Hong Kong, Taiwan and 21st Century Zeitgeist

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Sunday September 1, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

What constitutes the spirit of an age? What determines its zeitgeist? Should one join or oppose it? The answers to these and other questions are embedded in what is taking place in Hong Kong.

There, as the ideological battle for early 21st century zeitgeist takes shape, technology allows for immediate worldwide awareness.

In one sense, it could be called a tale of three cities: Beijing, Hong Kong and London, with each representing a different position.

However, unlike 19th Century British author Charles Dickens,' Tale of Two Cities, (London and Paris), a fictional tale on the French Revolution, this tale is real and its outcome will clearly impact history and many lives.

Both tales ironically could claim the same opening line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Many are benefiting while many suffer.

To parallel further, it is an age of instant international communications yet one of fake news—an age of clear awareness, yet one of dissimilation. It is an age of regional trouble, yet one of international impact. It is a tale that goes far beyond Hong Kong.

Examine the three contending positions.

The UK (London) returned Hong Kong's sovereignty to the People's Republic of China (Beijing) in 1997.

As London now approaches the deepening decision of Brexit, it represents the spirit of retrenchment that comes with fading empires and lost privilege.

After two world wars, Britannia no longer rules the waves and its many past colonies now follow their own paths. Those that once colonized the world and crashed the borders of other nations for economic expansion, now seek to close their own borders, not to armies, but to outside immigrants seeking economic betterment.

London symbolizes the old order of a retreating populist world where past generations cling to remains, while the young seek the new.

What Brexit will forge remains to be seen, but as far as Hong Kong is concerned this fading power of the UK has too many problems of its own to help Hong Kong.

Beijing, on the other hand, represents not just a rising power, but also that of a one-party state, which claims paternalistic benevolence for all.

The meme that it proposes is "socialism with Chinese characteristics." It is a catch phrase that allows the rulers to tell the ruled that they must accept suffering and control without question.

By its control of media and communication, Beijing guarantees that its minions will remain frogs in a well, and the frogs have come to gladly accept it.

On the Hong Kong front, Beijing has the opportunity to play the long game. By agreement with London, Hong Kong can have its democracy as part of "one country, two systems" until 2047, then at that time it will revert to become fully integrated into the one-party state.

Hong Kong will not even get that limited democracy. Playing the long game is a Chinese window dressing phrase for foreigners; the reality for Beijing is control and the sooner the better.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, known among other things for directing that his image should replace that of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, shuns the long game. He wants an immediate dynasty and he has so far convinced the unquestioning frogs that he will provide a new empire under it.

This leaves us with Hong Kong. It is small and has no military power. Yet, on the other hand, it has the unique power of every man's desire to be free and control one's destiny. Hong Kong had been promised democracy in this struggle, but it knows it won't get it.

What then to do?

Hong Kong certainly has the weakest hand. And yet in a different sense, it does not. That is the key to its protests and its link to zeitgeist.

Here, in history and zeitgeist, the role of leadership comes into play. Nineteenth Century Scottish historian, Thomas Carlyle put forth the "great man theory." For him history is simply the biographies of great men; they are the ones who shape history.

In contrast, 19th Century Russian author Leo Tolstoy proposed a different theory: Leadership is the product of the zeitgeist and social circumstances of the times.

The reality of what is happening in Hong Kong certainly appears more in line with Tolstoy's theory than that of Carlyle.

Examine, the three different types of leadership brought on by the circumstances of the times.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not the man of the future; he leads those who have dreamed, risen and fallen.

Johnson is no great man. He seems more a shameless opportunist, capable of capitalizing on leading the parade of populist backlash. Having convinced a fearful majority of Britains, he now leads them like lemmings to a greater lessening of their empire.

Hong Kong is the last thing on his mind.

Xi Jinping is clearly a man who seeks greatness. He wants his words remembered like those of Mao Zedong. He has risen from exile to power and up through the ranks of the one-party state. He has changed the Communist Party's rules of succession.

Will he then shape history and control the zeitgeist of the 21st Century?

Unfortunately, even without the US presence, Russia remains on China's immediate border, just like it did on the border of Nazi Germany. Russia has its own strong leader in President Vladimir Putin—could these two share the coming zeitgeist? Or will each eventually present problems to the other?

In Hong Kong, the protests have no strong leader. Their leadership is that of the people, those who want a clear say in their destiny. It is more in line with Tolstoy where the people are responding to the times.

Other happenings contribute to the spirit of this age, whether successful or not. Tiananmen Square, Perestroika, the Arab Spring, Taiwan's Sunflower Movement, Hong Kong's past Umbrella Movement etc. all point to a developing consciousness among the common person.

Which spirit then will win out in the coming century? Is it London, Beijing, or Hong Kong?

This returns us to a different contributor of the times, the instantaneous and ever-present social media with its worldwide connections.

This was lacking in Carlyle's 19th Century, where men could be great without their foibles being exposed. However, the social media of today continues to expose how all people have feet of clay. Even as leaders seek to control these media, it is too far-reaching leaving them little room for gloss or mistakes.

Taiwan has a front row seat in all this.

Further, its role is much more than that of an observer. By circumstance, it has more skin in this game for the leaders in Beijing have made known that their claim to Taiwan will follow Hong Kong's submission.

On the other hand, Taiwan has already experienced throwing off the control of a one-party state—it is more prepared for Beijing than Hong Kong.

Finally, unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan is a mid-sized nation and capable of a much deeper struggle. It only needs the same will as that of those in Hong Kong.

The zeitgeist of the 21st century is playing out. In their coming elections, Taiwanese must choose which leaders and which spirit they will follow. Which will it be?