Under the banner of one country two systems, Hong Kong lives in a glorious limbo. Sort of democratic, sort of liberal, sort of not. There is Google and Facebook and a free enough press to publish Edward Snowden’s revelations. Though, as with the Damocles, all of this hangs by a delicate thread.
This is as two young, and frankly, naïve lawmakers from the disastrously named “Youngspiration” party, have learnt the hard way. Having made their oath taking ceremony into the legislature into a political martyrdom and a farce, Beijing has now hounded them out of office, not that they ever entered it, and they now have the prospect of bankruptcy looming over them for failing to repay their prematurely paid, as it turned out, salaries.
The saga was gripping to watch unfold. Everyday brought a new revelation, another twist in the tale. What began as a show of defiance with some schoolboy antics, escalated rapidly drawing the police into the parliament chamber, protest and counter protest, legal challenges and finally a ruling from Beijing spelling out exactly how the situation was to end. At least for now.
Half way through this saga, the HK literary festival held a series of talks grappling dealing with Hong Kong’s relationship with its past, with China and with the world.
Frank Dikotter spoke in detail and with great pathos about the Cultural revolution and the great unleashing of uncontrollable forces that defined China in the 1970s and which has shaped the China of today. His thesis is worth considering now, that the end product of the that revolution was economic reform at the cost of the political liberties. This market liberalisation was, he posits, only the official recognition of irreversible changes in Chinese society. That is to say the official hierarchy could not undo what the people had done.
Now in Hong Kong – as the speakers at the catchily named “Hong Kong and Mainland Cities in 1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016: A Conversation” observed – there is a “youthquake.” Youth apathy has been turned inside out and now young people, as in the mainland forty years ago, are spearheading a radical agenda. The seeds of which were soon twenty years ago. What the Bejing long game is, as the speakers pondered, unknowable but probably involved, they agreed, a slow assimilation of Hong Kong into the mainland on the basis of wide economic but limited political freedom. Hongkongers have proved stubborn in this, seemingly settled into their positions.
This can I think be explained with another event intended to stimulate the mind and fire the synapses. A few weeks before there was a TedX event in Wan Chai. This had surprisingly little to say about Hong Kong specifically, except revelations on the startling food waste in the city. Instead the schedule ran as a list of entertaining and thought provoking international speakers. The message from the whole, despite the grating hosts, was that Hong Kong should look out and beyond and more globally.
The two lawmakers may have well failed in their attempt at bringing Hong Kong independence into parliamentary discussion, and may have brought the cause of political reforms, at least in the short term, into some trouble. There is not the climate of the early 80s to force the recognition of change. Nothing so violent is even possible or welcome. But there is something in motion. There is slow and stubborn change fired by contact with global ideas, and it will prove hard and increasingly difficult to ignore.
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