Hong Kong: Promises, Lies and Airports

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Wednesday August 21, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The protests continue in Hong Kong with both sides seeking to claim the high ground.

Whether these protests will end violently or peacefully remains to be seen.

It is true that there has been violence but so far it is nothing like that of Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Nonetheless, Beijing is preparing for that possibility and has already resorted to playing the "terrorist card."

Still, whatever the ending, one major goal of the protestors has already been achieved.

They have shown that their protest is wider than a simple concern over Beijing's wish to impose an extradition law on Hong Kong.

In this, as the protesters demonstrate, not only are the history, direction and identity of Hong Kong being laid bare, but also that of China and even world concepts of proper government.

It's a complex scenario, one where all involved must analyze and evaluate the interplay of history, governmental promises, spin and finally imagined communities.

So who are the "good guys" and who are the "bad guys?"

On Beijing's side, it is falling back on traditional canards. By playing the "terrorist card," it is calling on its "true believer" citizens, if not the world, to see that this Hong Kong action is such.

On the other side, because of this and other reasons, it has proven to be a stroke of genius that the unarmed protestors took over the airport, not as a coup, but as a means of saying "never again" to the opaque slaughter that happened in Tiananmen Square.

The world has certainly moved on since the put down of Tiananmen Square; it is a different place but by their actions, the Hong Kong protesters are making sure that what happened there can never be hidden again.

Disgruntled flight passengers who find their lives impacted will certainly complain; Hong Kong is after all a major hub.

Nonetheless, while some speaking only from personal goals will do that without seeking answers, most others will ask why did these unarmed protesters take this action?

And as the answers come in, observers will see that the protest involves more than just a proposed Hong Kong extradition law. That law is purely symptomatic; the real answers and causes lay deeper.

Where then to start?

The first step is to always go back in history and examine what brought about these actions. That quickly brings up the reality of Beijing's "20-year lie" and why it cannot escape being called anything but that.

This step needs to be repeated over and over lest its focus gets lost in the current turmoil. Once that is done, one can then work backwards and forwards through the spin of time to find Hong Kong's true motivation.

In July 1997, some eight years after the world's muffled response to the reality of Tiananmen Square slipped quietly away, the world media latched onto a new happening, one of a different kind, "the handover of Hong Kong."

The handover was a festive and historic time and many, including this author, went to Hong Kong to simply be present and experience the history of the moment. Even Hong Kong seemed to welcome it.

History was certainly involved. After more than 150 years of its rule, the UK, which had made a series of treaties with the Manchu Qing Empire in 1842, 1860 and 1898, was transferring the sovereignty of Hong Kong to a new comer on the block, the People's Republic of China (PRC).

This relative new comer promised a great, new deal for Hong Kong. It would be a Special Administrative Region (SAR) and in twenty years would have full democracy. What a promise! Who could want more?

The 20 years from 1997 went by quickly, and 2017 arrived, but then it somehow surreptitiously slipped away. And as far as democracy was concerned for Hong Kong, things were getting worse and not better. The allegedly blessed SAR was not so blessed after all.

Savvy Hong Kongers quickly sensed how the hand had been writing on the wall. It did not take much to realize that if a massive China could not keep a simple promise of full democracy in 20 years, nothing could be hoped for later.

Second, and perhaps more important, another reality was finally becoming clear. China's 20-year lie exposed that a completely different imagined community had developed in Hong Kong in the 150 years between the Opium Wars of the 1840s and the 1997 handover.

Hong Kongers found that though they could claim ethnic roots and heritage from China, they were Hong Kong and their reality was something totally different from that of China.

This once lowly fishing village of the Manchu empire had come a long way as an imagined community. It had turned into a prosperous, world-experienced financial center.

This new imagined community proved to be the reality that the PRC authoritarian state could not tolerate.

Hong Kong's projection became another dissident nail from the Manchu empire that had to be pounded down into the flat surface of PRC conformity.

Given their different history, Hong Kongers never completely bought into the PRC's dreams of dynastic greatness and the ill-fated growing pains spin that those at the top of the ladder in China seemed to savor and relish. Hong Kong's identity had its own uniqueness.

For example, Hong Kong watched but did not suffer from the late struggles of the faltering Manchu empire. Hong Kong avoided the turmoil of China's Xinhai Revolution and the chaos of the subsequent warlord period.

It avoided the numerous subsequent body counts from the Chinese Civil War and all that followed. It never knew and did not have to make excuses for the Great Famine brought on by chairman Mao Zedong's failed Great Leap Forward.

No, Hong Kong's growing pains came more from that of living in a developing prosperity.

On the other hand those in China staggered on; they next suffered from the purges of the Cultural Revolution.

For Hong Kongers, if they practiced a one-child policy, it was by personal choice and not because of state dictate.

These and many other numerous happenings have made Hong Kongers finally realize that their experiences, gained in a free-wheeling capitalism made them quite different from their alleged "brothers and sisters" in China.

They could thus be aloof and distant and even mocking when questions arose about the "caring benevolence" of China's new masters, the Chinese Communist Party.

Unlike China's many brainwashed "true believers," they had no trouble asking simple questions like: "If the 'motherland' is so great, why could it not keep a simple promise? And why should Hong Kong then be asked to swallow that 20-year lie?"

This is the reality behind the current protests in Hong Kong. It is not terrorism; it is the combined experience and common sense of a developed imagined community, which realizes that blindly accepting one lie will only lead to other and even worse ones.

Taiwanese, therefore, with the sense of kindred spirits who had been down that road many times in the past, find themselves quickly sympathetic with Hong Kong. Yet even here, they also can learn from Hong Kong's experience.

Taiwanese know that they have their own history as well as their own imagined community; this they readily understand. They know that they have fought for and suffered to gain their present democracy, a democracy that Hong Kongers desire.

However, what Taiwanese must still learn is that the threats to democracy are constant; eternal vigilance remains the price of freedom.

For example, they still face the reality of politicians who advocate the false and benevolent myths that riches will surely be gained by joining the autocratic regime on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

While Hong Kong had finally recognized the full extent of the 1997 "20-year lie," Taiwanese on the other hand must still learn to spot the lies that remain in their history.

Prominent in this is the home-baked lie of the fake "1992 consensus" that some politicians still promote.

This is the final lesson Taiwanese must learn from Hong Kong's plight as they approach next year's elections. They like Hong Kong have a history and imagined community that is separate from China.

However, unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan is more in control of its destiny. They have the democracy that Hong Kong desires. They must not lose it.