Since late September, huge crowds, mainly of students but with a few families, have clogged the streets of Hong Kong, a major Chinese city. Waving umbrellas to fend off the torrential rains there, they have also deployed them to shield themselves from the police’s tear gas, giving this movement the name “Umbrella Revolution.” It was originally called “Occupy Central,” referring to the city’s central financial district, but the protests have spread beyond both that part of the city and the limited scope of merely expressing protest.

The protests are an expression of deep frustration and mistrust of the Chinese government. They also lay bare the differences between Hong Kong, a “Special Administrative Region,” and the rest of the country.

Hong Kong’s story goes back to the Opium War of 1842. In that war, Britain bombarded Chinese ports and forts to pry the country open to foreign trade (specifically, in opium). It got what it wanted, as well as a city to colonize — Hong Kong. At that time it was a small fishing town on the south China coast, but the British developed it into their gateway into China, headquartering major corporations and banks there. A unique Anglicized Chinese culture developed, somewhat similar to Britain’s other culturally Chinese city, Singapore: English language, British laws, British education, British finance, but a fundamentally Chinese trading culture with Chinese religion and Chinese lifestyle.

Due to Hong Kong’s separation from the rest of China (which is referred to as “the mainland”), both by British rule and by geography (the city is on an island), it’s also historically been a refuge for Chinese people fleeing their country’s many different upheavals. The Taiping Rebellion, the first Chinese Revolution, the Chinese Civil War, the second Chinese Revolution, and the terror unleashed by China’s Communist Party on its own people all contributed to a stream of refugees into the small island/peninsula on its south coast, eventually turning it into one of the most densely populated parts of the world. Its refuge reputation was only shattered in 1941, when Japan took over as part of its general conquest of East Asia.

This led to somewhat mixed feelings among the people of Hong Kong regarding the mainland. On the one hand, British rule was a glaring reminder of the inferiority imposed on China during the 1800s. Much of the 1900s was the story of China rolling back the various humiliations it had endured in the previous century and ascending to the role of a true Great Power again. On ethnic, cultural, national and historical grounds, there was no good reason to keep Hong Kong separated from the mainland. But on the other hand, China just couldn’t be trusted. From the obtuse and despotic Manchu Dynasty to the corrupt and ineffective Nationalist regime and finally to the fanatical and totalitarian Communist government, mainland China hasn’t presented a very attractive alternative to British rule.

The most glaring example of how untrustworthy and scary China is was provided in 1989. After Hu Yaobang, one of China’s leading reformers, died, students assembled in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to protest China’s oppressive authoritarian rule and call for democratic reform, even going so far as to construct a huge statue of Liberty in the square. After a month of political squabbling, the party chairman, Deng Xiaoping, sided with the hardliners and unleashed a massacre upon the hapless students. The massacre in Beijing was followed up with a nationwide purge of anyone sympathizing with the protest movement and anyone who had been critical of the government during the loosening-up period of the ’80s. It was another opportunity for a large-scale exodus to Hong Kong, and it sent a chill through the colony as it became aware of just how cold the Chinese rulers were.

It was thus with a great deal of trepidation that Hong Kong awaited the transfer of power back to China in 1997. To allay local concerns, Deng agreed in the ’80s to preserve as much of Hong Kong’s unique society as possible. Hong Kong’s currency, financial system, legal structure, education system, and to a large extent its government would all be preserved. It looked more and more like the main things China wanted out of Hong Kong were control over its foreign affairs and defense, easier access for its own people and businesses, and consolation in wiping out another vestige of the colonial past. (There was still the nearby Portuguese colony of Macao, but that was retaken in 1999.) But a lot of Hong Kongers were still nervous. Could you really trust a country that had brutally slaughtered its own people for peacefully protesting?

The transfer turned out to go pretty smoothly after all. A lot of Hong Kongers discovered their inner Chineseness during the bombastic ceremony and felt pride in joining a rising power rather than remaining tethered to a declining one. Last-minute democratic reforms pushed through by the outgoing British government gave Hong Kong an elected legislature and boss (literally called “the chief executive”). Joining China turned out to be mutually beneficial because of the vast investment opportunities in China that businessmen the world over salivate over and because Hong Kong has become East Asia’s financial hub (along with Toukyou). With well-educated professionals fluent in both Chinese and Western economic norms, Hong Kong continues to be an invaluable bridge between societies. Hong Kong (along with Macao) became a weird sort-of-country with a huge amount of autonomy yet formally belonging to mainland China.

And yet there was always a sense that despite the calm and smoothness, China was looming ominously over the border. The new millennium also saw a spike in Chinese nationalism and assertiveness. Restrictions on free speech and press (meaning anything critical of mainland China) gradually infiltrated Hong Kong. China had always been hostile to the new democratic institutions in Hong Kong and gave itself veto power over the results. It tried to implement mainland-style “patriotic education” in 2012, a ploy to stoke the same nationalism that mutes Chinese criticism of its own government — but Hong Kongers saw through it and demonstrated against the decision successfully.

There is also a sense that Hong Kong is slowly losing ground. The rise of mainland China and the increasing worldliness and sophistication of its people mean that Hong Kong isn’t quite as special as it used to be. Even in its own neighborhood — the Pearl River Delta of southern China — it has been eclipsed by Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Mainlanders are pouring into Hong Kong, both as tourists and as immigrants/migrants, and they’re not receiving a very warm welcome. Partially it’s petty issues like rudeness and dirtiness, but it’s also because they provide stiff competition for Hong Kong’s hard-working youth.

I also need to mention a shadow ethnic divide. Although China is about 92% Chinese, many of those Chinese do not speak the dominant language, Mandarin (or Putonghua, “common language,” in Chinese). A handful of other languages are spoken in China’s southeast, remnants of older ethnic groups now mostly absorbed into the Chinese mainstream. Hong Kong is in the Cantonese (or Yue) zone, and its history as a separate territory has nurtured a distinct identity, further elaborated in its vibrant pop culture (movies, pop songs, etc.). The Chinese government hates these languages and discourages their use, but Cantonese is still very much the local language in Hong Kong; some Hong Kongers don’t even know Mandarin. It’s thus grating for Hong Kongers to be expected to deal with a bunch of people they can’t even communicate with.

The final straw for Hong Kong’s youth was the decision this year to allow a direct election of the chief executive. While it may seem weird that granting Hong Kong democracy — something it never really had, even under the British — would be so controversial, the problem is that China’s central government reserved for itself the right to veto any candidates. It’s not very different from what Hong Kong has now, but the finality of the decision upset the people of Hong Kong. China has basically made it clear that it will never accept any government in Hong Kong too rebellious or out of step with mainland wishes. At this point, that’s exactly the kind of government many in Hong Kong want.

The protests have been mostly peaceful. Occupy Central is actually called “Occupy Central with Love and Peace.” The protesters are mostly students, and this being China, they try to do their schoolwork during down time. They have also made a point to pick up their trash and try to avoid being a nuisance. Causing problems is inevitable, though, because otherwise it wouldn’t be a very effective protest. Traffic in the parts of the city they’ve occupied has been strangled, leading to complaints and opposition from taxi drivers, bus drivers, and the older generation in general, who just want to go on with business. Triads, the notorious local gangs, have attacked them on occasion. So have the police.

A bigger problem, though, is the lack of a clear goal. The demand voiced most often is the resignation of the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying — but if that happened, his replacement would be just as pro-Chinese. Even if he wasn’t, the broader social and political trends I’ve mentioned would still go on. The protests seem to be held mostly for their own sake, to make a statement — that Hong Kong won’t passively accept party domination.

Hong Kong is at an impasse. Neither the protesters nor the government want to stand down or even compromise. The Chinese government sees its veto power as a necessary safeguard and refuses to give it up. Heck, it even refuses to admit there is a problem. Much of the discussion has been going on in Hong Kong, with Leung refusing to resign and warning the protesters how much fire they’re playing with.

Luckily, another Tiananmen hasn’t happened. The government has mostly decided to deal with the issue by ignoring it. There are rumors that the triads and some of the counter-protests were instigated by it, but for the most part the demonstration is just ignored. Maybe it calculated that the longer the protests went on, the more locals would get tired of it and the more the protesters would get bored and fatigued. If so, they calculated smartly. That’s exactly what happened. A sinking realization that the protests are going nowhere is descending upon the protesters.

As of this writing the end seems to be near. The police have already cleared one protest encampment, in the Kowloon part of Hong Kong (on the peninsula across from the island), and have declared their intention to move on to the main city on the island. Police action may fire up passions, but there is also a sense that the government doesn’t care about the demonstrators and that they are ultimately powerless.

The protesters are right. China cannot be trusted. It violated certain parts of the agreement it reached with Britain in the ’80s and really just cares about power at whatever cost. It doesn’t want another Tiananmen (and has gone to great lengths to even wipe out its memory) and will probably try harder to avoid another massacre, but I don’t believe a sense of guilt or compassion over mass murder is enough to keep it from crushing dissent. On the mainland any protest or dissent of any kind is scotched from the get-go; I don’t think China cares enough about Hong Kong’s British-inherited legal system to hold itself back.

Given the psychotic tendencies of China’s government, it would have been better for Hong Kong to gain independence instead. Failing that, it would probably have been better off remaining under British rule, but with more rights and participation for the locals (who were excluded from high society and politics during the colonial era). For all the damage and horror it has inflicted during its imperial era, modern-day Britain is a gentler country and respects human rights. China is more obsessed with glory, projecting strength and maintaining unity at whatever cost.

Sadly, I also find it hard to sympathize too much with the protests. The simple truth is that there’s not much they can do peacefully. Even if Hong Kong had become independent, its geography, history and culture make Chinese encroachment just about inevitable. Chinese rule has done well for Hong Kong so far, and Chinese leaders have mostly stood by their pledge to stand back and let Hong Kong govern itself. The freedom and opportunity offered in Hong Kong are the envy of mainlanders restricted by strict censorship and policing and a more severe culture and mindset. But there’s always the knowledge that Hong Kong enjoys these privileges through Chinese largess, and they could be revoked whenever China wants. And it probably doesn’t care what the people of Hong Kong think about it.


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