Why are informed Beijingers increasingly baffled by the struggle in Hong Kong?
Here we publish an intake submitted by a reader who lives in Beijing. The piece provides detailed insights into how a certain group of mainland white-collar workers view the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, and how their understanding has been shaped over the past few months. The reality described by this piece is disappointing, as reality often tends to be. Our goal in publishing it is, however, not to dash any optimism against the sharp rocks of the real world, but instead to point out that the only hope worth having is one that can traverse this deadly, disappointing terrain with optimism in hand. This can only be done through a rigorous, empirical investigation of our present reality.
What hope does this piece offer for directions forward? Those of us living in China often feel similarly hopeless, despite the fact that we regularly interact with the country’s tiny minority of leftists and labor activists who hold views that are at least broadly in line with our own. However, the past few years of repression (most recently targeting leftists and labor organizations, following on the heels of similar crackdowns against feminists and others) has narrowed this space substantially, cutting us off from the already small handful of friends with whom we felt any sort of political camaraderie. At the same time, those who remain are probably more representative of the broader masses of Chinese workers — whether white collar, blue or pink — than the more outward-oriented leftists who suffered worst in the crackdowns. Among those remaining, the college-educated office personnel of Beijing who are highlighted in this piece would be expected to be an exception: they are the Chinese citizens who have VPNs (or did until increased censorship recently blocked most of them), regularly criticize the CCP and have historically been sympathetic to Hong Kong liberalism. But the conversations cited below reveal that this position has become far more complex in response to the anti-extradition movement, pushing some of these erstwhile liberal or otherwise apolitical women and men toward a position that is solidly nationalist, anti-democratic and in favor of wide-ranging repressive measures.
We will explore this phenomenon in more detail in a forthcoming intake about the rise and solidification of a new Chinese nationalist right over the past year, in response to the trade war as well as the anti-extradition movement, especially among college students. The account below mainly reflects the situation of white-collar workers in Beijing, centered on those who imagine themselves relatively cosmopolitan, liberal and critical of the CCP.
When thousands first took to the streets in Hong Kong against the extradition bill in early June, few of the 1.3 billion people to the north in the mainland would have known. Social media controls blocked most posts related to the Hong Kong protests, and state media outlets did not publish a word on sensitive situation in the city. But much has changed since then. Now, not a day goes by without China’s central television blasting footage of fire in the streets of Hong Kong, and police press conferences citing the number of arrests in each day’s demonstrations. At first, when there was no news about Hong Kong in the mainland, I wished friends here – at least those who, like most people, have no access to VPNs to reach beyond the Great Firewall – could hear about what was happening in Hong Kong. Now that state media has whipped the country into a nationalistic fervor to defend “national unity,” I long for the days of the media blackout.
State media was put in an awkward position by the outbreak of protests in Hong Kong. When the first reports broke, mass protests appeared to have happened out of the blue, bewildering many of my friends here in Beijing. Weeks of silence had left mainlanders without any background on the situation until the first reports appeared in state media in mid-June. They missed the introduction of the extradition bill by the Hong Kong government in February, and the rallies and public debate about the bill that developed into the summer. There were still no reports when hundreds of thousands were on the streets demanding the withdrawal of the extradition bill on June 9th, or when bean bag rounds flew and tear gas billowed around the Legislative Council building on June 12th. Then on June 13th Xinhua ran its first major article, entitled “The Majority of Hongkongers Support the ‘Extradition Bill’, Avoid Hong Kong Becoming a ‘Fugitive’s Paradise.’” The article was forced to recount the background of the protest movement that, until then, had not been covered by mainland press. The article spoke of the Hong Kong man who murdered a woman in Taiwan, and the months of preparations by the Hong Kong government to amend its laws to allow him to be extradited to the mainland. It did not tell of the months of smaller scale demonstrations against the bill, or local discussions warning of discontent, but the Xinhua post did cite a petition started in April by pro-mainland group “Safeguard Hong Kong”, which claimed to have the signatures 900,000 Hongkongers supporting the bill.
Xinhua and other state media were hard pressed to explain, then, why 2 million Hongkongers, in a city of just 7 million people, took to the streets against the bill later that week, on June 16th. Just before the planned demonstrations that day, mainland papers ran a statement from the mainland government’s Hong Kong Liason Office, warning of “foreign forces interfering in Hong Kong,” a ridiculous claim. Though foreign governments and intelligence agencies were no doubt on the scene, and regularly met with political leaders like Joshua Wong, or funded top political leaders in the “democracy movement” like Benny Tai, they clearly could not mobilize a third of the city’s population, nor direct the “black mobs” to clash with the hated police – “raptors” who swooped in to drag off protesters by the dozens, or infiltrated demonstrations dressed as protestors, or allowed mainland security forces to operate within police ranks.
News and pictures of the mass marches still trickled through, circulated on WeChat and other social media, and I recall some of my mainland friends supporting protesters in Hong Kong, and thinking it a shame that Beijing had so quickly eroded barriers between the city and the mainland. In June there was still ample evidence that many mainlanders who sympathized with Hong Kong were skirting censorship to show their support. But these more sympathetic interpretations and sentiments were quickly drowned out by the escalating propaganda campaign. Social media controls tightened, and the Hong Kong protests slowly became a daily news item. Mainland officials had to put together a common message. A line was quickly drawn to single out the “violent” and “extreme” protesters, who were allegedly incited by “hostile foreign forces,” mainly the US (though China also publicly lashed out at the EU, UK, Germany and other foreign governments who issued statements against police violence).
The narrative, however, remained a bit confusing, and mainland coverage continued to be viewed by some of my friends as suspicious and incoherent. One asked, for example, if protests were mostly by a few violent extremists in the financial and political centers on Hong Kong island, why were there so many reports of police arrests (which mainland news published with relish) throughout Kowloon and the more rural parts of the New Territories in the north? Were the extremists organized in cells throughout the city? Or were the protests larger than CCTV reported? Of course, many mainland friends are perfectly aware of state censorship, and know that the outlets may be telling half truths at best when it comes to politically sensitive issues. But without readily available alternatives, the confusion only seemed to accumulate, as the situation in Hong Kong itself continued to develop and become more complex day by day.
The storming of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building on July 1st shocked another friend in Beijing. After watching clips of the footage circulating online, she was beside herself with confusion and disbelief. “I thought Hongkongers were peaceful people,” she said. “What has made them so angry and violent? I guess the rumors of foreign influence must be true. Why would they do this?” Few in the mainland would have had access to coverage of events like these, or they would have been able to read inside stories detailing how a group of young Hongkongers voted to storm the building in a Telegram chat without much prior planning, just as many of the protest actions are decided: collectively, on mobile chat platforms.
Mainlanders watching the news would have difficulty understanding the role of Beijing in the intransigent government, which has both supported, but also hamstrung Carrie Lam – along with her government and police force – by forcing them to maintain an absolute hardline on protests. Mainlanders may have caught the Global Times report denouncing an explosive leaked speech by Lam to a group of businesspeople as “fake news.” Lam explained rather candidly to the group that “if she had a choice”, she would quit. “The room, the political room for the chief executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution, that is the central people’s government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited,” said Lam. Hong Kong government sources also revealed to Reuters, which is blocked in the mainland, that the central government had blocked a move by Hong Kong’s leaders to give concessions to protesters and withdraw the extradition bill at least a month before Lam’s government’s official withdrawal in early September.
This may have even been a unilateral move by Lam, the only one of the “five demands” her government could stomach as a bone thrown to protestors or to calm the business elite, though it’s difficult to tell. Many Hong Kong capitalists had long seen the extradition law, and perhaps the broader encroachment of Beijing on their exclusive domain, as “bad for business”. Money flowed to Singapore and other markets as the government pressed forward with the bill. The other demands – like the release of the hundreds of arrested protesters, or an independent enquiry into police violence – would have only mattered to the people of Hong Kong, were politically costly to the government, and didn’t cost business a dime either way. Lam could not, and would not, resign, and universal suffrage would be too costly – quite literally – for the city, as outlined by her predecessor CY Leung: “If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you’d be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month [HK$13,964.2],” he said in an interview in 2014. Lam could, of course, be frank with business leaders, while she continued to lie through her teeth to the public, and send more (increasingly militarized) police at protesters.
Tensions – between Hong Kong and the mainland, and within the city itself – came to a head on China’s National Day on October 1st. Carrie Lam partied in Beijing while the city erupted in protest and an 18 year old protester was shot point blank in the chest by a police officer. Of course no news of the protests blared on CCTV that day, only the orgy of militarism and national pride. Xi Jinping did, however, make one reference to Hong Kong in his short speech at the opening of the military parade, saying that China must adhere to the “one country, two systems” policy, just before miles of soldiers, tanks, missiles and drones rolled down Chang’an Street and past Tiananmen Square. My colleagues watched with pride and pleasure, except for one, who is from Hong Kong. She spent the evening in tears. Having watched the footage of the young man shot in the streets of Hong Kong on loop all afternoon, the boom of the fireworks at night in Beijing were too much for her to bear.
It is now clear that many of my friends and colleagues who once kept an open mind about protests, or were perhaps only curious about the novel mass protests, are decidedly on the side of the central government against Hong Kong. What I have found particularly alarming is the loss of any sense of subtlety, or desire to understand the intricacies of the situation. Some have clamped down hard on easy to understand, pithy ideas. I hear them say things like: “well, Hongkongers have decided on independence, so they have all crossed the line. They are beyond reason.” Many of my friends have often been openly critical of the CCP in the past, and stray from the party line on any number of controversial issues, like Xinjiang’s camps, or the ever-expanding police state, with its Great Firewall and surveillance cameras on every street corner. Recently, however, at least on Hong Kong, it seems that when push comes to shove, some have retreated to a sort of raw nationalism, defending some idea of Chinese-ness. The desecration of symbols like Chinese national flags, or the booing at the Chinese national anthem quickly became topics of discussion at the office water cooler, as they were circulated widely on WeChat. “The mistake these Hongkongers make is that they forget they are Chinese. They are becoming racist, and hateful of their own homeland, and that is just unacceptable,” said one. Of course, examples of rising hatred against Hong Kongers in the mainland were not circulated on WeChat, like the beating of a Hong Kong hockey club at a tournament in Shenzhen, after they won over a mainland opponent. “I think the only way out of this situation is for Hong Kong to be returned to China a second time,” said another, referring to the 1997 handover of the city, a former colony of Britain.
I grant that these may be the views of a few privileged elite in the capital, who, as a habit, read and discuss the news about Hong Kong, or the US-China trade war, or conflicts in the Middle East, largely for sport. It cannot be said to reflect the views of the average mainlander, from the coast to the inland provinces, or the rural to urban migrant. At least around me, however, the state narrative seems to have taken a firm hold after these months, moving from silence to a full-blown propaganda war. Combined with censorship and a clampdown on independent conversations, it has taken firm hold on the hearts and minds of many who would more naturally be more sympathetic observers. While the current situation among my colleagues seems bleak, it is also clear that if citizens had greater access to information, the cost to the state would indeed be heavy. At the least, it would make it harder for many like my colleagues to fall into narrative of the state, which is undying allegiance to the state, the party, and the idea of the Chinese people in a time of crisis: As the March of the Volunteers, the national anthem, proclaims: “The Chinese nation is now facing its greatest danger. Everyone must let out one last cry. Arise! Arise! Arise! We millions are of one heart. Brave the enemies’ gunfire! March on!”
–Bob, a reader based in Beijing
October 7th, 2019