The Hong Kong protests and China’s unsettled territory

from Hang Tung Chow, on Twitter

from Hang Tung Chow, on Twitter

There has been no shortage of commentary and interpretation in the media about the recent and on-going protests in Hong Kong.  While there are many fascinating and important aspects of the situation being discussed – most prominently the questions of how Beijing will react, whether any concessions will be granted by the Hong Kong government, whether CY Leung will be forced to step down, or whether a violent crackdown is imminent – one of the most fascinating aspects is the way the protests draw our attention toward the broader question of China’s (unsettled) territory.  As Louisa Lim has suggested in a New York Times op-ed piece, these protests are about much more than electoral reform and democracy.  They’re about Hong Kong’s social, cultural, and political identity as a part of China, but also as part of the world.  This is not to say that protesters are calling for anything like political independence from China.  But they are protesting for the right to be Hong Kong people first, to maintain their territorial autonomy from China:

For China’s leaders, the accusation that foreign forces are manipulating students is easier to countenance than the idea that Hong Kongers are standing up for the high degree of autonomy promised to them. As students and activists faced off riot police amid the canyons of skyscrapers, one popular chant was simply, “Hong Kong People! Hong Kong People!”  Such an assertion of a separate and distinct identity is anathema to President Xi, whose xenophobic nationalism can accept only one state-approved version of what it means to be Chinese.

There is much more at stake in China’s intractable stance toward the protesters, in other words, than merely preventing this kind of thing from spreading into the mainland, as has been noted by many observers.  It’s more an issue of Xi Jinping wanting to settle, for once and for all, China’s unsettled territory.  Lim continues:

The moment that Hong Kong citizens have been dreading for 17 years has finally arrived. And the ramifications will ripple out, to Taiwan, whose residents are increasingly wary of the idea of reunification, as well as to the fringes of Beijing’s empire, where it is struggling with suicidal Tibetan protests and a murderous ethnic insurgency in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.

There’s a lot of anger in Hong Kong, and it’s not really about (lack of) democracy per se, though the cause of truly democratic elections has crystallized that anger like nothing else before.  But among many residents, especially the younger generation in their 20s and 30s who increasingly compete with mainlanders for jobs in the territory, there has been a palpable sense of the erosion of Hong Kong’s unique identity and autonomy in the face of the territory’s growing integration with mainland China.  That integration has been ongoing in many ways, from infrastructure developments (including high-speed rail) that tie Hong Kong more closely to the greater Pearl River Delta region as well as to Beijing, to an influx of mainland entrepreneurs, tourists, and political corruption, to interference with the educational system and its unique curriculum.  Much of this anger has been vented at mainland tourists in petty ways that often make Hong Kongers look like snobs, but the deeper issues are serious and real.

Beijing remains amazingly tone-deaf to this growing sense of anger and alienation in Hong Kong.  That was most stunningly revealed by the comments, in August by Wang Zhenmin, dean of the law school at Qinghua University in Beijing.  Wang advises Beijing on Hong Kong issues and had some things to say about democracy at an address he gave to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club:

Wang Zhenmin

Wang Zhenmin

Democracy is a political matter, it is also an economic matter. A political system by its nature reflects and embodies the economic structure of said particular place. Universal suffrage means the redistribution of economic interests among society’s members. We have to take care of every class. Every group of people. Every person. Rich or poor. No one should be ignored. No one should be left behind. Especially those whose slice of pie will be shared by others upon the implementation of universal suffrage. Their slice of pie will be shared by others through universal suffrage. So we have to take full consideration of their concerns. That’s why we require balanced participation. We require nominating committees and functional constituencies.

This is an amazing statement in support of oligarchy!  Wang was essentially saying that democracy must be kept in check in order to protect the interests of the wealthy.  No wonder everyone is protesting!  No wonder people are angry!

But, as noted earlier, the bigger issue here is territoriality and whether or not China can really live with the multiple sovereignties currently in force along China’s borderlands today.  Can China accept a definition of ‘Chineseness’ that maintains a space for local autonomy and multiple ways of being Chinese?  Not one of Beijing’s actions to date suggests that the current leadership can accept such a definition.  And I hope that Hong Kong does not become the next place where that narrow minded view is, again, pounded, like a flag (or a dagger), into the ground.

from Bloomburg

from Bloomburg

UPDATE 10/1/14 – A Reuters report today on reactions to the protests by mainland Chinese people in Hong Kong had this gem:

[Some mainlanders in Hong Kong] said they were dismayed that Hong Kong people were ungrateful for the benefits they enjoyed under Beijing’s rule.  A woman surnamed Lin from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, who was travelling to Hong Kong on Wednesday to shop, said the protesters’ demands for a democratic election were “disrespectful to the mainland.”

“Even though the government has brought a lot of development to Hong Kong, they don’t acknowledge this,” Lin said.

Leaving aside the question of whether or how much Hong Kong owes its prosperity to China, this idea of development as a ‘gift’ that China brings to its peripheral territories is a particularly powerful justification, in the eyes of many mainlanders, for Chinese rule.  Typically, the ‘gift of development’ is portrayed as something that China has brought to more ‘backward’ people along its ethnically mixed interior frontiers.  As Emily Yeh has argued in her book Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, this has been particularly the case in Tibet:  “Receiving a gift of development becomes an act of recognition by Tibetans of the Chinese state as their state and of PRC territory as a space within which they are bound” (p. 17).  Development, in other words, is a process of territorialization, a means by which territorial claims are made.

That ‘gift of development’ is now being extended to Hong Kong, and its refusal by Hong Kong residents (at least in the eyes of Ms. Lin from Shenzhen) is a reminder of the territorial stakes of the current protests.



UPDATE 10/6/14 – More on the territorial themes underlying the Hong Kong protests: people in China’s other ‘unsettled’ territories have been paying attention to events in Hong Kong, and to China’s reaction to the protests specifically, as an indicator of how Beijing might treat democratization or other efforts to increase autonomy and self-rule within those territories.  In particular, there’s great interest – and much support for the protesters – in Taiwan.  Our own Ian Rowen has written an insightful comparison between Taiwan’s ‘sunflower’ revolution and Hong Kong’s ‘umbrella’ revolution.  Ian notes that Taiwan’s student protest against the Taiwan government’s apparent willingness to accept and encourage China’s growing economic (and ultimately political) influence over Taiwan garnered relatively little international media attention.  However, with all the attention Hong Kong has been getting, those same issues are now being brought up again, this time before a global audience:

Fortunately, Taiwan’s tale is being written into Hong Kong’s. The Sunflowers and their sympathizers partly inspired this new generation of activists. They demonstrate in solidarity at Liberty Square in Taipei, send messages of support on social media, and fundraise for flights to join their counterparts. While half a million peaceful demonstrators in front of the Presidential Office on March 30 was still barely enough to make the world notice Taiwan, all eyes are on Hong Kong, and the two societies’ increasingly networked struggle has turned a new corner.

Meanwhile, people have been commenting on the likelihood that, from Taiwan’s perspective at least, China’s balking at democratization in Hong Kong has sent a clear message that the “one country  two systems” approach that is meant to encourage and enable eventual unification between Taiwan and China doesn’t actually mean much when it comes to recognizing people’s demands for a say in their government.  This skepticism of the “one country two systems” model is something that people across the political spectrum in Taiwan increasingly share, which is itself a huge blow to Beijing’s unification efforts.  A recent New York Times article quotes William Stanton, a former diplomat and current director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University, saying “it’s very rare that you see both the K.M.T. and the D.P.P. kind of lining up” on any issue.  He goes on to say that, “The breadth of the Taiwanese support for Hong Kong democracy indicates that Beijing’s steps on the issue have probably hurt its efforts to win support in Taiwan.”

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