Hong Kong democracy protesters care about their own future, not the mainland’s

Enough of the chinoiserie. Ping_Fan via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Tempers have flared again at the site of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, with masked men attempting to dismantle the protesters’ barricades. After a tense fortnight, the eyes of the world are still watching – but the various observers applauding the defiant Kong Kongers are motivated by a wide range of interests and reasons.

There are many people who genuinely care about Hong Kong and who would like to see Hong Kongers, both the Occupy Central protesters and those who are standing against them, achieve their goal of making Hong Kong a better place by peaceful means.

There are also many people who support the protesters not out of concern of Hong Kong per se, but rather out of hopes or fears that a similar movement might rock the Chinese mainland. Others are tenuously drawing links between Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, trying to dig up indications that the Chinese government is losing its grip on its “periphery”.

Constant comparisons with what happened in Tiananmen in 1989 have been made, and wild speculations of whether repression of the same scale will occur in Hong Kong have been floating around the internet since the protests ramped up.

It should be pointed out, however, the latter group of people has been totally misplaced. The protests are about Hong Kong and Hong Kong alone; there will be few if any long-lasting effect on the mainland. As a result, there is no reason to expect a 1989-style response from the Chinese Communist Party.

Identity crisis

Underneath Occupy Central’s cries for democracy run an ongoing identity crisis that has been going on for years. As a post-colonial city only returned to China by the UK in 1997, Hong Kong is still stuck between two identities. Being transferred without consent from Western colonial power to the sphere of authoritarian, communist China was a harsh blow that many Hong Kongers have still not come to terms with.

But Hong Kong’s identity has never been a simple matter. Ever since the 1950s, Hong Kong had been a haven for refugees escaping communist China; it also served as a major station for western espionage operations in China during the Cold War (part of an even longer history as a spying capital). This anti-communist tradition was re-affirmed when Beijing militarily cracked down on student protesters in 1989: between Tiananmen and the 1997 handover, a wave of mass migration took hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers population emigrated to Western countries.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s return to China also coincided with the mainland’s own dramatic economic growth. That in turn has sent millions of mainland Chinese tourists, derided as “locusts”, flocking to Hong Kong and buying up everything they can – including necessities such as baby formula – which has deeply annoyed many Hong Kongers.

At the same time, the economic balance between the two sides has also been turned upside-down, with the once-poor “country bumpkins” now coming to Hong Kong splashing their cash around on luxury western brands and buying up luxury apartments.

The old sense of superiority and entitlement among many Hong Kongers has been seriously challenged. All these factors combined have led to the development of a strong local Hong Kong identity, one close to a full rejection of being Chinese at all. Many social movements in the past few years have deliberately targeted mainland Chinese tourists, entrenching the already deep division between the two sides.

It is this strong Hong Kong identity that motivated many of the youngsters to join the Occupy Central protests in the first place. But it also explains why the protest movement has little hope of somehow “inspiring” the mainland Chinese.

One country, two systems

Anyone hoping the protests will resonate meaningfully in the rest of China is bound to be disappointed.

No love lost. Pasu Au Yeung via Flickr, CC BY

The protest movement’s demands have focused on democracy in Hong Kong; there have not been slogans or speeches demanding the democratisation of the whole of China. Many protesters only care about Hong Kong, and few care at all about their mainland brethren. And the feeling is mutual: witness many mainland Chinese people’s negative view of the Occupy Central protesters.

In the eyes of the mainland Chinese, Hong Kong has always been an anomaly (“one country, two systems”).

In addition, even though Hong Kong has a special status as a free economic haven for China, it is just not as politically or symbolically important as Beijing or Shanghai. Protests, such as the annual Tiananmen vigil and July 1 rally, often draw hundreds of thousands of people. Never before has Beijing made much open fuss about those. There is no particular reason why these protests should suddenly draw Beijing’s direct and overt repression, especially militarily.

In any case, compared to the scenes of 1989, when student protesters threatened the heart of the Party’s power, the Chinese government simply has more in its toolbox to deal with the “unruly” Hong Kong protesters – such as the intermediary Hong Kong government, or economic means to make Hong Kongers feel its pinch. There is no need to resort to disproportionate violence.

At the end of the day, it makes more sense to focus on Hong Kong and the demands of the Hong Kongers for their own city, rather than idly pondering about the fate of the whole of China. Constantly tying the Occupy Central protest to what may or may not happen on the mainland is a disservice to many Hong Kongers, who have no truck with such associations – and who have their own problems to be getting on with.