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What really scares Beijing about the Hong Kong protests

The island and the mainland are drifting further apart. But it may be Hong Kong that represents the true, rebellious spirit of China

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM


There’s a nondescript building tucked away near my house, about the size of a college dormitory. Sometimes I wave from my roof to the scrawny boys having a smoke on the balcony; they wave back enthusiastically, since foreigners are a rare sight in their home villages. They are soldiers; the building is a barracks, one of many scattered through the city after the murderous crackdown on protestors in 1989.

In my alley, several of the retired residents have temporarily abandoned mah-jong and gossip to don red ‘security patrol’ armbands. They are among the 850,000 volunteers the city government has mustered for the National Day holidays this week, charged with keeping an eye out for ‘suspicious behaviour and strangers in the neighbourhood’. On the main street nearby, every business sports a Chinese flag, provided by the local authorities.

Beijing is locked down. It always is, but now more than ever because 1,200 miles away, another Chinese city is exploding. Tens of thousands of people are out on the streets in Hong Kong to protest against the broken promises of a far-away government.


The ‘Occupy Central’ movement planned protests for 1 October, National Day, but an early student-led protest this weekend resulted in an unusually crude police response. Each new tear-gassing brought thousands more people, mostly young, out into the streets.

The spark that ignited the protests was the central government’s decision that candidates in Hong Kong’s first full elections, in 2017, would have to pass approval by a centrally controlled nominating committee, making them little more than puppets of Beijing — but Hong Kong’s frustration goes back far further. After the handover in 1997, the agreement was that Hong Kong would keep its ‘Basic Law’, the freedoms it had under the British, until 2047. The West hoped that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ would give time for change on the mainland; Beijing hoped Hong Kongers would learn to ‘love the country’.

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Neither has happened. The Hong Kong University’s regular identity survey shows a growing number of residents (40 per cent) who identify themselves primarily as ‘Hong Kongers’, not ‘Hong Kongers in China’ (27 per cent), ‘Chinese in Hong Kong’ (11 per cent) or ‘Chinese citizens’ (20 per cent). That’s a massive rise from the low in the Olympic year of 2008, when 34 per cent of respondents identified as ‘Chinese citizens’ and just 22 per cent as Hong Kongers.

It’s not just a sense of betrayal over 2017 — a chasm has for years been opening up between the mainland and the islands. The influx of mainlanders has caused some Hong Kongers to describe them as ‘locusts’ swarming over their city, though that language has not been visible in these protests. Previous protests saw off attempts at Beijing-backed ‘anti-subversion laws’ in 2003 and propagandistic ‘patriotic education’ in schools in 2012.

Meanwhile, mainlanders see Hong Kongers as snobby, privileged and resentful at losing their advantages. State-run media regularly condemns Hong Kong’s political opposition as an ‘unrepresentative minority’ that has a ‘colonial mentality’ or is ‘unpatriotic’; the black hand of foreign forces is often imagined to be behind protests.

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Yet despite the calumnies from the state media, the truth is that Hong Kong is in many ways more Chinese these days than mainland China. That might be what scares the authorities so much. The shrines and altars that dot Hong Kong speak to the richness of Chinese custom, annihilated between 1949 and 1976 in the mainland. Take Wong Tai Sin, a healing god whose cult once thrived in Guangdong. While his tradition was stamped out there, in Hong Kong his vast temple is a community institution that gives its name to a subway stop. Or take the tiny shrine of the ‘god of the four seas’. When it was founded decades ago, before the city’s land reclamation projects, it was on the coast. But every day, travellers still veer off course to visit it and offer devotions before taking the ferry, because that’s what their grandparents did.

Hong Kong preserves hobby clubs, literary societies, family associations, clan ties and ancestral temples that once made up the fabric of Chinese society. In mainland cities, the once-vast variety of regional cultures and traditions has been wracked twice over; first by Maoist persecution and then by waves of migration and materialism.

Most of all, the Hong Kong protests themselves are part of a great Chinese tradition, not only of peasant revolt and popular uprising, but of the student demonstrations that made China’s 20th century, from the protests of 4 May 1919 onwards. The Chinese public have never been the complacent sheep or communal masses of some westerners’ imagination, but an active, powerful force.


As Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history at Oxford, wrote to me: ‘Much of the history of 20th-century China is of protests changing politics, either aimed against foreigners but then turning against the government, or simply against the current authorities. Students have a particular kudos in this as they are regarded as the heirs of a tradition of educated elites who have earned the right to speak truth to power.’

The Cultural Revolution, which devastated the country from 1966 to 1976, began and ended with protest. In 1966, student protestors were encouraged to rise up in Mao’s name against their ‘counter-revolutionary’ local governments, the spark for widespread chaos. In April 1976, a million people gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the beloved premier Zhou Enlai, and condemn the far-left ideologues later known as the ‘Gang of Four’, while other protests broke out across the country. Around a thousand people were killed in the brief spurt of persecution that followed, but the protests gave the conspirators who arrested the Gang of Four after Mao’s death the confidence to act. The 1989 Tiananmen protests followed smaller, but still huge, student protests for reform across the country in 1986.

In fact, China is still seized by thousands of protests every year, from irate migrant workers whose bosses have disappeared with the year’s salaries to middle-class marchers against poisonous factories. The exact numbers are hard to pin down, since what the government calls ‘mass incidents’ can be anything from a dozen pensioners to an angry crowd of thousands, but Chinese researchers estimate around 90,000 incidents a year.

The reason the government doesn’t worry too much about these protests is because they are very localised. The paramilitary People’s Armed Police may bloodily clash with farmers, but local officials can also be sacked, unpopular policies rescinded, or families paid off — and the state has already won the war. In destroying any wider sense of civil society, they’ve eliminated any means by which these protests might link up into something more threatening. No institution, whether media, environmental groups, unions, or churches, has been allowed to develop into the kind of alternative framework that might bring diverse causes together. Any hint of sympathy protests or wider ideological campaigning is met with a vicious force, legal and otherwise, that has only become worse in the last few years; the very term ‘civil society’, common in 2008-2009, is now virtually taboo in Chinese media.

But Hong Kong still has that civil society, and it’s fighting to stay free. Plenty of mainlanders are emotionally invested in the Hong Kong protests, but they are scattered and un-able to speak out. ‘Hang in there, Hong Kong! Fight for the future!’ one of my mainland friends wrote from the safety of Europe on Facebook, itself blocked in China.

Other mainlanders buy the government line, or dismiss the protestors as childish, irresponsible or elitist. ‘They are only 7 million people… they can’t be allowed to endanger 1.3 billion of us. Even if the army has to kill some of them, it’s OK to maintain stability.’ This, from a Chinese acquaintance of mine in her thirties, just this afternoon.

And she’s right — this is the real danger Hong Kong protestors pose to China: good old-fashioned, traditional instability. They’re not just fighting to make Beijing keep its promises. They’re putting forward another version of what it is to be Chinese; not the bland nationalism of Beijing, but the argumentative, cultured, passionate visions that once remade the country.

James Palmer, is a writer and editor in Beijing. His latest book is The Death of Mao.

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