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Hong Kong Halos – Part 3: Unrest in the Streets

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

Escalation between police and protesters.
Tear gas is used routinely against protesters in Hong Kong.

The word xiào carries a special meaning to the Chinese people. It is derived from two words: lao (old) and zi (son) and refers to the moral obligation a child has to his or her parents. The English translation Filial Piety does not fully capture just how fundamental the parent-child relationship is to the Chinese character. Once again an analogy is helpful – if the family is the Sun of the Chinese universe, xiào is the gravitational force that binds all orbiting planets in the solar system together. It is through this prism that we must view the relationship between China (parent) and Hong Kong (child).

While there are many opinions that percolate such a large-scale public debate, there are three major perspectives to consider in Hong Kong: the Western (expat) view, the Hong Kong view, and the view from Beijing. If I were to rank order the importance of these outlooks to the unfolding of the island's fate, Beijing would be first and the Western perspective would be a distant last. That said, it is helpful to begin from the outside-in and examine the situation from the expat’s point-of-view first.

Many expats have lived in Hong Kong their entire lives. They have children here, know the locals, and to them Hong Kong is home. Many are Brits though certainly not all. For example, I met a Punjabi whose family is generations removed from Pakistan; like his parents before him, he was born and raised in Hong Kong. The majority live on Hong Kong Island while the rest are scattered across the others, some live on Lama, others on Stanley etc. Collectively, they seem to view things as primarily, if not entirely, political. To them, Beijing is overstepping and would be foolish to ruin the financial-economic jewel that is the “spice port.” They tend to overstate the power of the protest movement and underestimate the resolve of Beijing, a fatal error in my judgement.

5 key demands have not yet been met.
Protesters have 5 key demands that they want met before disbanding.

What about the born-and-bread ethnic Hong Kongese, what is their take? As you might have guessed, theirs is a multi-faceted account. There is a common slogan emblazoned as graffiti on the streets here that reads: “Hong Kong is not China.” Most passionate supporters of the protests agree with this point of view, though even the most ardent cheer leaders fear how they will end. Others believe that Hong Kong is part of China, not the other way around. They are uncomfortable with the disruption to daily life, the violence, and especially the damage to public property. There is an app (Whatsgap) the locals use that highlights the divide. Shop owners who support the protesters are colored yellow and those who disagree are blue. Honky’s settle dinner plans accordingly.

The view from mainland China is the hardest to glean from the news. The Western press overtly slanders the Chinese regime as analogous to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Pure hyperbole it should be noted. Without question, the Chinese Communist Party, which is far more fascist than Communist mind you, employs harsh tactics: mysterious disappearances of outspoken critics, open threats, illegal imprisonment, bribery, censorship and surveillance. None of these methods are that shocking or uncommon for authoritarian regimes the world over.

Yet, bias in the press obfuscates Beijing’s interpretation. Basically, they see the crisis less as a political or economic issue than as a question of national identity. Beijing believes that Hong Kong is playing the unruly and impressionable child who is rebelling under the spell of Western influence. While the Western ventriloquy they politicize is largely subterfuge, like any assertive and concerned parent they are anxious to win back their child.

How has Beijing handled the situation? All things considered, the answer frankly speaking is with restraint. China is playing the long game. Their approach seems to be incremental and indirect action rather than swift, uncompromising force. They have flooded the country with mainlanders because they understand that changing the demographics amounts to changing hearts and minds (a lesson the West has never learned). Beijing has also stacked the local government with its cronies, changed the school curriculum to emphasize Mandarin over Cantonese, and marginalized English altogether. Fewer and fewer people speak English in Hong Kong these days as a result.

Police are showing up in all mass transit areas.
Hong Kong police (right and left) show strong presence in MTR (subway).

Staring in the face of such impossible odds the Honky’s have decided to swim against the current. Why not flail about if you are about to be washed downstream anyway? The protests are the last gasp of a bygone era and everyone, and especially the protesters, know it. What the crisis is not is the struggle for democracy that Westerners make it out to be. The parent (China) is about to ground the child (Hong Kong) after a long night out. Unfortunately, what that means for the younger generation is the Hong Kong that reared them is no more. What it does not mean is that Hong Kong will be destroyed, an outcome absolutely no one desires.

I suspect the last ones to accept the rebalancing act will be the expats who have lived in Hong Kong their entire lives. One also gets the impression that they (mainly Brits) are still lost in a Rudyard Kipling novel without realizing the “great game” is over. I had a conversation with a middle-aged Brit who referred to her white children (born and raised in Hong Kong) as Hong Kongese. When I hinted that Beijing might have other plans she brusquely said that China would never dare to challenge Hong Kong’s democracy or its financial centrality.

Richard Harris of the South China Morning Post echoed her sentiments: “we {Hong Kong} play an irreplaceable role in China’s Foreign Direct Investment as a critical gateway to the world.” As to the prospect of being downgraded to just a tributary state of mainland China, Harris dismissively says “Poppycock.” Such gusto belies real insecurity from the expats (many of whom are leaving) who fear the inevitability of a Beijing takeover. So much for journalistic bravado.

In the end, the virtues of the Hong Kongese are the virtues of the Chinese. I would call attention to three that standout to me: respect, patience, and caution. The Chinese tend to be very reasonable people, open to discussion, and they carefully weigh their opinions accordingly. They also benefit from a sharp, dispassionate view of politics, something unheard of in America today. Eventually, the business community in Hong Kong, the average Honky struggling to make ends meet, and most of the mainland too will tire of protesters clashing with police, vandalizing the city, disrupting the MTR (subway) and shutting down the airport. They will demand a return to business as usual and accept that the One Country, Two Systems tenure is discharged.

Protests are getting more violent and destructive.
A shattered window at a local store in Central, Hong Kong.

Democracy is not a real passion for the Honky's never mind what you see in the news. Collectively, the Chinese are less concerned about the ideology of their government and more interested in living a good life, earning enough money, and continuing to modernize as a people. One thing you will hear repeatedly in Hong Kong is a desire for the government to be more like Singapore’s, where 80 percent of the land is publicly owned. If Beijing can wrest control of private real estate from the billionaire tycoons who own most of it today and make rents cheaper, whatever ideological flag flies over Hong Kong will not much matter.

East meets West.
East and West must cooperate rather than jab at each other.

Guanxi is another word essential to understanding Chinese business culture. It means a deep connection. Any solid relationship is about give and take. If I were advising Western governments regarding the situation (and I certainly am not), I would simply say that it is unwise to get involved in domestic disputes whether they are in your neighborhood or half the world away. We should be smart and play the long game as well by giving Beijing what it really wants from the West in Hong Kong, and the rest of the world for that matter – respect. Sincere respect must be earned by China as well, but interfering in their house is not the best way to foster an auspicious, long-term relationship either.

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