ramifications of the protests.
Although the majority of Mainlanders and Hong Kongers are Han Chinese, there has never been more evidence to suggest that the two populations have developed strongly divergent identities and collective ‘psyches’. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking brought about the cession of Hong Kong to the British Empire and caused a once unitary Chinese family to disintegrate. Despite the common misery both the regions were subjected to over the brutal course of World War II, Hong Kong bucked the immediate post-war trend of decolonisation in Asia and continued along its separate political path as a British crown colony. Then, it was the communist Mainland that convulsed and stagnated (and even regressed), while Hong Kong leveraged its strategic position and its coveted deep-water port to catapult up the development leagues. It cemented itself in the process as the leading financial centre in Asia.
During this time, an economic, social and cultural gap opened up between the mainland Chinese, who were largely poor and seemed to be in the grip of Mao’s febrile revolutionary politics, and overseas Chinese populations, not only in Hong Kong, but also in Taiwan, Singapore, and further afield. These latter territories were more aligned with the West and their export-oriented economies were rewarded generously with access to Western markets. When the mainland Chinese later took advantage of relaxed emigration laws to migrate abroad, they found the socialisation and integration process with established Chinese diaspora communities to be significantly impeded by the differences that had evolved during their separate development. In particular, many mainland Chinese resented what they perceived to be snobbery directed at them that belied their ostensibly common origin as ‘Chinese’.
As the demonstrations this year rage on and Hong Kongers go to great pains to emphasise their unique identity and separate system, it is evident that the social and political rift remains as salient as ever. Notably, this fault line has endured despite the immense progress made by mainland China in recent decades to narrow the gap in economic development, and in some respects, even invert it. The issues that separate the two are complex and multifaceted, entailing not only wealth, but also political values.
It therefore comes as a disappointment to see that many mainland Chinese, rather than viewing the anguished soul-searching in Hong Kong as an opportunity for dialogue, have instead adopted a crassly triumphalist attitude. Some have diagnosed the neighbouring tumult as a symptom of an endemic jealous streak among Hong Kongers who resent seeing their former economic ascendancy fade vis-à-vis the mainland. As late as 1993, Hong Kong’s economy was over a quarter the size of China’s, but presently has fallen to less than three per cent. It is regrettably ironic then that socialist economic theory, a mandatory component of the education curriculum, has not enabled many mainland Chinese to identify the economic and social inequality that fuels the grievances of Hong Kongers. Chief among these is the runaway cost of housing, regulated by no higher authority than the uncaring ‘invisible hand’ of the world’s purest free-market economy.
Additionally, mainland Chinese would benefit from developing an understanding of Hong Kong identity in terms more nuanced than as a defiant exercise in self-promotion and separatism. Given that Hong Kong has only ever been an appendage to powerful states, it follows that the identity surrounding it is not the product of any special political agency, which Hong Kongers have long lacked, but rather a cumulative outcome of historical processes.
As China’s influence waxes on the global stage, some sections of the international community are becoming nervous about what exactly what that will entail. For the moment, the crisis in Hong Kong is vindicating those fears. If this is to change, mainland Chinese must, from the bottom-up, assume the mantle of diplomats, and demonstrate compassion, empathy, and magnanimity for what is an ailing Hong Kong.