02 October 2014

Of two minds or more about the Fragrant Harbour

Hong Kong is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited, and at the same time one of the most depressing in certain ways. It is an incredibly clean city; that’s one of the first things I noticed on my visit there… but cleanliness is very often all too deceptive. Also, I was there over the weekend of the first of July in 2005, when there were massive yearly protests in Kowloon District organised by the pro-democracy political bloc. But our visit to Hong Kong Baptist University was largely a brief tourist visit, and I didn’t get to talk in-depth with many people outside the University.

Still, first impressions are strong and very difficult to overcome, and they are sometimes right. The town of Hong Kong is built vertically – understandable on an island with such a high population. And there was a marked contrast between coast and inland. One could see Maseratis and Lamborghinis driving up the roads to the big shopping malls, and on the other hand there were the vendors and trash-pickers eking out what was clearly an insufficient living for the living-standards of the city. There were the people who had to live on boats. The cleanliness of Hong Kong masked a very deep and very real social and economic divide.

Thus, it is easy to see and to understand the very real and very urgent need for working-class Hongkongers to speak up for themselves. And it is easy to see and understand that in a polity that has been starved of suffrage for so long that the people in that polity would be interested in pushing for more democratic political reforms. It would be very naïve to dismiss these problems. And the fact that many of the Hong Kong tycoons – a usurious and exploitative lot if there ever was one – are opposing the current Umbrella Movement protests is a good sign that there’s a good reason for Umbrella Movement to keep fighting.

At the same time, however, there is a disturbing undercurrent here of a sort which seems all too familiar to observers of modern colour revolutions and the public protests of recent history. The Tian’anmen protests of 1989, so the ever-estimable Kaiser Kuo has informed me, were born out of the racially-animated 1988 student protests against African exchange students in Nanjing. The Tea Party protests carried a definite undercurrent of racism, in spite of the protestations of the most public voices in the Tea Party against them. Even worse, the right-wing Maidan movement in Ukraine attracted violent ultranationalists and fascists of the most openly odious variety. And some of the similarly bigoted anti-mainlander sentiment seems to have bled over somewhat into the Umbrella Movement protests.

This is understandable to a point. And to their credit, the organisers of these protests have tried to distance themselves significantly from the anti-mainlander bigotry of previous social engagements. One can read this in a cynical or a not-so-cynical way, and I don’t want to dismiss the concerns out-of-hand. I’ve witnessed a lot of abuse by Hongkongers of other high-profile Hongkongers who even symbolically want closer ties with the mainland, like pop singer Ella Koon Yun Na (and no raving pro-Beijinger she, having been born in Tahiti and having been educated in Birmingham!). Personally I’m more optimistic about the movement than some other commentators, but perhaps that is because I’ve been influenced by David Lindsay’s view on the subject:
We [British] took scarcely more interest in democratising the place than the Chinese have. But when they fly the old flag, then they are showing at least their aspiration to the post-War settlement and to the parliamentary system that made it possible on three continents.
For their sake and for the sake of the rest of Hong Kong, I very dearly hope this is the case. Wishful thinking on my part? Maybe. But the political forces motivating, sustaining and supporting this protest are not as odious as those which motivated, sustained and supported the protests on the Maidan. That’s reason enough for me to be very cautiously hopeful. But hopeful, all the same.

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