The protest movement in Hong Kong is a modern-day political wonder. Reason one: To demand Western-style democracy in a part of China is plain mad; for lesser audacity vast numbers of people in Tibet and the Muslim area of Uighur have paid dearly. Reason two: Authorities in Beijing have avoided a Tiananmen model crackdown, apparently because a violent interdiction would have undermined business, Hong Kong’s lifeblood, and rattled world opinion at a time when Beijing is working towards a world leadership role.
China won’t yield an inch to the protestors. But that does not mean that the so-called Occupy movement, also called democracy movement, is a non-event. That it has lasted two months is an achievement in itself. More importantly, it has energised the youth and attracted large segments of the general public, holding up the message that Hong Kong has changed. For a century and a half it had remained a happily docile colony of Britain, firm in its belief that the freedom to make money was the only freedom that mattered. Democracy never bothered either the ruler or the ruled. China actually injected a tiny dose of democracy into this system. Earlier Britain merely nominated a governor and he ruled as the colony’s lord and master. For the election of the next Chief Executive (as governor is now called) in 2017, China offered universal franchise for all citizens in Hong Kong, a first-ever “reform”. The catch was that voters’ choice was limited to a panel of two or three names nominated by a China-controlled 1,200-member committee. In other words, the right to vote was given to all, but the right to stand as candidate was given to none. It was against this little trick that students took to the streets.
They did so in a unique manner. Despite a skirmish or two, overall it was a disciplined and stylish movement. They did not look like agitators in the first place. They were dressed in city casuals reflecting—this being Hong Kong—up-to-date international fashion. They were polite with the public. They were meticulous about cleaning the streets they occupied, collecting their garbage in big plastic bags for disposal. They called their protest a civil disobedience movement but emphasised that civil disobedience was not defiance of the rule of law but acceptance of it. Some of the leaders were no older than 17 and 18. Many talked of parents pressurising them to get back to classes. One bright young man with a nattily shaped hair style told this writer that he was returning to his research at Hong Kong University, but that didn’t mean he was withdrawing from the movement. The university campus was leafy, peaceful and busy as always.
The question is: Why has this new generation of Hong Kong citizens taken on China’s mighty power structure when their elders were content to be apolitical until just two decades ago? Basically there are two issues, political and cultural. Politically, Hong Kongers fear that China is becoming more rigid under President Xi Jinping. He has been neutralising powerful leaders one by one using corruption charges as his weapon. At this rate, would he one day crush the freedoms that Hong Kong people have come to take for granted? This antipathy to Xi’s China is intensified by the behaviour of visitors from the mainland. Hong Kong’s people are for long used to the niceties and adjustments of international living. The mainlanders, as visitors from China are called locally, are crude by comparison, talking loudly in public spaces and behaving without any civic sense. The story of a mainlander mother letting her child do No. 1 in a crowded Metro train is the most discussed folk tale in Hong Kong these days.
The cultural divide goes really deep. Hong Kong’s filmmakers say that mainland audiences are difficult and different. Hong Kong’s universities, people say, are rated higher than China’s, thanks to a tradition of intellectual freedom. The new generation in Hong Kong feels that its precious cultural edge would be lost if China takes full control of Hong Kong. They are not alone. The new generation in Taiwan is also embittered by an apparently hardening China. Within the mainland itself, the young often revolt but are firmly suppressed. The Chinese-language Apple Daily of Hong Kong, founded in 1995, has been anti-China to the extent of once calling on people to rise in revolt against Beijing. Last week, an academic survey revealed that only 8.9 per cent of Hong Kongers call themselves Chinese. This is a historical shift: not just Tibetans and Uighurs, but Chinese turning against communist China.