By David Edberg Landeström
As China celebrated 70 years of communist rule, people – both young and old – flogged to the streets of Beijing to see the 15.000 man-strong military parade. Everything was choreographed to the most miniscule of details. From their posture, to the length of their footsteps. It was a clear show of force. And for many people this was a day like no other. Proof, that China has gone from a poor rural society to a world leading superpower. Yet, as president Xi Jinping – dressed in a grey attire similar to the one associated with Mao Zedong – talked about unity and strength, a vast rift was growing within the nation. The citizens of Hong Kong are pushing back against what they view as a regime attempting to diminish their democratic rights in order to unify Hong Kong with mainland China. What started as demonstrations against a law that would allow for the transfer of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to the mainland has now escalated into a conflict over the identity of the two regions. I wonder, why is there a disconnect between the citizens of Hong Kong and the mainland Chinese? And how can their differences in perspective on the conflict help us understand it?
The conflict has its roots in the handover of control of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China in the year of 1997. This was accepted with the promise that Hong Kong would retain a high degree of autonomy under the principle “one nation, two systems” for 50 years. Under the terms of the agreement China is in charge of the foreign- and defense policy while Hong Kong would govern its domestic affairs until 2047 when the deal is set to expire. Hong Kong’s status as a British colony has played a significant role in the shaping of its identity; the citizens have freedom of press and freedom of speech as opposed to mainland China. For instance, a yearly memorial is held in Hong Kong in remembrance of those who died during the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. This event has been officially erased from history in mainland China. Additionally, China has introduced “the Great Firewall”, a network security system that regulates and limits Chinese internet services. This makes it difficult for Chinese citizens to use websites such as Facebook and Google without using a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
China’s control over Hong Kong has increased over the years with the consequence of heightened tension between China’s government and Hong Kong’s citizens. In 2014, peaceful demonstrations known as the “Umbrella Movement” unsuccessfully opposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. This year, things seem to be different. Demonstrators, tired of the lack of concessions, are now using more violent strategies to voice their opinions and grab the world’s attention. Action taken has included destroying symbols of the state such as government buildings, police vehicles and subway systems. Even though the proposed bill has been abolished the protests continue. This time the protestors demand an independent investigation of the police force for the excessive violence utilized against protestors during demonstrations, departure of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam from office and that all arrested protesters are released.
Demonstrations like these have occurred since June this year. However, citizens from the mainland did not see any reports about these events until the following month, after Hong Kong’s legislative council was attacked. The journalist Jose Qian, resident in Shanghai, estimates that 90% of mainland Chinese are critical towards the protests. The violence has weakened the legitimacy of the demonstrations, and they are damaging Hong Kong’s rule of law. Yet, these are not the only opinions that have been introduced in mainland China. A few people have expressed their support for Hong Kong on Chinese social media, although it’s hard to gauge how many, as opinions on the issue have been heavily censored by the Chinese government. In an opinion piece in Inkstone News, Sieran Yung, a mainlander resident in Hong Kong, expressed that the protests have awakened her to the possibility of change:
“Growing up in mainland China, I have only seen large crowds gathering around New Year’s Eve, in tourist spots during holidays and in train stations during the Spring Festival. I felt sad, but at the same time, I was awakened. Before coming to the march, I was pessimistic. I thought the protest wouldn’t change a thing.”
According to Yung, Chinese citizens have given up due to the harsh Chinese censorship laws. When she tries to post about the Hong Kong situation on social media it gets taken down. She finds herself being pulled between two separate and polarized worlds that “the Great Firewall” has created, and this gap is only growing wider as the conflict escalates.
This, I believe, is the core issue. The information available to mainland China and Hong Kong varies which creates two different viewpoints. As long as the perspectives viewed by the Chinese and the citizens of Hong Kong are split in two, it will remain impossible to solve the conflict in any meaningful way for both parties. Hong Kong’s needs are perceived as a threat to the Chinese nation, while the mainland’s politics are perceived as a threat to the liberal way of life to Hong Kong’s citizens. China could end the protests through military intervention, but that would most likely leave the relationship between the two regions and their inhabitants worse off than today. Even if the protests de-escalate, they are likely to continuously resurge until 2047, and they are probably going to become more violent and entrenched as the protestor’s demands are not met. This brings us to issue of the idea of the “one nation, two systems” principle. If the goal is unification of two populations then China’s current strategy is not working. The gap between the societies is only growing wider. Only through democratic dialogue and concessions will the Chinese state be able to keep the principle alive. Therefore, I urge them to honor the two system’s differences and similarities, instead of destroying what has already been built up. In the end, it is only by virtue of understanding the other’s perspective that we can create a more peaceful and harmonious society for all.
Illustration: Jihyun Jinny Lee
David Edberg Landeström studies the bachelor’s program in Peace and Development studies in Uppsala. In his free time he likes to listen to music and to ferment. So far he has made Sauerkraut, Kimchi and Kombucha. And there have been zero cases of botulism, so far.