“People should not be afraid of their government. The government should be afraid of their people” declared Joshua Wong, the young leader of the famous Umbrella movement in Hong Kong. It has been two whole years since the movement started (and ended) which put the entire city of Hong Kong on lockdown, with citizens led by student activists demanding free and fair democratic elections in their city. There were calls for civil disobedience, and non-cooperation with the government. Students went out on the streets with colourful umbrellas, to protect themselves from the tear-gas the police used to quell the protests.
This was seen as the largest threat to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong in its entire history. The fundamental question this article will try to answer is: Why doesn’t Hong Kong want to adopt the Chinese model? Is it just democracy, or is there a cultural divide between the two entities? Let’s see..
It started on the subway. A Hong Kong national told a Mainland Chinese mother, who was letting her kid eat dried noodles, and drop some on the floor, that eating wasn’t allowed on the train. Other Mainland Chinese sitting nearby mocked the Hong Kong guy’s less-than-perfect Mandarin. He retorted that this was Hong Kong – they should be speaking the language here – Cantonese. A verbal feud broke out and police came in. Eventually, the guy told another Hong Konger who’d come to his defense — “don’t bother. Mainlanders are just like this.” This incident, among hundreds of such incidents which occur in Hong Kong every month epitomizes and symbolises the cultural divide between the two entities. So how did this cultural divide start? To understand that we have to dig deep into history.
Hong Kong started off as a small agricultural island, which was incorporated into the Chinese Empire during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). By the early 19th century, the Chinese Empire had established trade relations with the British Empire, exporting tea and importing luxury items like clocks and watches. The trade relations were highly imbalanced, with the trade skewed heavily in China’s favour. To counterbalance the trade, the British Empire began to export large quantities of Opium to China illegally. China repeatedly asked the British trading companies to stop the opium trade but to no avail. This led to the First Opium War, in which the British defeated the Chinese Empire in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was soon seceded to the British. Thus started the westernisation of Hong Kong. The current divide between the mainland chinese and Hong-Kong residents majorly stems from Hong Kong’s British connection.
However during the second half of the 19th century, the British became increasingly concerned about the safety of their free port at Hong Kong. They were soon pressurised into signing the Sino-British Joint Declaration, in which Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to the Chinese at the end of 13 years. In return the Chinese assured that they would follow the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle for 50 years i.e:- till 2047. Under this system, Hong Kong will be allowed to continue its capitalistic policies. The lease ended on July the 1st 1997, and Hong Kong became Chinese territory.
The problem now is that most Hong Kong residents have become accustomed to Western principles of democracy, fundamental rights, and a free media and can’t come to terms to the fact that Hong Kong will have to abandon its capitalist system in the near future. Hong Kong treasures itself as a free society, which respects different views, unlike the Communist mainland Chinese society. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that, for the first time, a majority of Hong Kong residents identify themselves as “Hong Konger” rather than Chinese.
China has recently started to take a firm stand on its position that Hong Kong is Chinese territory, and that all important decisions for Hong Kong will be taken by the Communist government. For example in 2014, the Chinese Communist Government suggested an electoral reform for Hong Kong according to which it will vet candidates for the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. This suggestion was criticized publicly, and led to the 2014 Hong Kong protests and was soon rejected. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong has also infamously declared that teachers in Hong Kong should tackle any discussion of Hong Kong independence like they tackle drugs in school.
Perhaps the most important fact which will define Hong Kong’s future is its booming, thoroughly Westernised, young population. The 2014 Umbrella movement was led by student activists and college going students, who managed to mobilize and to organise rallies which were attended by more than a hundred thousand protestors.
The conflict appears to be in a stalemate: the people in Hong Kong will not stop protesting and the Chinese government will not stop crushing the protests ruthlessly. So definitely, there is a huge cultural divide between the two systems, which is embedded in history and will remain, at least for the forseeable future. At stake is not only the relative political freedom Hong Kong has enjoyed since Britain returned the territory to China in 1997, but its economic future, as it faces growing competition from other global financial hubs. There are sure trying times ahead for the City of Dreams.
Hong Kong is an entity caught between China and the West and is not at ease with itself – or its future.
Note:- All the opinions stated in the above article are the author’s own.