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TM, ®, Copyright © 2019 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
Doom and Gloom in Hong Kong.
The protests in Hong Kong started as protests against an extradition bill (a crazy bill that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite just about anybody to mainland China, even foreign workers). Then they became protests against the Beijing-appointed leader of Hong Kong. And, weekend after weekend, they have become protests against the status of Hong Kong within China. When Britain returned Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997, China pledged to preserve Hong Kong's rule of law and even to tolerate evolution towards a democratic system. The protesters feel that these rights have been progressively eroded and that China has no intention of granting democratic elections in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong witnessed a previous wave of protests in 2014, but the 2019 protests seem to be inherently different. The 2014 protests had leaders, the leaders of the "umbrella movement". The 2014 protests eventually fizzled out because the majority of Hong Kong's population got tired of them and wanted a return to normal life. The 2019 protests have no clear leaders. Even if China wanted to negotiate with the protesters, it is not clear with whom China would negotiate. And, unlike in 2014, the majority of Hong Kong's population stands behind these protests, which is why they have survived for so many weeks.
You have to feel sympathy for Hong Kong. When they were a British colony, they loved the British system but the British didn't want to share it with them. Now that they are ruled by Beijing (they are de facto a Beijing colony), they dislike the Chinese system and it's them who don't want to share it with the ruler. They, in fact, want to make sure that the Chinese system will not apply to them, the same way that in the old days they would have wanted the British system to apply to them. Hong Kong seems to be doomed to (political) unhappiness no matter what.
Jokes aside, that is actually one way to look at modern China: as the last remaining colonial empire. China annexed Taiwan in 1683 (it had never been part of China before then). China invaded eastern Turkestan in 1759 and renamed it Sinkiang/Xinjiang, the remnants of the ancient Dzungar empire. Both Tibet and Mongolia had declared independence from China in 1912, and they had become de-facto protectorates respectively of Britain and Russia. (Obviously both Tibet and Mongolia had a long history of independence, and a long history of fighting against China, notably when Mongolia conquered the whole of China and installed the Yuang dynasty). In 1946 China recognized Mongolia's independence but not Tibet's (nor Xinjiang's), and in 1950 Mao's troops invaded Tibet that was then formally annexed as a province in 1951. Inner Mongolia, as the name says, as well as the Manchu region (Northeastern China, just north of Korea) are also de facto colonies, although their inclusion into China dates from way back and can be seen as a legacy of previous colonial empires. China used to be a region of the Mongol empire; when the Mongol empire dissolved, the Mongol tribes retained a degree of independence until 1635 when the Manchus invaded the southern Mongol tribes (the Chahar kingdom); A few years later the Manchus invaded China and established the Qing dynasty, and so the Mongols became subjects of that Manchurian empire. The Qing dynasty was the last imperial dynasty of China, followed by the Republic of China that (after World War II and a civil war) in 1949 became Mao's communist China.
The Soviet Union was another colonial empire, having forced Ukraine, the Baltic states and the Central Asian republics to be ruled from Moscow, i.e. by Russia. Just like the Europeans did in the old days, China justifies its colonialism by claiming to have "liberated" and "civilized" these regions, and arguing that they are economically better off now than they ever were in their history (I am not sure that this is true of Hong Kong but it is probably true of Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang).
Following the humiliating Opium War of 1839, China surrendered the island of Hong Kong to Britain, and Britain retained it until 1997, when finally Britain returned Hong Kong back to China. That's when things get tricky because in 1997 there were technically two Chinas, one with capital in Beijing (communist China) and one with capital in Taipei (democratic Taiwan). Britain recognized Beijing as the legitimate China and returned Hong Kong to Beijing. If the "return" had happened in 1948, Britain would have returned it to a different China, the sworn enemy of Mao's communist, the China that one year later lost the civil war and was forced into exile in Taiwan. In 1997 Hong Kong's economy was about 20% of the size of the whole of (communist) China, and Hong Kong was one of the richest cities in Asia.
China's attitude towards Tibet, East Turkestan and Hong Kong can be compared to the attitude of the European colonial powers of the past. China never asked Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongols, Manchus and Hong Kong citizens whether they wanted to be ruled by Beijing, the same way that Britain never asked Africans or Indians whether they wanted to be ruled from London. Britain seized India and half of Africa and exploited them for its own (political and economic) interests. China seized Tibet, East Turkestan and Hong Kong and is now exploiting them for its own (political and economic) interests. De facto, modern China is a colonial empire and these are colonies of China.
It is no surprise therefore that, according to recent polls, the Hong Kongers born after the 1997 handover does not identify with China the same way that the generations born after 1842 didn't indentify with Britain. The young people of Hong Kong think of themselves as citizens of Hong Kong, not of China. Sure, they are ethnically Chinese but just like most citizens of New Zealand and Australia are ethnically British. Singapore too is considered a "Chinese" city but that doesn't mean that communist China is entitled to rule Singapore. So are downtown San Francisco and towns like Prato in Italy. That doesn't mean that they should become part of communist China. (I use "communist" not as an insult but simply to refer to the China ruled by the government in Beijing, which calls itself a communist party, although Marx and Lenin would probably object).
In fact, the 2014 protests, led by the so-called "umbrella movement", had little to do with communist China: they were mostly about internal Hong Kong affairs, especially the economic inequality within Hong Kong's society itself. While China eventually persecuted and imprisoned the leaders, the protests were not about China's rule of Hong Kong. While this may have been perceived as less of a threat to the communist leaders in Beijing, it should have been concerned them because it was a symptom of a generation that does not identify with communist China. The current, 2019, protests are about creating a more democratic Hong Kong, which was not the goal in 2014, but are indirectly the evolution of the 2014 protests because they stem from the same implicit assumption that Hong Kong is not part of China. The new protests are explicitly about the relationship between Hong Kong and China, as if Hong Kong and China were two separate entities. In fact, the protesters are not asking for democracy in the whole of China. Most protest movements start in a city but they aspire to change the whole country, not just one city. The Tianamen Square protests of 1989 were about democracy for the whole of China, not just for Beijing. Ditto for the protests in Cairo, Khartoum, Moscow, and so on; or even Paris, London and so on. Protests are usually about improving the political system in the whole country, not just in one city. But the 2019 protesters in Hong Kong are demanding democracy "only" for Hong Kong. That should actually terrify the Beijing government: these protesters don't care at all about what happens to the rest of China. The previous generations started the annual tradition of candlelight vigils to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989: those were events that reflected a desire to change the whole of China. The current protests reflect a different spirit, one of indifference towards the rest of China. Protesters who value something as very important but don't care if the rest of China achieves it, obviously don't view themselves as part of China. A protester was wearing a t-shirt that read "Hong Kong Is Not China." Young Hong Kongers have no more interest in the future of China than they do in the future of India: they just don't perceive it as their nation. Beijing is increasingly viewed as the new colonial master. Indirectly, these "localized" protests hint at a future in which today's youngsters will dream of independence from China.
What makes it worse is the reaction of the Chinese public opinion to the Hong Kong protests. Granted: we cannot trust the social media that in China are carefully controlled by the government, but one can reasonably assume that the social media reflect the opinions of the majority, and that opinion is that communist China is entitled to rule over this new colonial empire, and Hong Kong is just one piece of it. Just like during the British Empire many British citizens were proud of their empire and indifferent to the plight of its subjects, the vast majority of Chinese are proud of their empire and indifferent to the plight of Tibetans, Uighurs and Hong Kong protesters. Just like during the British Empire many British citizens justified the empire as bringing civilization to uncivilized people, now many Chinese justify the new Chinese empire as bringing civilization to uncivilized Tibetans and Uighurs. Alas, this argument doesn't work too well with Hong Kong, which can be considered more "civilized" and certainly wealthier than most of China. And just like during the British Empire some subjects actually admired the colonial master, so today some Tibetans and Uighurs admire how the Beijing government has engineered the economic boom, improved the infrastructure, and spread literacy. Alas, this argument too is weak when applied to Hong Kong, where rich and powerful people fear that China's rule may in fact undermine Hong Kong's status as an international financial hub.
The change in the mood towards China and Chinese civilization is striking. During the British occupation, and despite China's isolation during the Mao years, Hong Kongers saw themselves proudly as Chinese. They rarely missed an opportunity to remind their British friends of the ancient Chinese civilization, of the merits of Chinese philosophy, of Chinese music, of Chinese manners, even of Chinese cuisine. Hong Kong was the place were Westerners were taught about Chinese civilization. Hong Kongers had a love affair for the mainland from which they had been forcibly separated first by a colonial agreement and then by the Cold War. No more. Hong Kong's love affair with Chinese civilization is gone. The young Hong Kongers have little interest in anything Chinese: philosophy, music, art, whatever. Anything Chinese is more likely to elicit contempt than excitement from a young Hong Konger. In fact, anyone who professes love for Chinese civilization can be viewed as a traitor of sorts by the younger of today's protesters, because love for China (which decades ago was a way to stand up to British occupation) is now often viewed as something mandated by China's Communist Party, and therefore interpreted as love for the new colonial oppressor, the Communist Party. The British rulers didn't speak the language of Hong Kong, didn't understand the traditional values of the people of Hong Kong, and lived in their own quarters. The new rulers, i.e. the Communist Party of Beijing, speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese (the language of Hong Kong), don't understand the modern values of the people of Hong Kong, and live in a farway city (Beijing instead of London). The similarities are obvious.
The reverse is also true: it is striking that young people in the big Chinese cities are indifferent to what young people are doing in Hong Kong. Normally, when young people start a movement in a city, young people in other cities of the same nation get excited and start similar protests. Young people in each city become proud that they are joining a national movement. That's what happened in 1989: the Tianamen Square protests spread to several other cities, although the big ones were in Beijing. This is not the case today. Young people in other Chinese cities (if we can believe what we see in Chinese social media) seem to be skeptic or even hostile towards the Hong Kong protesters. Certainly this has to do with the coverage provided by the official media, but young people are usually immune to state propaganda, and in many places of the world they are motivated to join the protests precisely because of their hatred towards state propaganda. Instead, the young Chinese of Beijing and Shanghai seem to shake their heads and roll their eyes when they hear of the prolonged protests of Hong Kong. This fact is probably increasing the political divide and the cultural gap: It's like talking to someone who doesn't understand your language.
The young Hong Kongers have access to a free Internet and a free press. How do you explain what this means to the young people of Beijing and Shanghai who have never experienced it? And old Hong Kongers have lived all their lives in a place that may have been just a colony but always had real rule of law: the Hong Kong government can't imprison you or ruin you just because it doesn't like you (as it often happens in the rest of China). And there is also a more profound reason why both young Hong Kongers and old ones view the Beijing government in a wildly different way than the rest of China does: we all judge our country's situation based on the situation of previous generations. The people of mainland China have witnessed staggering progress between Mao's famines and today. The situation of a young Chinese is generally ten times better than the situation of her parents and grandparents. Hong Kong citizens, instead, cannot (yet) be grateful of anything to Beijing. Their situation has not improved. Maybe it has slightly worsened. In any case, they have no Mao to compare with. They have always viewed themselves as one of the great cities of the world. They don't compare their situation with Mao's famine to conclude that they are much better off now than then. They compare themselves with the likes of Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Dubai, Sydney, London, New York, and San Francisco. They have nothing to do with the Cultural Revolution and all the other horrors of mainland China, mostly caused by the very Communist Party that now wants to rule over Hong Kong. They feel that they belong in another league, the league of great financial centers of the 21st century. How does Hong Kong fare with Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Sydney, etc? How does it fare with London? Not well: the others are all run by democratic governments, and the rule of law is improving, not declining.
Far from feeling that they can trust the system, the people of Hong Kong are beginning to feel that they are living inside a horror movie. They know how Beijing arrests and ruins people arbitrarily, and they fear that this could be their future. The agreement with Britain was that Hong Kong would retain its legal system until 2047 but, after that, would be directly governed by Beijing. Back in 1997, everyone believed that China would become a more democratic place by 2047. Now that we are halfway to 2047, few people still believe so precisely because of China's success: there is little internal or external pressure on China's Communist Party to change. In fact, it is China's Communist Party that has begun to exert pressures on many governments of the world for them to change. China's Communist Party has a unique way to misread the consequences of political events. When the existence of Xinjiang's "reeducation camps" for Muslims leaked out, China's Communist Party initially denied their existence and then admitted them but explained that they were working, i.e. they were making good citizens out of rebellious Muslims. The Communist Party thought that they solved a problem when in fact they had just created a bigger one: Hong Kong viewed that "solution" as its own future. Mainland Chinese know little about the reeducation camps in Xinjian province but Hong Kong citizens have free Internet and free press, and know too well what happened to those people. They now fear that Hong Kong will be next. They see their future as being locked in a reeducation camp that will teach them not to browse the Internet, not to read the foreign press, and not to aspire to democracy and the rule of law. They see their future as being turned into "model citizens" like ordinary people are turned into zombies in horror movies.
The common sentiment in Hong Kong is one of hopelessness: nobody will come to help Hong Kong when Beijing imposes its full rule over it. In fact, most of the world is not following the news from Hong Kong because most of the world takes for granted that, sooner or later, Beijing will impose its will on Hong Kong. Hong Kongers have been abandoned by the few powers that could perhaps exert pressure on Beijing: Britain (that is self-destroying with the "Brexit" mess) and the USA (Trump has never said a single word of support for pro-democracy demonstrations, whether in Hong Kong or anywhere else in the world).
Many are surprised that China has not sent the army yet to quell the protests and restore order. But today's China does not know how to deal with protest movements. In 1989 it sent tanks to end the Tianamen Square protests, but that was 1989. It was a different China, which most people in the world still identified with Mao's China, and the world in general was still a world largely run by dictators. At the time, China's dictatorship (Deng's dictatorship) was less brutal than most, and was delivering a lot more to its people. In 2019 the world has changed. More than 100 countries enjoy some degree of democracy, and China has become the exception, not the rule. Massacres of protesters are no longer tolerated. Sending tanks to crush a peaceful protest is a thing of the past, anywhere in the world. It's hard to believe that China's leaders would send the world the message that China, with its ambitions of becoming a world leader in many fields, is still stuck in a 1989 time warp.
China's Communist Party reacted to the Hong Kong protests in a clumsy way. First, it removed the Hong Kong protests from national news. Many Chinese, told by foreigners of the Hong Kong protests, politely replied that such things were not happening; that, basically, it was "fake news" architected by Western media. When it became obvious that such things were indeed happening, China's media described them as involving a tiny minority of people. But you can't easily hide one million people, and finally the Chinese media told the Chinese public the truth: that a lot of people were protesting in Hong Kong. Still, the official media blame it on US interference, showing over and over again the images of protesters meeting with US officials (and sometimes with just US tourists, and sometimes not even from the USA). This is all fine when "sold" to the audience in mainland China but it only increases the anger, frustration, fear and distrust among the Hong Kongers who watch this old-fashioned spectacle of communist censorship and brainwashing.
There is only one part of the world that follows the news from Hong Kong not only with great interest but also with trepidation: Taiwan. Communist China has told democratic Taiwan so many times that there is only one China (implying Beijing's China) that the Taiwanese almost forgot about it and even elected a pro-independence president, Ing-wen Tsai. The young Taiwanese are precisely what the young people of Hong Kong are becoming: less and less attached to the notion of being Chinese, more and more identifying with their own homeland. Very few young Taiwanese think of themselves as "Chinese" just like few Australians think of themselves as British. Sharing ancestors and a language is not enough to decide that you also share a nation. When young Taiwanese see what is happening in Hong Kong, they too are terrified: will communist China some day rule over Taiwan and undermine Taiwan's democratic elections, legal rights, free press and Internet access? The turmoil in Hong Kong is probably sending shivers down the spines of the young Taiwanese, and will probably help president Tsai get reelected. That is another nightmare for Beijing, which was hoping for a China-friendly candidate to win the next elections.
It is ironic that the reeducation camps in Xinjiang province, meant to educate Muslims to the wonders of communism and of Chinese civilization, have caused pro-democracy and anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hong Kong and may cause a pro-independence and anti-Chinese vote in Taiwan.
And now China's Communist Party has to hope that nothing else comes to destabilize its colonial empire. What if the Dalai Lama dies in exile, denied until the end the right to visit his Tibetan homeland? Will the Tibetans mourn him in silence or rise up in desperation? What if a rebellious movement suddenly emerges from the many young Chinese who have spent years in foreign universities and are frustrated of not being allowed the same Internet access they enjoyed abroad? What if an argument over the South China Sea islands (that China unilaterally annexed) escalates into a military confrontation with Japan, the Philippines or Vietnam? What if North Korea (China's only military ally) causes a military escalation in the Korean peninsula? What if another country starts a trade war with China? There have been calls to consider ideas as goods to which trade treaties should apply just like such treaties apply to appliances and shoes. China has a history of falling apart because of tensions inside its society. The Qing empire collapsed after two waves of mass protests: the Taiping rebellion (1851) and the Boxer/ Yihetuan rebellion (1900). And of course the last straw was the pro-democracy movement founded by Sun Yatsen, a young man educated in Hong Kong.
Beijing tried to impose its system on Hong Kong, but the only way that Hong Kongers can still feel attached to their Chinese heritage is that Beijing adopts the Hong Kong system: a free Internet, the rule of law, and some degree of democracy (no democracy is perfect, as Trump has widely proved to the world).
Alas, the democratic world can hardly lecture China: during the Hong Kong protests, Spain arrested the leaders of Catalunia's independence movement and India revoked Kashmir's self-ruling status.
(See also The Democracy Virus)
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TM, ®, Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.