China needs to learn to adapt to change

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

That old ques­tion, what hap­pens when an ir­re­sistible force meets an im­mov­able ob­ject, re­ceived a new an­swer on June 4 when tens of thou­sands of peo­ple in Hong Kong poured into Vic­to­ria Park for the 26th year in a row to com­mem­o­rate those who died in Bei­jing in 1989 when tanks rum­bled into the cap­i­tal and con­verged on Tianan­men Square.

Democ­racy is the os­ten­si­bly ir­re­sistible force. A quar­ter of a cen­tury ago, com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ships crum­bled all over Europe in the face of cit­i­zen protests and were suc­ceeded by gov­ern­ments more accountable to the peo­ple.

In East Asia, too, the last few decades saw au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments give way to lib­eral democ­ra­cies in South Korea, In­done­sia, the Philip­pines and Tai­wan.

The im­mov­able ob­ject is China. The com­mu­nist party dealt with its ex­is­ten­tial threat by tight­en­ing po­lit­i­cal con­trols, in­still­ing pa­tri­otic ed­u­ca­tion, clamp­ing down on dis­sent and cen­sor­ing the In­ter­net while at the same time grow­ing the econ­omy and im­prov­ing peo­ple’s liveli­hood.


Be­cause of the pol­icy of “one coun­try, two sys­tems,” Hong Kong, which re­turned to Chi­nese rule in 1997 af­ter 156 years as a colony, was an ex­cep­tion. There, rights and free­doms nur­tured by the Bri­tish con­tin­ued to be safe­guarded, in­clud­ing the right to hold an­nual can­dle­light vig­ils to com­mem­o­rate those killed in the mil­i­tary crack­down of June 4, 1989.

This year, again, demon­stra­tors filled all six soc­cer pitches in Vic­to­ria Park, which can ac­com­mo­date 42,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong es­ti­mates. The po­lice put the fig­ure this year at 46,600, while the or­ga­niz­ers claimed 135,000. But, un­ques­tion­ably, a lot of peo­ple were there to mourn, to op­pose one-party dic­ta­tor­ship and to call for the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of China.

Such slo­gans have been sta­ple fare for 26 years. How­ever, this year, the pro-democ­racy move­ment, stymied in its at­tempt to cre­ate a demo­cratic China, has split. Many young peo­ple, pri­mar­ily uni­ver­sity stu­dents, no longer care about build­ing democ­racy in China. In­deed, they don’t even care about China.

Sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple who would nor­mally have swelled the crowds in Vic­to­ria Park shunned the vigil this year, hold­ing sep­a­rate cer­e­monies in which Hong Kong, not China, took cen­ter place.

Their move­ment is be­ing de­scribed as na­tivism. But in this age of glob­al­iza­tion it is a lit­tle dis­con­cert­ing to find peo­ple who don’t want to know about their neigh­bors even though they, to a large ex­tent, ac­tu­ally con­trol Hong Kong’s fate. China will tol­er­ate only limited democ­racy in the for­mer Bri­tish colony and th­ese young peo­ple will soon dis­cover that a demo­cratic China may be a nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tion to a demo­cratic Hong Kong.

But China, which has per­ceived Hong Kong democrats as its en­emy for the last quar­ter cen­tury, may come to see the older democrats as prefer­able to young peo­ple who don’t iden­tify with China and who don’t even think of them­selves as Chi­nese.

In­deed, this is rem­i­nis­cent of re­la­tions be­tween Tai­wan and the main­land. In the 20th cen­tury, when the two com­peted for recog­ni­tion as the real “China” in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, Bei­jing in­sisted that Tai­wan was noth­ing more than a prov­ince, with no right to call it­self China.

But af­ter the Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive Party gained power in 2000, Pres­i­dent Chen Shui-bian started drop­ping the word “China” from the names of state-owned en­ti­ties. The pa­per Free China Weekly be­came Tai­wan Jour­nal. Chi­nese Petroleum Cor­po­ra­tion was trans­formed into CPC Cor­po­ra­tion and China Ship­build­ing Cor­po­ra­tion turned into CSBC Cor­po­ra­tion.

Bei­jing then in­sisted that Tai­wan was Chi­nese and it should not drop the words “China” or “Chi­nese” from its cor­po­rate names, re­vers­ing its pre­vi­ous stance.

The main­land was eu­phoric when the Kuom­intang, its old en­emy which used to threaten to “coun­ter­at­tack the main­land,” re­turned to power in 2008.

Sim­i­larly, if the demo­cratic op­po­si­tion in Hong Kong, which calls for over­throw­ing the Com­mu­nist Party, be­comes ir­rel­e­vant to large seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion, the devel­op­ment won’t be seen as good news by Bei­jing.

This is more than a case of bet­ter the devil you know than the one you don’t. It is rather em­pa­thy for those with shared ba­sic sen­ti­ments about coun­try, his­tory and an­ces­tors. For one thing, ap­peals to pa­tri­o­tism, to eth­nic­ity and blood lines, will no longer work with those who sim­ply re­pu­di­ate their Chi­ne­se­ness.

So, in Hong Kong, the ir­re­sistible force of democ­racy has be­come di­vided, and ar­guably weak­ened, by in­ter­gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ences.

And China, which is likely to prove im­mov­able for quite some time yet, will have to adapt to deal with new, con­fus­ing and un­ex­pected cir­cum­stances as the 21st cen­tury un­folds.

China, which is likely to prove im­mov­able for quite some time yet, will have to adapt to deal with new, con­fus­ing and un­ex­pected cir­cum­stances as the 21st cen­tury un­folds. Twit­ter: @FrankChing1

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