Why many in China oppose HK protests

Source: NYT (7/1/19)
Why Many in China Oppose Hong Kong’s Protests
By Li Yuan

A democracy rally in Hong Kong last week.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Cecilia Zhang is the sort of Chinese person who you might think would be sympathetic to the protesters in Hong Kong. She went to a prestigious American university, gets her news from foreign media and has no plan to move back to the mainland from Hong Kong, where she has worked in the financial industry for the past four years.

But she says she doesn’t understand why people in Hong Kong continue to take to the streets. In fact, she thinks they should go home.

After hours of protesting in Hong Kong, demonstrators broke into the Legislative Council chambers on Monday. They were later cleared out by riot police who charged the crowd and used tear gas.

“Hong Kong’s economy is going to be ugly this year after all the strikes,” she said. “Why would you do something that’s not going to benefit you? What can you get out of it?”

It isn’t a surprise that many people in China oppose the protests against a proposed law that would allow Hong Kong to extradite criminal suspects to mainland China. They see only the news that Beijing’s censors let them see.

What is surprising is that many Chinese people who know the full story share that opinion.

Independent polling isn’t allowed in China, so judging public attitudes toward Hong Kong is largely guesswork. But among the educated Chinese I know, the ones who travel and can see the global internet, a large number believe the protesters are wasting their time. They should instead be working to rebuild Hong Kong, they say, a city they see as a one-time beacon of prosperity that is losing its promise.

Their views suggest a hard Chinese line against Hong Kong that goes beyond propaganda. It shows a fundamental shift in how many people in China see the city — and, by extension, how they see their own country. And it reflects a deeply rooted belief in the success of what many call the China Model: economic growth at the cost of individual rights.

The Communist Party has long pushed the Chinese people to look at the world through the lens of economic interests, and skeptical attitudes toward the Hong Kong protests show it has taken firm root. Freedom can’t fill stomachs, this thinking goes. And individual rights of the kind that people in Hong Kong enjoy — to challenge the government in the press, in the courts and on the streets — would lead to chaos in China, bringing back poverty and hunger.

Hong Kong Protests: Mapping Where Police and Crowds Clashed

Since June 9, crowds in Hong Kong have flooded streets in a series of protests against a bill proposed by the government.

That attitude even among the elite suggests more conflict ahead between Hong Kong and the mainland. It also casts further doubt on the possibility that as China becomes more middle class, its people will inevitably demand more individual rights, forcing the Communist Party to ease its control over society or even democratize.

“Over the past 40 years we’ve only talked about business in the mainland, nothing else,” Zhao Jianfei, a tech executive in Beijing, wrote on his WeChat timeline recently. “All of our thinking is based on the assumption that people are economic animals.”

“Looking at the future, this assumption isn’t going to work,” Mr. Zhao wrote. “We need to wake up.”

That hard focus on economics is by no means unanimous among business types and academics. My colleagues wrote about how some mainlanders living in Hong Kong took part in the protests. At a recent dinner I attended, a group of eight businesspeople largely from the mainland began to belt out in Cantonese “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies,” Hong Kong’s unofficial freedom anthem by the rock band Beyond.

“Forgive me for embracing freedom with abandonment in my life,” they sang, then cheered for Hong Kong.

But it isn’t hard to find critics of the Hong Kong protests among Western-educated Chinese people. Some worry that the demonstrations will result in violent suppression, as the Chinese government did in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Others simply think the protesters are worried about the wrong thing.

Tian Feilong, an associate law professor in Beijing who has translated several books on constitutional law and federalism to Chinese from English, asserted in a recent article that the protests were supported by foreign forces, would cause chaos in Hong Kong and ultimately hurt China. It won support online, including the comment from one reader that “it wouldn’t take long for Hong Kong to shrink to a fishing village.” Mr. Tian didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In another popular article headlined “Can Hong Kong be Saved?” the author, Zhao Haoyang, who graduated from a master’s program in the city a few years ago, declared that Hong Kong’s youth aren’t bad people — they’re merely stupid. Hong Kong people have a type of post-prosperity arrogance, he wrote, and the city’s exposure to Western values helps delude the public. The article got over 100,000 page views on the social media platform WeChat, and about 7,000 people made cash donations to the author. The article was later deleted for violating unspecified WeChat content rules, and the author didn’t respond to a request for comment.

These attitudes are a big reversal from how many in China once saw the former British colony. For many Chinese in the 1980s and ’90s, Hong Kong symbolized what we wanted China to be. We imitated fashions in Hong Kong soap operas, learned rudimentary Cantonese so we could sing Cantopop, and were surprised that the police in television shows had to work hard to prove that anybody, even a gangster, was guilty.

The Chinese flag is raised by People’s Liberation Army soldiers at the handover ceremony in 1997 in Hong Kong. Credit: Pool photo by Dylan Martinez

“Hong Kong, Hong Kong, why is it so fragrant?” goes the lyric of a popular song in China in the early 1990s, referring to Hong Kong’s Chinese name, which translates to “Fragrant Harbor.” It cited the impending 1997 handover of the city by its British rulers back to Chinese control with the lyrics, “1997, please come soonest. I can go to Hong Kong.”

Many Chinese, including me, stayed up until the early hours of July 1, 1997, to watch the ceremonial handover back to China. We were filled with pride that the shining pearl in the Orient — the name of a popular patriotic song — had returned to the motherland. We were imbued with hope that the rest of China could be as prosperous as Hong Kong.

That was before China became the world’s second-largest economy and a budding superpower. Now, there has been a shift in the way people view the rest of the world. Just as many Chinese people are underwhelmed by the outdated New York City subway systems and by potholes on the highways in Silicon Valley, they are increasingly losing interest in the Hong Kong model of free borders and freedom of speech. Many have come to believe that Hong Kong wouldn’t be so rich without mainland China.

Now the world goes directly to Beijing. Hong Kong’s skyscrapers are overshadowed by those in Shanghai and Shenzhen. Many Hong Kong entertainers learned to speak Mandarin, the primary mainland Chinese dialect. Hong Kong retailers increasingly rely on mainland tourists who splurge on luxury goods.

Hong Kong’s people don’t look as rich as they once did. Mainlanders now see that the majority of Hong Kong residents don’t live in sea view villas, drive luxury cars or dine in fine restaurants as they saw in soap operas. They live in cramped apartments, often much smaller than theirs in Beijing and Shanghai, and work long hours to make a living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Mainland visitors are also mistreated at times. Fairly or not, many in Hong Kong blame people from China for spiraling housing costs, as China’s rich park their money in expensive apartments. They see mainlanders as rude and uncultured, and stereotype them as unable to form a line properly or allowing their children to urinate on the streets. That has led to confrontations and resentment on both sides.

Now Hong Kong has become a source of what many mainlanders fear most: instability. They don’t see a fight over individual rights. They see ungrateful separatists and troublemakers. And they believe the Communist Party will get its way eventually.

“I want to take the best of Hong Kong, but I won’t take part in that nonsense local stuff,” said Ms. Zhang, the Hong Kong resident from the mainland. “If there’s no return on your investment, what’s the point?”

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