It’s an open question how much energy the demonstrations in Hong Kong draw from a desire for democracy. After all, Hong Kong has never experienced democracy over the last two hundred odd years, which hasn’t seemed to hurt it too much as it galumphed its way into prosperity as a British and then Red Chinese colonial enclave.
But what is undeniable is the energy that the demonstrations derive from a sense of alienation from the People’s Republic of China, fueled by political and economic discontents, perhaps, but also by a growing sense for many younger people of local lineage that they are “Hong Kongers” not “Chinese”, and they can’t be bossed around by Beijing.
Even before the current ruckus, about half of residents identified themselves as exclusively “Hong Kongers”; expect that number to rise ineluctably as the population that grew up as “Chinese” under British colonialism fades away.
Increased economic integration with the mainland has not eroded Hong Kongers’ local identity in favor of “we’re all Chinese” kumbaya. Just the opposite.
The ugly and problematic face of Hong Kong democracy agitation is local chauvinism, expressed as detestation of the hundreds of thousands of mainland “locusts” who descend on the city to offend locals with their uncouth behavior, birth their children in Hong Kong hospitals to gain resident privileges, drive up real estate prices, compete for jobs—and pump billions into the local economy.
The emergence of a distinct local identity for ethnic Chinese is characteristic of communities in places like Singapore and Taiwan which, like Hong Kong, are somewhat beyond the reach of the PRC and its homogenizing doctrine of ethnic solidarity.
In Taiwan, about half the population self-identifies as Taiwanese and the other half self-identifies as Chinese-Taiwanese. Those who identify as exclusively Chinese and presumably represent the core constituency for reunification has dropped from 50% in the 1990s to the low single digits today.
The most worrying consequence of the ruckus in Hong Kong for its Communist masters, I think, may not be “democratic contagion”. To be sure, in the relatively unlikely event that the CCP capitulates to the Hong Kong demonstrators’ main demand—that the nomination as well as election process for city offices be conducted through universal suffrage voting—pro-democracy activists on the mainland would be emboldened and create awkward moments for the PRC.
However, I believe a more pressing problem might be “chauvinism contagion”, the encouragement that the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong give to resisting ethnic groups.
There are interesting parallels between the deep reservoirs of anti-PRC resentment and local chauvinism among the people of Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In both cases, there is perhaps less resistance to the nature of PRC rule i.e. the absence of democracy, than there is to the legitimacy of PRC rule itself.
The historically autonomous Uyghur communities of Xinjiang were only rolled into China in the 1950s and a closer relationship to the PRC has actually accelerated the formation of Uyghur identity, nationalism and, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a feeling among many that the Uyghurs have been jobbed out of their own stan by the PRC.
In a similar fashion, I would say, the less direct but still unmistakable imposition of PRC rule—which only rolled in in 1997--has fostered strong feelings of Hong Kong identity which provide energy to the democracy movement, and also fuel the less edifying phenomenon of anti-mainlander chauvinism.
It may be that, in fact, democracy is secondary to the desire of young Hong Kongers for their own “Hongkongistan”.
In his book “The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land” (Columbia University Press New York 2010), Gardner Bovingdon discussed the interesting phenomenon of nascent Uyghur-Hong Kong solidarity which, in 1997, ran only from west to east:
“In the spring of 1997, many Uyghurs brought up the wish for independence as Hong Kong’s retrocession approached. It seems quaint…but there was a widespread belief…that Britain would not relinquish its colony without a fight. Xinjiang was rife with rumors that Uyghur organizations were preparing to take advantage of the ensuing chaos to stage a military uprising. …a baker told me cheerfully…that Xinjiang would soon be independent…a group of taxi drivers predicted to me at curbside that July would bring independence; and a gathering of police spent several hours alternately lamenting Xinjiang’s colonization by China instead of the Soviet Union and speaking hopefully about the possibility that the rumors of a planned uprising were true…Hong Kong’s peaceful retrocession seemed to take many people by surprise. The morning after Hong Kong’s return…I sat with a group of students utterly sick at heart that nothing had happened the night before…”
Now, seventeen years later, Hong Kong has caught up with Xinjiang!
And, I would imagine that today, as news about Hong Kong trickles into Xinjiang, the excitement among Uyghurs—and the anxiety of the CCP—is palpable.
I would also imagine that the CCP recognizes that “one-person-one-vote-itis” might not represent as big a threat to its rule as the perception that the basic legitimacy of its rule is being challenged by profoundly alienated groups that are “unidentifying” as “Chinese” and choose to express their opposition through the medium of democratic agitation against an alien occupation.
The idea that the fundamental legitimacy of CCP rule is under threat—that the CCP in danger of losing its intimidating mojo, participation in the PRC polity is starting to look more like an option and less than an obligation, and forcefully asserting the CCP monopoly of power to potentially disaffected groups throughout China has become a pressing state priority—might, in my opinion, be more likely to send the PLA trundling into Admiralty than fantods about democracy.
This kind of disaffection,whether in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, can’t be handled only with APCs and mass detentions.
In Xinjiang, the PRC is trying to uproot Uyghur particularism with assimilation: a campaign that combines education and indoctrination of children, economic development, co-option and splitting of Uyghur community leaders, and, of course, APCs and mass detentions.
One of the key tools is Mandarin education, so that Uyghur children will be drawn into the Han matrix and lose more of their nettlesome Uyghur identity.
However, assimilation and papering over linguistic and communal differences is not just a preoccupation of Chicoms clinging to power; it's a major governing strategy of governments throughout the Chinese diaspora.
To return to what is perhaps the PRC's most pressing problem of integration and assimilation outside of Hong Kong, in the remote regions of China’s west, interestingly enough, the PRC is replicating the assimilatory strategy of one of the world’s most advanced Chinese-led polities—the city of Singapore.
Singapore has presided over a long term campaign of national redefinition, which has not only used specifying English as the primary language in order to supersede the ethnic identities of Singapore’s Chinese, Indian, and Malay residents; it has also mandated Mandarin as the second language as part of a campaign to manage conflicts between Singapore’s various Chinese ethnicities—particularly between Hokkienese and Techeowese—through a program of indoctrination and Mandarin instruction that has weakened ethnic particularism and, with it, some of the Chinese cultural identity within the China diaspora groups.
It is perhaps noteworthy that Singapore—the Chinese city state powerhouse is presumably the object of the admiration and potential emulation for independence-minded Hong Kongers--does not seem terribly happy with Hong Kong’s expression of assertiveness.
Presumably this has to do with the ruling PAP’s strong preference for managed democracy and abhorrence of political demonstrations organized by competing parties; it might also have something to do with anxieties over the potential for overt displays of resentment by Singapore’s alienated 15% minority of ethnic Malays who, like Xinjiangers, probably feel like “strangers in their own land”; but it also may have something to do with discomfort with Hong Kong chauvinism and the challenge it offers to its assimilatory vision.
Anger at the Mandarin menace is, of course, a staple of Hong Kong identity politics, especially as continued economic integration with the mainland has led to Mandarin supplanting English as Hong Kong’s second language. One of the gripes about Chief Executive C.Y. Leung was that he was the first CE to deliver his inaugural address in Mandarin.
Here’s a post describing the anger of Hong Kong university students that mainlanders’ calls for Mandarin instruction were being accommodated by a professor; it also includes an illustration of a poster deploring the “mainlandization” of Hong Kong university education and the damage it did to the graduate study (it claims 70% of Hong Kong graduate students are mainlanders) and employment prospects of native Hong Kong university students.
There is, of course, a limited window for asserting the political prerogatives of Hong Kongers.
Of course, it also must be noted that the ethnic particularism problem doesn't end there.
Cantonese particularism, along with Hakka particularism, based on the distinctiveness of southern ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity from the north, has been a headache for CCP control and is a historical and potentially renascent fault line of its own (continuing the dialect theme, central government attempts to sideline Cantonese in favor of Mandarin in Guangdong province have aroused bitter opposition), but that’s grist for a future crisis. And there's the notorious Shanghai chauvinism. And the bloody devotion of Sichuanese to their prerogatives.
All in all, the Chinese ethnic monolith is a mirage—a fact of life not only for the PRC in dealing with distinctive ethnic groups in the West and South, but also within the Han polity inside China, in Hong Kong, and, for places like Singapore and Taiwan, in the diaspora.
As that myth fades, new prospects open: not only for the crumbling of PRC rule, but also for the ethnic unity of the mainland and how powerful forces will seek to preserve or undermine it. And for the political fortunes of Taiwan and its split between indigenes and mainlanders, and for the nations of central Asia who divide the scattered Uyghur population with Xinjiang, and a share in its problems.
The Occupy Hong Kong strategy is based on a tickle-the-dragon's-tail program of carefully orchestrated escalation. It's assumed that giving some rein to local particularism will pressure the CCP in making some concessions on local democracy, not spark a runaway independence movement or create an existential threat for the CCP that provokes a military crackdown.
But now what once perhaps seemed impossible seems, if not likely, well, possible.
Advocates of democracy—and the PRC getting a well-deserved kick in the ass—unreservedly welcome the Hong Kong Occupy movement. But many of those who govern Chinese polities, I expect, note the presence of the doppelganger of local chauvinism, and find their enthusiasm tempered by fears of what rancorous identity politics, language rights, and communal division will do to their visions of stability and prosperity.