“CCCP is not China – Freedom and Democracy are eternal”
In the first of this pair of articles (read it here) I looked at the Hong Kong protests and interviewed participants and others affected. Here, I take a more mainland-ish perspective, and also make comparisons with the now-forgotten “Sunflower” upheaval in Taiwan in 2014.
During my October stay in Hong Kong, I visited Shenzhen for a few days. Shenzhen and Hong Kong are neighbours, but they are totally different places. Hong Kong is a de facto separate country, severed from Shenzhen by one of the world’s last Iron-Curtain-type barbed-wire borders. In spirit too, Shenzhen is a world away. At the same time, Shenzhen is China’s most affluent and arguably least political city. A lot of it now looks even shinier than Hong Kong, though incomes are nowhere near as high.
What impact, then, were the Hong Kong troubles having in China? The answer was evidently “none.” There was no graffiti or any sign of sympathy protests in Shenzhen. Yes, said the receptionist at my hotel, she did know about the unrest. It had just made her afraid of going to Hong Kong. (Chinese have limited freedom to visit). A businesswoman in the construction machinery trade I met later felt it was all just bad for business.
People did know what was going on. It’s not true that the PRC media are ignoring the unrest. In fact, it has given them a golden propaganda opportunity — they can focus on the violence and disorder while ignoring the politics. (You can, in any case, watch largely uncensored news throughout China on pay channel Phoenix News).
Back in Britain, I got similar reactions from a trio of mainland students. They were put off by the violence and vandalism, and the use of masks. They also suspected American provocation. Still, I asked, could a spark from Hong Kong waft over and start a fire in China? Unlikely, was the consensus. The thing Chinese feared most was political turmoil, and China was stable at the moment: “Nobody wants trouble.” In any case, Hong Kongers have never had many friends in China. They are regarded as aloof, unpatriotic prima donnas, reluctant or unable to speak Mandarin and always moaning despite their enormous wealth and privileges compared with mainlanders.
~~~ *** ~~~
It’s interesting to compare this uprising with the so-called “Sunflower” protests that swept Taipei in early 2014. On the surface, they were similar: a superficial dispute, in Taiwan’s case over an allegedly unfair trade pact, was used as a vehicle for expression of deeper fears about long-term relations with the PRC. Both protests were spearheaded by idealistic students, and were fanned by sympathetic local media.
However, the modes of protest were very different. In Taiwan, there was a focal point, the parliament building, which was physically occupied for a number of weeks, giving the movement a base and an organisation that Hong Kong protestors have lacked. Hong Kong’s protests have been scattered, sporadic, spontaneous, leaderless, very angry and on occasion very violent — there has been a death, and, at the time of writing, street protestors had set one guy on fire. Taiwan’s protests were peaceful and largely good-natured, with few police clashes. In Taiwan, organized nationalist groups also banged the independence drum loudly (although they were mostly ignored in the timid Taiwan media). In Hong Kong, outright calls for independence were rarer, though I believe this is really what most Hong Kongers want.
There were also big differences in the government reaction. Taiwan’s government is democratic, though weak and corrupt and disdained by Taiwanese generally. The (mainland Nationalist) KMT, in power in 2014, have never really won over the Taiwanese, who always saw the mainlanders as invaders and remember Taiwan’s own Tiananmen in 1947, when thousands were massacred by the KMT in a purge. Because of this history, Taiwan’s governments tend to favour a softly, softly approach. Luckily, the KMT could afford to be indulgent with the “Sunflower” movement, as it knew it would run out of steam in time. Hong Kong’s leaders are in a different position. They have little electoral legitimacy, but also little to fear or lose from using heavy-handed tactics.
Another factor was that few people in Taiwan have deep personal experience of mainland China. But many Hong Kongers have family over the border, and most have travelled in Guangdong and know life in the PRC. This, I think, accounts for some of the emotional intensity.
The “Sunflower” movement petered out after a few months, achieving little, and so will the Hong Kong protests eventually. There is no real immediate threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms (the current arrangement with the PRC ends in 2047), and popular tolerance for the disruption and excesses is waning. I don’t want to sound too critical of an idealistic movement that has genuine reasons for protesting. But, the truth is, they too are going to achieve very little, apart from driving a wedge between China and Hong Kong and undermining bilateral trust. The PRC will remember 2019 when Hong Kong’s status is up for renewal in 2047.
~~~ *** ~~~
Finally, I would like to say a few words about mainland China. I travelled through China in 2008, when the country was on a high from the Olympics and gradual liberalisation seemed inevitable. But with the inauguration of the current president, Xi Jinping, in 2013, when I was living there, an unexpected chill fell over the land and has not lifted since. I have found increasingly difficult to talk politics with Chinese people.
Xi (pronounced “shee”) came to power as an unknown quantity. He projected a bluff solidity and seemed sincere about fighting corruption and lawlessness, which, in his first few years, won him widespread popularity. However, in 2018, he became “president for life,” in a sudden reversion by the CCP to something more like old Maoism. This change got surprisingly little attention in the west, but cast a pall of sullen resentment over China’s elites and students. China’s already regimented, security-obsessed model of governance intensified, underpinned by an almost nonstop TV diet of war dramas, portraying brave Communists beating the Japanese and the Nationalists.
Yet, despite this clampdown and the alienation of the elites, Xi is still widely supported, or at least tolerated, and his regime is stable. The background reason is the wretchedly low level of civic trust in the PRC — more bluntly, the rampant corruption, cheating and rule-breaking. All new Chinese leaders vow to smash corruption and illegality, and none have made a dent in it. Xi seems to be different. It showed in the little things: for the first time ever in China, I had a taxi driver insist that I put my seat-belt on; five years before, the drivers themselves didn’t bother. A Chinese girl in Britain told me that under Xi, she dared for the first time to walk out alone in the streets in China at night. “Unlike in England,” she added pointedly.
This is why the social credit system, maligned and dreaded in the west, seems to be accepted in China. “For example, being able to check up like that helps stop deposit cheats,” the same girl told me (because of low trust, deposits are often demanded in China). In the west, the system is portrayed as targeting dissidents, but the Chinese see it more as a tool for improving public morals.
I’d like to wrap this up with a neat conclusion, but I find I just can’t. As I hope to have made clear, the issues are complex and they change shape depending on perspective. I would only again caution against pinning too many hopes on the increasingly nasty Hong Kong protests. They will eventually peter out.
(For my free downloadable pdf books on East Asia and North Europe, please visit this website)
Photos courtesy of Joe Slater