Lam Yik Fei / The New York Times

Protesters clash with police in Hong Kong on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. Clashes reached their most intense point in four months of protests on the same day Beijing celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule.

October 1, 2019

Amidst Continuing Mass Protests, Asia Experts Grapple With Future of Hong Kong

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As mainland China marked the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule yesterday, thousands of Hong Kongers once again returned to the streets in mass protest — a stark juxtaposition highlighting the durability of anti-government animus that has captured the passions of the city since June.

Amidst the continuing demands for reform, at a September 24th roundtable discussion, Prof. Eli Friedman, international and comparative labor, Prof. Allen Carlson, government, and Samuel Lee, a doctorate student at The New School, shared their thoughts on the origins of Hong Kong’s deep anger and how the city might possibly emerge from the months of unprecedented unrest that has shown little signs of abating.

According to Lee, the first wave of protests began in response to a bill that would, for the first time, allow for the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China — where legal protections are widely perceived to be much weaker.

The proposal initially came after a young Hong Kong man was charged with murdering his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and then returned back to Hong Kong, Lee explained. But due to the lack of a formal extradition agreement, the fugitive could not be deported to stand trial.

Yet many Hong Kongers feared that this rationale was merely a smokescreen through which the Communist Party could clamp down on political dissidents — further eroding the city’s long standing status as a semi-autonomous bastion of democracy.

“It’s not about murder, it’s about politics,” Lee said.

Even though Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam decided to formally shelve the controversial plan earlier this month, intense antipathy among residents has largely failed to subside — pointing to much deeper divisions at work that extend beyond any one piece of legislation.

“China wants to use Hong Kong for its financial purposes, but it is basically indifferent to the aspirations of its citizens,” Friedman explained — underscoring the notion that at the heart of continued anti-government resentment is a question of basic cultural identity.

“The Communist Party has a very narrow definition of nationality that equates Chinese-ness with support of the party …. simply going against the party can be construed as being a traitor to the race,” Friedman said. As a result of this political mindset, the government of mainland China generally allows for only narrowly-defined “state sanctioned forms of cultural orientation that one needs to adhere to.”

One particularly salient example of the Communist Party’s policy of cultural conformity has been the continued push by mainland China to increasingly eliminate dialects and linguistic diversity: “They want you to speak in Mandarin,” Friedman said, a posture that has drawn the intense anxieties of a city that is comprised overwhelmingly of Cantonese speakers.

On the mainland, this policy often works internally because “China regards the rights to subsistence and development as the primary basic rights,” Friedman explained. In exchange for the promise of consistently rising standards of living, traditionally liberal, Western values, such as freedom of religion and association, are seen as less important.

But in Hong Kong — a mature economy that suffers more from sky-high housing prices than lack of growth — this sort of justification often falls flat.

“Why would people in Hong Kong want to exchange this free-wheeling, hybrid culture they have, that blends elements from all over China, from Western countries, from Southeastern countries … in exchange for what is seen as a sterile and conformist regime?” Friedman asked.

As a result of this underlying tension, while mainland China attempts to gradually tighten its grips on Hong Kong, the opposite effect has occurred, Friedman said: The number of residents identifying solely as Chinese has fallen to its lowest levels ever, most recently registering at only 11 percent of the city’s population.

But even as Hong Kongers have increasingly turned their backs to China, the desire for full independence has remained largely muted.

“Notably, independence is not one of the protestors’ demands,” Friedman pointed out.

Even so, the Chinese government has continued to broadcast what Friedman called the “black hand theory,” where the government appears to blame the success of Hong Kong protestors on outside agitators, such as the CIA, rather than local citizens themselves.

For instance, in a speech earlier this month Chinese President Xi Jinping claimed that “extreme anti-China forces in the United States are trying to turn Hong Kong into the battleground for U.S.-Chinese rivalry,” suggesting, without evidence, that the U.S. has been mobilizing pro-independence factions in order to prevent “the revival of the great Chinese nation.”

“But if China continues to believe in this propaganda … this sort of ‘black hand theory,’ then they are going to continually fail to achieve consent to their rule,” Friedman said. “Because that’s not why [Hong Kongers] are protesting.”

In that sense, he argued, the next move is China’s to make.