The whole world, including international media, United Nations, human rights groups, are watching how the anti-Extraditional Law movement in Hong Kong unfolds. On Twitter, Hong Kong-related hashtags remain the top trending topics for days, with front-line reporters, protestors, local activist groups, Hong Kong police forces, China specialists, and most recently U.S. President Donald Trump tweeting frequent updates of the event and in most cases, showing sympathies and rallies for Hong Kong protestors and criticism of Hong Kong (and by extension, the central government) government’s inability to listen to people’s demands.
However, these overwhelming liberal voices on Twitter are only part of the picture. To mistake them as the most popular public opinion towards Hong Kong’s anti-Extradition Law protests is an inaccurate analysis that may lead to inflations of protestors’ ability to sway the Hong Kong and central governments. In mainland China, for instance, people are predominantly against or ignorant of the Hong Kong protests.
Many have already offered insightful analysis of mainland Chinese’s sentiment against the Hong Kong protests, attributing it to the information asymmetry due to China’s extensive censorship and propaganda apparatus. The underlying assumption seems to be if mainland Chinese had access to a free Internet and news sources other than the Chinese state media, they would understand and stand with Hong Kong protesters.
In reality, however, the divide between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong people is much more complicated. While it is easy to blame (or victim blame) mainland Chinese for lacking the ability to think independently due to censorship and blindly accepting China’s “economic development comes first” and “stability over everything” ideology, many fail to point out or perhaps refuse to see that Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates have alienated themselves from the would-be supporters among mainland Chinese. The truth is even the tech savvy, the educated and liberal-leaning people in mainland China have at times shown their indifference to Hong Kong protesters’ fight and struggles.
Over the past few weeks, I have been observing my peers’ takes on the Hong Kong protests, many of who are highly educated, liberal-leaning tech savvy with overseas experience. To my surprise, a majority of them are indifferent to or even despite pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong. Regardless of what the root cause for their views might be, listening to what they are saying and understanding (at least try to) their mindsets is necessary if liberals in Hong Kong or elsewhere want to win the public opinion battle and solidify support from all fronts.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, mainland Chinese elites who support freedom of expression, human rights and political reforms do not necessarily empathize with Hong Kong protesters, despite both groups essentially share the same values. Many expressed to me or online that they feel limited connection with Hong Kong or Hong Kong people.
This is partly due to the language and cultural barriers between the two groups. Whereas mainland Chinese communicate with each other in Mandarin and bond easily over popular cultural references, Hong Kong people predominantly speak Cantonese and grow up with music, soap operas, movies that are largely confined to local contexts.
The disconnection goes both ways. As a former British colony, Hong Kong’s political system and people’s sense of identity differ largely from those of mainland China’s. The identity crisis of whether they are primarily “HongKonger”, “ethnic Chinese”, or “Chinese citizen” has been baffling Hong Kong people ever since the handover of Hong Kong. That the central government attempts to run Hong Kong in a control-oriented way as it does with the rest of mainland China is not helping and has only been alienating more Hong Kong youths.
This tension has led to a number of Hong Kong youths rejecting not only the “China’s Chinese” identity but also symbols of mainland China, such as Mandarin. A simple search online would return many results of mainland Chinese describing their frustration of being discriminated in Hong Kong just because they were speaking Mandarin. An opinion poll in 2015 showed that 55 per cent new immigrants from mainland China felt that they were not welcomed in Hong Kong.
But even those in mainland China who share the same language and similar cultural upbringings sometimes find it hard to form allies with Hong Kong people.
Alex, a friend of mine who grew up in Guangdong, a province neighbouring Hong Kong, speaks Cantonese, commented, “With all due respect, thirty years ago people suffered from economic downturn, inflation and corruption. That’s why the 89 Tiananmen Movement was broadly supported by the general public. What does Hong Kong have today? Ever since Hong Kong stresses its differences from mainland China and mainland Chinese, hoping to separate itself from the democracy movement in China, its own movements are doomed to fail.” Trained in law, he has always been highly critical of China’s legal system and concerned about the government’s tightening controls in recent years.
(Source: A poster from VJ Media, a Hong Kong-based online media founded in 2012. The text says “we save our Hong Kong on our own”.)
Alex’s sentiment is not out of nowhere. One of the frequently chanted slogans during the anti-Extraditional Law movement and other recent pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong is “We save our Hong Kong on our own (自己香港自己救).” On one hand, the emotional slogan is effective in rallying support among those who share the Hong Kong identity. On the other hand, it also excludes any non-Hong Kong people (mostly mainland Chinese) even if they care about Hong Kong or share the same aspirations for freedom, democracy and rule of aw.
Granted the prospect of mainland China becoming a democracy or event carrying out small political reforms is grim, it is too much to ask pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong to keep mainland China in its fight when its own fights are at stake. However, under the current political structure and international environment, it is hard to imagine a scenario where Hong Kong undergoes political reforms without affecting mainland China and mainland Chinese or that the international community would intervene in favour of Hong Kong.
Of course, without systematic surveys, it is hard to say my friend’s view is representative of the views of Chinese liberals. It is even harder to gauge what mainland Chinese truly think of Hong Kong people’s political pursuits when expressing views or simply accessing information that are against the Party line could get them in trouble. However, dismissing these sporadic “complaints” and concerns from mainland Chinese will surely divide the two sides even further and drive Hong Kong to isolation.
One of the oldest and most successful tricks of the Chinese Communist Party is to form an alliance of different groups against their common enemies. At times like this, a broader support and favourable public opinion is what protestors need to keep the momentum of the movement. Listening to what their liberal mainland Chinese counterparts are saying and addressing some of their concerns might be a way to further solidify the foundation of local pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong.