By Evan Osnos
Just before Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997, a team of behavioral scientists conducted a fascinating experiment. Ying-yi Hong and some colleagues recruited local college students and showed them a set of iconic images either from America (Mickey Mouse, a cowboy) or from China (the Monkey King, a dragon). Then they posed questions intended to elicit their values and beliefs. The results revealed that, depending on which images were presented, the students readily switched between Chinese and Western world views.
Twenty-two years later, young people in Hong Kong describe themselves, overwhelmingly, as “Hong Kongers” rather than “Chinese.” Their resentment of the Communist Party’s growing involvement in their politics and culture has fuelled the crisis that has consumed the territory this summer. Protests that began, in June, in response to a proposed extradition law have expanded into a broad-based movement with the slogan “Retake Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.” A city that prides itself on high-toned rule of law has become the backdrop for a grinding standoff between police in riot gear and young men and women in gas masks, goggles, and yellow helmets, testing the resolve of one of the world’s economic centers and the dexterity of China’s President, Xi Jinping. A popular protest motto on banners and city walls evokes the stakes: “If we burn, you burn with us.”
In Beijing, the Communist Party was at first largely silent about the unrest, but, after protesters defaced the national insignia of China’s liaison office, on July 21st, Chinese media called them “separatists” and the movement a “color revolution”—poisonous terms in Chinese politics. Though Facebook and Twitter are banned on the mainland, the Party launched a global social-media campaign. In a tweet, China Central Television adapted Martin Niemöller’s language to liken the protesters to Nazis (“First they hurled bricks . . .”). Other posts circulated conspiracy theories; a man in a photograph taken at a protest was labelled a C.I.A. “commander,” when, in fact, he worked for the New York Times.
Last Monday, Twitter accused China of a “coordinated state-backed” operation “specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong.” The site barred advertising by China’s state media, and dropped nearly a thousand accounts, some of which operated under the kind of fake, folksy personae used by Russian agents in the U.S. election in 2016. One Chinese account described its owner as a “coupon clipping, money saving, low key hustling super mom” in Columbus, Ohio, who lives “in the suburbs” but is “from the hood.” Facebook and YouTube undertook a similar cull.
By late August, the protests had evolved into the most sustained challenge to the Chinese Communist Party since the uprising in Tiananmen Square, thirty years ago—an ominous distinction. In 1989, the Party blamed the tumult on a cabal of foreign “black hands,” before unleashing troops who killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, in and around the square. This summer, Party officials once again blamed the unrest on “black hands,” and warned Hong Kong’s protesters not to “play with fire” or “mistake restraint for weakness.” To drive home the point, the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, which rarely draws attention to itself, released a video in which troops performed riot-control exercises. Just across a bridge, on the mainland, the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center became the site of an encampment of military vehicles for the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force. In a video posted by the People’s Daily, an officer with a megaphone shouted in Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong, “Stop the violence! Repent and be saved!”
The turmoil on China’s cosmopolitan coast is anathema to the instincts of China’s sixty-six-year-old President, both personally and politically. The son of a high-level revolutionary, Xi grew up near the Party headquarters in Beijing. As a teen-ager, he lived through the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, when young Red Guards forced him to wear a metal dunce cap and imprisoned his father. In the nineties, many of Xi’s peers decamped to Hong Kong and elsewhere to make their fortunes, but Xi didn’t join them. He never studied abroad or learned a foreign language. Instead, he made his way to the apex of a Leninist state. Since taking power, in 2012, he has set about extinguishing all challenges to his authority. He has abolished term limits on his Presidency, detained hundreds of activists and human-rights lawyers, and overseen an anticorruption purge that has punished 1.5 million members of the Party. In Hong Kong, that rigidity has taken a toll: in the run-up to the crisis, Xi’s proxies rejected even minimal demands, betting, wrongly, that the protesters would relent. Compromising now, the theory of hard-line politics goes, would encourage further defiance, so the risk of a crackdown, or a sudden wave of mass arrests, is real.
And yet, for Xi and his country, a massacre reminiscent of Tiananmen would be almost incalculably costly. He faces a wobbly economy at home, and Hong Kong is a mammoth financial hub, a currency exchange and a source of foreign capital, with a stock market larger than London’s. A crackdown would also undermine Xi’s larger mission: to convince the world that China is a credible contender for global leadership in the age of Trump. On Xi’s political calendar, he has upcoming reasons for avoiding a calamity, including a triumphant celebration, set for October 1st, to mark the seventieth anniversary of the People’s Republic, and, in January, elections in Taiwan, another territory that China would like to see reunified. Bloodshed in Hong Kong would shatter the prospects, however slim, of healing the rift with Taiwan, which Xi has declared “can’t be passed on for generations.”
Unless protesters overwhelm Hong Kong’s government or its courts, Xi may well stick to a less dramatic strategy—the gradual absorption of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong has steadily extended its reach: it provides financing to pro-China businesses; it owns more than half the territory’s bookstores; and it backs friendly candidates for government posts. As that influence grows, the underlying conflict will be the buried seed of future troubles.
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