By Pál Nyiri. Yesterday I organized a discussion at Spui 25 to make sense of the recent events in Hong Kong. The student demonstrations demanding the direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017 — a promise made by Chinese government for 2012, but postponed and now broken — have spread to high schools and office workers, resulting in the largest mass protest in China since the 1989 democracy movement that led to the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The panelists included Frank Pieke, an anthropologist and Professor of Modern Chinese Culture at Leiden University, and two media scholars: Jeroen de Kloet, Professor of Globalisation Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and Donna Chu, Associate Professor at the Media and Communications Department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. We quickly agreed that seeing the Hong Kong events as a repetition of 1989 or a revolution is misleading. China’s political system, based on Communist Party rule, is in no immediate danger. Although the Party — like in 1989 — accuses demonstrators of being the instruments of foreign countries wishing to instigate a “color revolution,” they have gone to pains to stress that their ambitions are limited to Hong Kong, and anti-Communist Party slogans have been conspicuously absent.
As Jeroen de Kloet pointed out, one of the central questions regarding the nature of this movement — broadly known as “Occupy Central,” in reference to Hong Kong’s Central district — is the way it mixes various demands: those for one man, one vote representative (“Western-style”) democracy, those for the maintenance of Hong Kong’s special status vis-à-vis the rest of China, and those for social justice in a broader sense. The name “Occupy Central” is, of course, borrowed from the left-wing, quasi-anarchist movement that started in New York (and was in part initiated by anthropologist David Graeber). Yet it is the message of representative democracy that resonates most both with Western observers who have projected onto it a revolutionary fantasy and with the Chinese government, which has done the same but with a negative sign. Organisers have been careful not to play on nativist sentiments that pit Hong Kongers against mainland Chinese, but these sentiments have grown in the last years, and have resulted in a growing nationalist backlash on the part of mainlanders.
While all discussion of the Hong Kong protests on mainland Chinese social media is swiftly deleted, one widely circulated post in recent days called Hong Kongers parasites and warned that their prosperity is a historical aberration that came about from the city’s role as a gateway to a closed China. It was neither economically nor politically rational, the post said, to expect that Hong Kong would be protected from an inevitable marginalization now that the world can do business directly with Canton, Shanghai or Peking. And it warned Hong Kongers that they had no reason to believe that the central government would hesitate of sending the People’s Liberation Army to restore order if need be. Indeed, it is said that some Party leaders have favoured this option.
The panelists agreed that the protests will not achieve their aim, but Donna Chu said they marked the beginning of a new Hong Kong, one that she “fell in love with again.” One question is whether the protests will lead into a longer-term political movement, and if so whether it will limit itself to Hong Kong or have some influence in the mainland. Will Hong Kong people turn increasingly inward and alienated from China, or will more of them follow the footsteps of critical writer Chan Koonchung who has moved to Peking? Will they stress difference and disinterest as the government in Peking increases its efforts to define Chineseness around the world on its terms and its terms only, or will they counter them?
China has more differing voices than at any time since the 1980s discussing the desirable direction of the country, yet the room for these differing voices to speak out in public is increasingly curtailed. As the room for political dissent shrinks, more dissent may be reframed into ethnic and religious conflict. The recent life sentence handed down to the Uighur professor Ilham Tohti — who was loyal to the idea of a single China but blamed government policies for growing separatism — is a warning sign.
In the end, does any of this really matter? Is Communist Party rule, and its version of the world, the reality that everyone in China, its periphery and increasingly the rest of the world must accept and work with, as Frank Pieke suggested? The party-state remains vulnerable, and its efforts to block all discussion of Hong Kong protests and arrest any copycat activists in the mainland — seemingly out of all proportion to their lack of influence — attest to its awareness of its own vulnerability. But even if, fifty years from now, parts of the world will increasingly resemble China’s political system while others descend into chaos, insisting on alternatives is inherently valuable.
Pál Nyiri is Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective at VU University Amsterdam.