In China, Shrugs and Sneers for Hong Kong Protesters

The mainland has had a rocky relationship with the special city for years -- and it's showing.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

The swelling ranks of Hong Kong protesters demanding more of a say in their city's future have inspired wide admiration among Western observers for their peacefulness, their cleanliness, and their democratic aspirations. But among mainland Chinese, they are largely seen as "alarmist," "coerced," "exploited by political forces," or just plain "spoiled."    

The swelling ranks of Hong Kong protesters demanding more of a say in their city’s future have inspired wide admiration among Western observers for their peacefulness, their cleanliness, and their democratic aspirations. But among mainland Chinese, they are largely seen as "alarmist," "coerced," "exploited by political forces," or just plain "spoiled."    

On Oct. 1, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China — three days after Hong Kong police shocked student-led pro-democracy protesters by sending tear gas canisters into peaceful crowds — a consensus was emerging among Chinese netizens who care about what’s happening in Hong Kong that protesters there are more worthy of derision, or at least skepticism, than applause.

Despite the fact that many related terms have been censored and mainstream Chinese media has been largely mute on the topic — instructions leaked on Sept. 28 order outlets to "clear away" information about Hong Kong students "violently assaulting the government" — it’s easy to find discussion of Hong Kong on major Chinese social platforms. The results are unlikely to please those who support the democratic aspirations of many residents of Hong Kong, a former British colony that’s now a special administrative region of China.   

One popular item on massive mobile chat platform WeChat dated Sept. 29 and titled "Who does Hong Kong belong to?" seems best to grasp the zeitgeist. It includes extreme language (it calls some Hong Kongers "English running dogs"), but also lists some arguments likely to be found among mainstream opponents of Hong Kong’s protests. This includes the popular (if hard to prove) complaint that Hong Kongers’ tax payments do not find their way to Beijing, and a discussion of Hong Kong’s reliance on the mainland for resources, given that the city does indeed source over 70 percent of its potable water and 90 of its fresh meat and vegetables from mainland China. The article argues that China has stuck assiduously to its "one country, two systems" agreement, allowing Hong Kong an independent judiciary, legislature, and executive. But the article also repeats the unproven notion that protesters are pushing for Hong Kong’s independence — because, it holds, some held up the Hong Kong colonial-era flag — and because they used "violent means" to surround the Hong Kong government headquarters. 

Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, provides another barometer for public opinion. One user wrote, "If Hong Kongers keep making trouble, Chinese and foreign investors will lose confidence, Hong Kong’s status as a free port will fall, and capital will possibly be withdrawn…. It will be like Hong Kong freely handing capital over to Shanghai." A conservative lawyer named Wu Danhong wrote that "those making a stink for no reason are the minority; the majority already understands that Hong Kong isn’t a colony anymore. There’s no market for Hong Kong independence, and no support. Those willing to act as anti-China pawns are shooting themselves in the foot." 

The use of the term "market" — and the invocations of Shanghai, mainland China’s financial capital and its showcase city — aren’t accidental. Hong Kong once used to be the only way for foreigners to invest in China, its famously glistering city lights providing a constant reminder to its dark communist neighbor of the fruits of free trade. Now, its reported GDP is only 74 percent of Shanghai’s, and an August report by a Chinese government-affiliated think tank argued (perhaps self-servingly) that Hong Kong was in danger of becoming a "second-tier" city by 2022. An article posted Aug. 18 to discussion forum Tianya titled "Hong Kong’s problem: It’s the economy, stupid!" cited overcrowding from mainland visitors and rising prices as the root causes of Hong Kong’s discontent. It has been circulated widely as of late. "Eighty percent of those in the lower and middle classes have too hard a time of it, and they are naturally letting their anger out on the Hong Kong and Central governments," wrote the unnamed author.

Anti-protest arguments espousing order, loyalty, and patriotism (or nationalism) are also easy to find. There are the traditional worries, frequently invoked by Beijing, that democracy breeds chaos. One person wrote, "If Hong Kong descends into anarchy, or splits into a few small warring states, no one’s democratic dreams will be realized. If there’s no national framework, then there’s no democracy to speak of." Then there are complaints that allowing Hong Kong to dictate to Beijing would be allowing the tail to wag the dog. A vocal user on the Hong Kong question calling himself "unsilent majority" wrote, "The right to decide the Basic Law is no longer with Hong Kongers. You’d best abide by the law and behave yourself." The "unsilent majority" asked, "Do you have the power to destabilize us? Six million isn’t enough." There are also frequent invocations of patriotism. Noting that one wellspring of dissent is Beijing’s stated requirement that any Chief Executive "love China," one user asked, "Is it so wrong to ask that the Chief Executive love his country? Should there really be a region of China led by someone who doesn’t?" 

Among those many discussing Hong Kong, arguably no one made a bigger splash in Chinese cyberspace than John Ross, a British academic now affiliated with Renmin University of China, a prestigious school in Beijing. Ross wrote on Weibo that Western coverage of the recent protests has been "too hypocritical." (In a sign of the times, the academic then appended an animated, vomiting emoticon.) Ross also wrote, correctly, that during its colonial rule the U.K. had never permitted Hong Kongers to vote for the head of their government. "The system China has set up for Hong Kong is much more democratic," Ross argued. Over 133,000 accounts shared the message, and over 34,000 wrote in; of those comments, most were supportive. 

Ross’s critique was popular in part because he wondered aloud why the United States was expressing support for the protestors. (The White House has stated that the United States "supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the basic law" as well as "the aspirations of the Hong Kong people.") A vocal but not negligible minority genuinely believes that foreign forces are behind recent events. A widely circulating article, originally penned in June and republished Oct. 1 on, a major news portal, ably summarizes the attitude of some Chinese conservatives toward Hong Kong. The accusation-packed piece, called "Who really is the black hand behind Hong Kong independence?" begins, "Recently, gangdu" — Chinese for Hong Kong separatists, who do not appear to actually be a driving force behind the current protests — "have been happily making trouble, and behind it is an America hoping to push [the movement] to its height." It goes on to name a great many bogeymen: Paul Wolfowitz, the National Endowment for Democracy, George Soros, and the CIA. The article accuses the West of making "cultural products" in a "war of ideals" that it then foists on unsuspecting overseas populations. The goal, the article declares, is to then "stimulate Taiwanese independence, Xinjiang independence, and Tibetan independence" to cause "multiple troubles for China, making China unable to pay attention to its great power struggle with the United States."

It is tempting to chalk this fulmination against Hong Kongers and their alleged Western puppet masters to China’s massive censorship apparatus, which makes it difficult (though by no means impossible) to view certain Western mainstream and social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and the New York Times, while scrubbing heterodox content from Chinese social media sites in order to clear room for state-controlled messages. Some of the anti-Western rhetoric is old, and well-worn among regimes beyond China’s. But sentiment toward Hong Kong isn’t fully explained by the fact that state service Xinhua called Occupy Central, one organization behind the demonstrations, a "shame on the rule of law" in an Oct. 1 editorial, or that on the same day, Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily warned of "unimaginable" consequences should protests continue. After an electronic petition to the White House to "support Hong Kong democracy and prevent a second Tiananmen massacre in Hong Kong" garnered over 196,000 signatures, and the White House responded by essentially repeating its talking points, one Weibo user circulated an image of the administration’s reply, since deleted from Weibo by censors. Comments did not evince gratitude that a veil had been lifted; instead, the most up-voted posts mocked the American response. 

The surprisingly harsh rhetoric toward Hong Kongers traces to antipathy that’s been growing for some time. To many in the mainland, the Hong Kong pro-democracy protest looks like an effort to push the mainland away. After all, tensions between the two have been running high for years. Hong Kongers organized en masse against a proposed anti-subversion law in July 2003, then against mainland efforts to install a "moral and national education" curriculum in July 2012. (It’s conventional wisdom that the Hong Kong government, under Beijing’s thumb, cannot and will not budge an inch to protesters’ demands now. But in both previous cases, it eventually caved.)    

And those are just the substantive disagreements. Hong Kongers and mainlanders have traded much more personal barbs as well, in many cases the result of friction between city residents, who number about 7 million, and mainland tourists, who numbered over 40 million in 2013 alone, often overwhelming city resources and leading to frequent run-ins. In January 2012, conservative mainland pundit-professor Kong Qingdong called Hong Kongers "dogs" on an online news show, infuriating the city. Not to be outdone, in February 2012, a spat about subway etiquette metastasized into an unfortunate meme, authored by young Hong Kongers, that likened mainland visitors to locusts. Such tiffs have continued. On April 22, Foreign Policy reported on the ferocious social media fallout after the mainland Chinese parents of a child caught relieving himself on a Hong Kong street got into a videotaped scuffle with angry witnesses. (The article says the child "urinated," although FP‘s beleaguered copy editor received multiple demands that we correct the record to reflect a defecation. FP was unable to dispatch a correspondent to conduct a forensic follow-up.) 

That’s not to say thousands — perhaps millions — of Chinese don’t support Hong Kong protestors, either openly or silently. Public intellectuals have grown fond of writing about Hong Kong in code, often referring to the "Pearl of the Orient," a 1991 song written in praise of Hong Kong, or saying they are "buying an iPhone" as they beam back pictures from protest sites. Some activists have openly stated their support on WeChat using a hashtag that means "holding fast to freedom in the rain." In one comment, later deleted, a Weibo user complained, "A lot of people are saying Hong Kong is having trouble because the economy is declining. This focus on the economy is the mental habit of people used to sitting tight and being slaves." Multiple Oct. 1 posts showed massive crowds packing the downtown district Admiralty on the evening of national day — "what beautiful night scenery," mused one. Those quickly got the axe too. 

But perhaps most frustrating — or foreboding — to supporters of Hong Kong’s universal suffrage movement is just how many Chinese feel removed from the historic events in the city’s business and shopping districts, as protestors camp near buildings as likely to be named Melbourne Plaza and Wheelock House as Yook Ming or Takshing. To most mainlanders, Hong Kong and its eclectic, English- and Cantonese-speaking inhabitants feel very far away. State media carries strident editorials, but they are few; a reader not looking for news about Hong Kong might not find it. And those who do may not care. One Weibo user who describes himself as a "patriot" was almost blasé: "Last time in Hong Kong, I took my child to Disney World. If there’s no Hong Kong" — that is, if Hong Kong is destroyed — "I can take them to the one in Tokyo. Next year, Shanghai will open one. Let Hong Kongers do as they will."

Shujie Leng, Lotus Yuen, and Yun Tang contributed research.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. Twitter: @dwertime

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