For many in Asia, the year 1997 was a memorable year — one that seems like it was only yesterday. It was the year when the UK “returned” Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It was a festive time and many went to Hong Kong just to say they were present at the handover event.
To add to the festivity, the rulers of the PRC — a government that did not exist when the UK and the Qing Dynasty made their original agreement — promised the people of Hong Kong that within 20 years they would have universal suffrage. All was well and good. However, as the year 2017 draws nigh, not only have the festivities died down, but they have been replaced by doubt, discontent and protests.
The falsity of the PRC’s promise has taken on far greater proportions and a showdown is building. It is a showdown that, regardless of the outcome, is full of implications not only for the people of Hong Kong, but also for all people in the region, including Taiwan.
What happened to the promise that return to the motherland would be glorious and why do Hong Kongers not believe it?
First, they can count; they are aware that nearly 17 of the 20 years have passed. The clock is ticking and they are no closer to universal suffrage than they were in 1997. Some would even say they have gone backward.
Second, the people of Hong Kong are astute enough to know the difference between a promise, a hope and a wish. They also know, of course, that the rewriting of the textbooks used in their schools does not qualify as keeping a promise. Some prefer to call it an attempt at “brainwashing.”
Third, and more importantly, Hong Kongers know their history; they know the how, why and when by which their territory grew into the greatness that it now has.
When Hong Kong became part of the UK in 1842 after the first Opium War, it was land with very little trade value and surrounded by mountains. The centers of trade had been for centuries the neighboring cities of Macau and Canton. However, Hong Kong would quickly surpass them.
The people know that their rise had nothing to do with their being part of the “motherland”; rather it came from being outside it, separate from it. This does not mean that they were or are necessarily enamored of the British.
However, unlike the majority of the people in China, the people of Hong Kong know that they are not frogs in a Chinese well. They have seen that their rise from a basically non-descript land to the great trading center that they are was due to their hard work and skill in being part of the UK trade network.
Call it living in a bigger well or something else, but their history has been to see a different sky. In the past century-and-a-half, they experienced a world and sky far wider than the barrel vision of a past under whatever Chinese dynasty had power.
At the same time, although Hong Kongers had seen a different sky than their “former compatriots,” they have always been close enough to China to see the numerous continuing problems there. They could see the corruption of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and why it lost China. They could see the foolishness of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Great Leap Forward; they did not have the cult of Mao’s personality that the Chinese had; nor did their textbooks teach them to say Mao was only “30 percent wrong.”
They have seen the foolhardiness of the Cultural Revolution; and they also watched how China switched to a more capitalistic bent, something that Hong Kong had been practicing for decades.
They then witnessed what happened in Tiananmen Square when Chinese students sought democracy, so they naturally asked: What can China bring to the table as it welcomes them back with their “one country, two systems” formula and the promise of universal suffrage?
The people of Hong Kong are conscious of “brainwashing” because they have seen it in operation in their former “neighbor,” China. They can recognize how the long-standing tradition of legalism in China has always been able to manipulate the traditions of Confucianism to enforce loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. They can see the extreme irony in how the PRC spends huge amounts of money in setting up Confucian Institutes around the world, while it is not practiced at home.
Confucianism theoretically depends on each individual developing inner virtue, from which one is led to adherence to a hierarchy and unquestioning loyalty to the state.
Unfortunately, in China, after thousands of years of preaching a manipulated Confucianism, in July the government had to make it a law that everyone must visit their elderly parents. When a state resorts to legalism to carry out what is purported to be “natural and traditional filial piety,” one can read the writing on the wall and know such a state would never trust its people with democracy.
Hong Kongers do not deny the virtues that are proposed by Confucianism, but they know that the structure it rests on is a past paradigm that no longer holds true. Confucianism came from the paradigm of an agricultural society in which the merchant was the lowest of its four ranks of society. Hong Kong (and most of China) has seen the opposite of that.
Today, businesspeople are kings and wield their power to seize and “develop” the farmers’ lands. The legalists, to keep power in the hands of a few, are again manipulating loyalty to the unchanging hierarchy of Confucianism. Hong Kongers know locusts when they see them, especially when they stream across their borders and take up hospital space, and force up housing prices.
Hong Kong can see that China’s nouveau riche businesspeople are not just country bumpkins that eat on their subways and spit in their streets. These “bumpkins” are backed by Beijing professors who in effect tell Hong Kongers that by asking Beijing to honor its promise of universal suffrage, they are the “ungrateful running dogs” of outsiders.
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, few of the animals recognized how after the “revolution” the ruling pigs quickly altered the original seven commandments.
The last of those seven commandments became this: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
The Cantonese are becoming well aware how, in so many ways, they are not in that “more equal” crowd. Hopefully, Taiwan and the world can learn from their struggles.
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.