Thursday, October 16, 2014

regarding Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution

One of my advanced students, SY, works for the English-language campus newspaper, and she asked me whether I would consent to be interviewed about the "Umbrella Revolution" currently happening in Hong Kong, i.e., the pro-universal-suffrage protest movement that started almost a month ago and that still seems to be going strong.

I wrote the following responses to my student's six emailed questions (yes, I proofed and edited her questions just a little bit, but they were already in good linguistic shape before I began my surgery), and as I told her, I've elected to blog the full text here in the awareness that, given her newspaper's space constraints, it's unlikely that my responses will appear in unedited form. The real story needs to appear somewhere, hence my blogging this.

In reviewing what I wrote, my gut reaction is that a lot of it is mushy-headed pablum—interestingly worded, perhaps (and not even that is assured), but overly cautious in some ways and perhaps a bit overboard in others. Once this is published in the paper, in whatever its final form will be, my interview might be interpreted as extremely anti-Chinese, which could get me into much deeper trouble than could any of the arrant nonsense I've written on this blog. But, hey... what's life without a little risk and controversy, eh? I'm not one to "varnish my opinion" (as Barry Pepper said in "True Grit"), so my readers can read what I have to say, then take it or leave it. I don't want to be a shit-stirrer, but I was asked for my perspective.

Here it is.

Hello. My name is Kevin Kim, and I'm a professor of English at Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea. I would like to thank SY for the opportunity to think out loud about the important events currently happening in Hong Kong—the so-called "Umbrella Revolution" (or "Polite Revolution," or "Umbrella Movement") which began in late September, largely initiated by disgruntled Hong Kong students concerned about universal suffrage and the encroachment of Beijing's political and economic influence over Hong Kong, and which continues even now. While I am by no means an expert on international affairs, I have watched events in Hong Kong from afar with a certain measure of interest. SY was kind enough to send me a set of interview questions, which I will now answer below.

1. The protests have been continuously taking place for a long time in the main districts, such as the commerce and finance districts of Hong Kong. How do you think this might affect the city and the citizens' mindset?

I suppose we could divide the people into four categories: (1) the "occupy" protestors who are fighting for universal suffrage, (2) the normal citizens who sympathize with the protestors, (3) the "anti-occupy" protestors, and (4) those who sympathize with the anti-occupy movement.

By concentrating their protests in the commerce and financial districts (and also around government buildings), the "occupy" protestors have the chance to affect the flow of daily business and administrative interactions. This could be damaging to Hong Kong's economy if the protests are truly impeding business on a large scale, but I'm not sure that that's actually what's happening in the city. From what I understand, the protests are, in reality, very well organized and generally polite and harmless in nature (the students even clean up their own garbage!); the intention isn't to strangle Hong Kong's economy as a way to get the government to reconsider its stance on voting.

But I don't really know the psychology of the local people, so it's difficult for me to speak intelligently about how they might react to the "occupy" protests over the long term. Will they eventually resent the protestors for gumming up the economy? Will they continue to sympathize with the protestors? (A recent poll suggested that 60% of average Hong Kong citizens do, in fact, sympathize with the "occupy" movement.)

A lot depends, too, on the way that Hong Kong and Beijing authorities react to the protests. There have been plenty of arrests, and numerous instances of violence as well. People have complained about the police use of tear gas and, even more sinister, there has been news that Chinese triads (gangsters, mafia) have been cracking skulls in the service of the "anti-occupy" movement, with the police doing little to stop triad violence.

I really have no idea what the future holds, but I think that these protests have gotten the attention of Beijing. The question now is whether Beijing will react in a brutally repressive way, as it did in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989, or whether it will allow the protests to continue while seeking nonviolent dialogue with the protest leaders.

In short: this could end well or very, very badly.

2. The movement is spreading throughout the world, as we see with the rise of supportive voices in the United States and also in England. How would the spread of such voices affect the movement?

I'm sure that, because China is a "teched-up" society like the rest of East Asia, the protestors enjoy a constant awareness of reactions from all around the world. Whenever people from another country express support, I can imagine that this feels encouraging for the protest leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (mostly college students), Scholarism (mostly secondary students), and Occupy Central (started by a college professor).

The interesting question, for me, is: To what extent have foreign countries actually influenced the movement? Beijing has already angrily accused the West of fomenting chaos inside China, but my own impression is that "occupy" is a grass-roots movement that started in Hong Kong, and that is being buoyed primarily by Hong Kong citizens. The West has little to do with the actual "occupy" movement, but certain Westerners are doubtless cheering it on.

How much influence has the West had, in recent years, in China's internal affairs? I would say: not much, so Chinese complaints about Western influence are pretty much pro forma. Just ask the Dalai Lama how much influence the West has had on China. Is Tibet free? Consider, too, how much influence the United States, in particular, has with regard to China: China owns 1.3 trillion dollars of American debt, which means the US is going to negotiate from a position of weakness in many of its interactions with the Chinese. So again, I'd argue that the West in general, and America specifically, has little say in intra-Chinese affairs.

I'm not sure what sort of support and/or influence the West can provide the "occupy" movement. Anything other than verbal support will be viewed by China—correctly—as meddling with its internal sovereignty. So the only real weapon to help the movement (if "weapon" is the right word) will be things like social media and the major news media: the power of the written word and of audiovisual testimony to change perceptions. Will the pen (and the camera) prove mightier than the sword? Only time will tell.

3. Despite the rise of supportive voices regarding Hong Kong citizens' demand to change its election system from an indirect to a direct one, the Chinese government still seems unconvinced, while the Hong Kong government canceled talks with the protesters. What are your thoughts about this, and what would be the proper way for the two governments to react to the protests?

I would have to study Chinese politics more deeply before providing you with a good answer to this question. My intuition—and all I have, really, is an educated, non-expert guess—is that things need to continue as they're going now. While there's been police violence, there hasn't yet been a brutal, movement-wide crackdown, which means there's hope for the protestors to spread their message far and wide, and to be heard by Beijing and the Hong Kong government. I can only hope that, eventually, some sort of constructive dialogue will result from these determined protests. (More on "hope" below.)

The 1989 Democracy Movement protest lasted about 50 days before ending in violence and bloodshed when the hard-line government decided to take a tough stance against the protestors (not many young Chinese even know about this because the Chinese government has worked hard to suppress any rhetoric or images related to the brutal crackdown). The current protests in Hong Kong began around September 22. As of the writing of this email, the "occupy" movement has been protesting for about 23 days—not even four weeks. Perhaps in another four weeks, we'll see whether Beijing and Hong Kong authorities react to the protests with greater violence, in a reflection of the horrible massacre of 1989.

[Famous image of Tiananmen "Tank Man," whom many Chinese don't even know]

I hope this doesn't happen, of course. I hope the protestors and the authorities can settle their differences peacefully. Along with many Americans, I hope Hong Kong can preserve the legacy of its polity, jurisprudence, and economics: it's generally a much freer place than is the rest of China, and as some pundits in America have argued, if Beijing decides to take more direct control of Hong Kong, this will eventually be a disaster for the Chinese economy, because Hong Kong's free market is a salubrious influence on the rest of the country.

4. How long will the protests last? Do you think the Chinese government will accept the protesters' demands?

This question is related to the remarks I made above, and I'm sorry, but my answer is: I don't know. I can easily imagine these protests continuing for several more months. If the government uses violent means, again, to control the protests, this will inflame normal citizens, who will side with the protestors against the government. If, however, the government is moderate or even gentle in its use of force, then perhaps the protests will end sooner. But as I said before, I know little about the psychology of the local people, so it's impossible for me to make a prediction.

As for the other part of your question—"Do you think the Chinese government will accept the protesters' demands?"—I'm not sure. Part of me is very pessimistic on this score. I think Beijing is both powerful and stubborn, and I doubt it will be willing to budge on the question of suffrage. My hope is that the protests will end in peaceful dialogue and constructive solutions. My fear is that the protests will end in violent government repression, many arrests, and more than a few deaths, after which the government will again erase history and pretend that this incident, like the 1989 massacre, never occurred.

5. In your opinion, what should/would Hong Kong be like in the future? Do you think it should/would try to coexist with China or should/would it separate itself from China?

I think it's too late for Hong Kong to think about separating itself from China. China is very touchy about the issue of "one country"—witness the geopolitics of Taiwan. As far as Beijing is concerned, Taiwan is part of China. This isn't the way that many Taiwanese feel about the issue; many Taiwanese would like to see their land become fully independent. America's stance toward Taiwan has always been strange: politically, my country affirms the so-called "One China" policy, i.e., Taiwan is part of China. Practically, however, America sells American-made weapons to the Taiwanese (a recent example can be found here) and does other forms of business that indicate a not-so-secret desire to view Taiwan as independent. This is, naturally, irritating to China.

But Hong Kong has a different history. It was long under British rule until the handover in 1997, and precisely because of the official, formal nature of that handover, which was expected and anticipated, Hong Kong has even less say about its own independence than does Taiwan. I think that, if Hong Kong were to try to separate itself from the rest of China, this would cause more economic turbulence and social strife than would be worth the effort. Many lives would be ruined by a such a move. If the ideal, from an American point of view, is to spread democracy and combat communism, than it may be better for Hong Kong to work its weird magic from inside of China. As an independent outsider, Hong Kong would accomplish nothing because it would lack influence.

6. If you want to add anything, please feel free to write your opinion!

I just want to say "Thank you!" for giving me the opportunity to comment—however ignorantly—on the very interesting and exciting events now occurring in Hong Kong.

And a word to the Chinese students at Dongguk University who might read my words and disagree strongly with my perspective: please understand that, while I disagree with many of the actions of the Chinese government, I have nothing but respect for the hard-working Chinese people. You students probably also believe things about America, and American foreign policy, that I strongly disagree with. And that's fine! I think it's possible to disagree, even to disagree vehemently, and still live together in a spirit of peace and mutual dialogue. I wish China good luck as it attempts to resolve this difficulty. My own sympathies are obviously with the "occupy" protestors, but my greatest hope is for a peaceful solution to this troubled chapter in Chinese history.



Charles said...

I'm both less optimistic and less pessimistic about the future of the HK Occupy protests; I don't think Beijing has any intention of appeasing the protesters with anything other than token measures at best, but I also don't think they are going to repeat Tiananmen. You talked about "erasing history" after Tianenmen. I would just add that this is not 1989 (for one, we didn't have the internet back then!); were something horrible to happen, the government would no doubt try to cover it up, but I don't think they would be nearly as successful as they were in 1989.

What do I think will happen? Obviously, I don't know any more than you do, but I'm inclined to think that the protests will eventually fizzle out, both due to flagging will on the part of the protesters themselves and loss of support for/growth of opposition to the protests from the general public.

Perhaps that's a bit cynical, but I haven't really seen anything yet to convince me otherwise.

Kevin Kim said...

I think you're right that it's not 1989, but the question in my mind is the extent to which the Chinese government actually cares what the world thinks about how it runs its ship. Beijing still shamelessly engages in the censorship and history-erasure game (abetted by foreign helpers like "Don't Be Evil" Google), after all, which doesn't bode well for the protestors if things do end up going south. And China as a whole still commits a raft of human-rights violations, so I can easily imagine things getting to a point where something horrible occurs and China covers it up. As North Korea has shown us, cover-ups are less for the outside world than they are for domestic citizens; control of information flow equals control of behavior. China is now big enough and powerful enough to endure a major public-relations fiasco without suffering much damage to its diplomatic capital and prestige.

Charles said...

Agreed. I think China cares about its international image about as much as I care about the next season of "Toddlers and Tiaras." Possibly less. And the 1989 cover-up was also an internal affair, so you've got no arguments from me on that front. I was just saying that, even internally, I don't think it is possible for a cover-up to be as successful now as it was in 1989. Something is going to leak, and you don't really need that big of a leak for something like this to stir up trouble.

I think the Chinese government knows this, too, which is one of the reasons why they hastily pulled back after those initial missteps (i.e., police clashing with protesters). The other reason is that they probably realized that one of the most effective ways of quelling a peaceful protest is to just ignore it. Peaceful protests gain legitimacy and momentum when violence is used to counter them--they are essentially handed the moral high ground. Refusing to counter them with violence--or to counter them at all--starves the fire of fuel.

Man, I feel so cynical now....

Nathan B. said...

I'd agree with most everything in this post, Kevin, with the notable exception of a few remarks on Taiwan.

Taiwan is an independent country in every way this matters but one: widespread international recognition as such. Taiwanese pay taxes to Taipei, not Beijing. They travel abroad on Taiwanese passports, not Chinese passports--and not on Taiwanese passports that Beijing allows them to use, either, since Beijing has no political authority over Taiwan. Furthermore, the PRC's Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan. Bearing all this in mind, it's not really correct to say that "This isn't the way that many Taiwanese feel about the issue; many Taiwanese would like to see their land become fully independent." As for sales of arms to Taiwan, China may not like it, but I disagree that this is a natural or rightful feeling on the part of the Chinese. If China hadn't been engaged in sabre-rattling for so long, Taiwan would not need to be purchasing weapons. To put the matter in perspective, if China sold Canada weapons, no one would say that the Unites States would "naturally" feel upset about that--because Canada would never go to war with its peaceful ally and neighbour.

Kevin Kim said...


"PRC also asserts itself to be the sole legal representation of China and claims Taiwan as its 23rd province to be under its sovereignty, denying the status and existence of ROC as a sovereign state. The PRC has threatened the use of military force as a response to any formal declaration of Taiwanese independence, or if it deems peaceful reunification no longer possible."
Wikipedia, for what that's worth

The article also notes, with unintentional humor, that Taiwan claims sovereignty over mainland China as well. Obviously, it hasn't pressed this claim.

Nathan B. said...

Hi Kevin, I'm fully aware of the claims of both Taipei and Beijing in this regard, but I don't understand why you quoted the Wikipedia article here. The fact that Beijing claims Taiwan in no way alters the facts I mentioned in my comment to the effect that Taiwan is, for all practical purposes, a fully independent country. In fact, it's precisely because Beijing claims Taiwan (and so unfairly, too) that I wrote it.

Kevin Kim said...


There's "independent" and then there's "effectively independent." You seem to be conflating the two. Effective independence isn't true independence, nor does it rate being labeled "de facto" independence. Also: international recognition isn't relevant to the question of whether a country is truly independent.

If I live next to an oppressive neighbor who is physically larger than I am and armed to the teeth, and if that neighbor tells me, "You set one foot off your property, and I'm gonna blow your head off," would you say that I am, in objective point of fact, free to move about where I please? What about if I brashly declare myself free to go where I wish, but without ever actually testing my neighbor's willingness to blow my head off? Am I free then? And if our other neighbors in the neighborhood affirm that I'm free, despite my neighbor's stated threat to me... am I free then?

This is the situation Taiwan is in right now: Taiwan can putter around inside the space it's created for itself, but the moment it grows too big for its britches, the actual reality of the situation will reassert itself. More plainly: if Taiwan openly declares itself independent, China will come down on it like a ton of bricks. I take its promise of a military solution to the Taiwan problem very seriously, and that's the basic reality underlying (and undercutting) the "freedoms" you've listed.

So why doesn't Taiwan simply declare itself independent, if it's as free as you seem to think it is? The obvious answer is that it doesn't feel free to do so. I'm sorry, but I don't call that independence.

Let's go back to your original disagreement. You wrote:

"Taiwan is an independent country in every way this matters but one: widespread international recognition as such."

I assume this is in response to what I wrote here:

"As far as Beijing is concerned, Taiwan is part of China. This isn't the way that many Taiwanese feel about the issue; many Taiwanese would like to see their land become fully independent."

I quoted the Wikipedia entry to show that I was perfectly correct in my assessment of China's official attitude toward Taiwan, which was, at bottom, the main factual claim I had made. There's no error there.

As for how the Taiwanese feel re: true independence (as opposed to "effective" independence), see here for starters. Google "Taiwan independence" and there's plenty more where that came from. Many Taiwanese themselves don't think the issue of their independence is settled, as I stated in my interview. I'm not wrong on any of these facts. And again, "effective" independence isn't actual independence, not when the well-armed neighbor is perfectly capable of blowing my head off if I step outside my property. Such "independence" is merely a sham. Taiwan exists at the sufferance of China. It's on a leash, and being on a leash isn't freedom.