As a person raised in a family that revered the teachings of Confucius (孔子) and Mencius (孟子), I believe that both sages would agree with Hong Kong students that people-based politics is the only legitimate way to govern China, including Hong Kong.
More than two millennia ago, Confucius insisted that a leader’s first loyalty is to his people — they are water to the leader’s ship.
Confucius said that the water could let the ship float only if it sailed in accordance with the will of the water. If the ship sailed against the will of the water, the ship would sink.
Two thousand years before John Locke laid the foundation for modern democracy, Mencius, whose development of orthodox Confucianism earned him the title of Second Sage, advocated minben zhengzhi (民本政治, literally “people-based politics” or in modern terms, “democracy”). He preached that if the ruler did not govern righteously, the people had the right to rise up and overthrow the ruler in the name of heaven.
Mencius even justified regicide, stating that any ruler who lost the mandate of heaven was no longer worthy of his people’s loyalty.
I vividly recall what a university student told me at Tiananmen Square in June 1989: “Following the teachings of Confucius and Mencius, we are peacefully calling for minben zhengzhi.”
The problem is that although the students in Beijing in 1989 and today’s Hong Kong students might hail from the Confucian/Mencian camp or China’s other long and deep tradition of humanistic ideas and values, the rulers in Beijing do not. Even though the Chinese government has established more than 500 Confucius Institutes throughout the world and several million copies of the Confucius Analects have been sold in mainland China in recent years, China’s rulers seem to pitch the worldview of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) rather than that of Confucius or Mencius.
The first emperor of the Qin Dynasty buried alive hundreds of Confucian scholars who criticized his harsh imperial rule. Like the imperial Qin China, today’s mainland China tends to induce the citizens of the world to think of an inhumane regime that consistently places the cold interests of state power over and against human dignity and freedom.
The experiences of Taiwan and South Korea — whose societies were dominated for many centuries by the Confucian/Mencian tradition — amply demonstrate that democracy and human rights are not a gift from the rulers, but achieved by the struggle and demand from the people below. These two prosperous Asian countries could achieve the status of aspiring democratic republics for no other reason but that not only dissident political activists, but also a super-majority of citizens rose up and demanded the establishment of a viable democratic republic where no one, including any political party, is above the law of the land.
Achieving democracy concerns not only Hong Kong, but also mainland China. Its prerequisite is the agreement and support of the super-majority of the Chinese people.
Today’s Hong Kong situation provokes the fundamental question: How strongly do the Chinese people (including Hong Kongers) believe that equal human dignity and rights under the law and freedom of expression and association are humankind’s universal birthright, and how urgently do they demand such rights?
The sad answer is that many contemporary mainland Chinese, except a tiny minority of marginalized intellectuals and other Tiananmen veterans, do not possess any sense of urgency about this universal human value. Many of today’s Chinese, especially the youth, are either misinformed or indifferent to seeking the truth about the Tiananmen protests of 1989 or the recent protests of Hong Kong students. They also appear to be so co-opted, if not corrupted, by their newly acquired material comfort that they are appreciative of their rulers for bringing it to them.
The mainland Chinese tend to think that the “risen China” is proving to the world that democracy is neither the only way nor an efficient way to achieve fuguo qiangbing (富國強兵, “rich country, strong miltary”).
Before he died in 2017, human rights activist and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) lamented “the indifference of the [mainland] Chinese populace” that precludes the massive demand for democracy, which is a prerequisite for any substantive changes to authoritarian rule.
The draconian National Security Law that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed on Hong Kong is a demonstration of the CCP’s determination to crush opposition no matter what the cost to its reputation in the world. Under such a cruel reality, what advice can a university educator give to Hong Kong students?
One might advise them to assert — without violence — freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy and constitutional rule, which were emphasized and endorsed by Liu and his fellow activists. The problem with such advice is that even if their action is nonviolent, they would be handled with force. The possibility of them “disappearing” or becoming another Liu is strong. Also, one cannot ignore a high probability for a bloody event.
If the rulers in Beijing determine that Hong Kong students’ demonstrations are too massive and beyond police control, they will most likely not hesitate to repeat the Tiananmen Square tragedy in Hong Kong.
In June 1989, some students in Beijing told me that “the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army will never shoot us because we are the people.”
These students were wrong. The CCP will use any means to suppress mass movements that are perceived to challenge its rule.
In 1989, the world’s horror at the Tiananmen massacre and the sanctions that the West imposed on China did not make the then-rulers in Beijing heed foreign critics. One can quickly figure out how the rulers of today’s China, with a rising superpower status, would treat such critics.
Given the current situation in Hong Kong, which has become a de facto part of the mainland via the imposition of Beijing’s new National Security Law, what options are there for Hong Kong students?
One viable option is to flee while they can to a freer country that is willing to accept political refugees from Hong Kong. If they remain in Hong Kong or any other part of mainland China, they will have to struggle, for many years to come, in a dehumanized land where people do not have even freedom to despair, and where very few care to question the absurdity of holding the two incompatible systems of communism and capitalism simultaneously.
Each university student in Hong Kong will have to ask themselves what being a human, Chinese, and a Hong Konger in the 21st century should mean before making the individual decision on what to do.
Exigent existential situations demand timely and brave actions. Human existence is a constant act of balancing being, knowing and doing, with no way to choose one at the exclusion of another. That is the human condition.
Yeomin Yoon is a professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
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