Sunday, 12 October 2014

HONG KONG AND THE HOLLOWNESS OF THE CHINESE DREAM


When the Hong Kong protests first began, I regarded the whole thing with impartial interest. As a foreigner, it was an entirely Chinese affair. However, like most major political events in our heavily globalized world, the protests are not just isolated events; they have implications for other parts of the world as well. This is particularly true for the Hong Kong protests, since they can be interpreted in several different ways.

From an ideological standpoint, the protests can, of course, be interpreted as the metapolitical struggle between Maoist Nationalism/State Totalitarianism and Western Liberalism, wherein Hong Kong protesters champion the cause of Liberalism over the Maoist Nationalism of the PRC. Another possible interpretation is to look at the protests as the battle between Localism/Federalism and State Centralization, wherein Hong Kong protestors fight not only to maintain the political structures bequeathed to them by the British Empire, but also to protect their own unique local culture, which evolved separately from Mainland China during their time under British colonial rule. Finally, a third interpretation is to look at Hong Kong as a proxy for American or Western interests, and therefore an indirect affront to Chinese power in their own backyard.

Possible US influence.
Although such interpretations are indeed quite valid, it’s also important to consider the recent protests within the lense of China’s hopes and aspirations as a modern state, because, make no mistake, beyond the obvious political and metapolitical implications of these protests, lies a lot of pent up emotion. Hong Kong’s protests can be conceived not only as a protest against the PRC, but also a protest against how most Chinese live on the Mainland. In short, the protests can be interpreted as a rejection of China’s hopes and dreams, and indeed its whole raison d'être.

These hopes and aspirations have a name: Zhōngguó mèng or The Chinese Dream. General Secretary Xi Jinping has described this dream as "national rejuvenation, improvement of people’s livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society, and military strengthening.” So, in other words, what everyone else in the world wants.

As one of the largest and most well known cities in China, Hong Kong is a very important symbol for Chinese modernization, and acts as sort of icon for the whole world of what China could become. However when one of the symbols of your hopes and dreams starts telling you that you suck, and that you are acting like an ass, well, that’s sure to rustle a few jimmies.

Hong Kong’s reputation as a major commercial and tourist center is well known to a lot of people and the fact that such protests even exist proves that there are sensitive fault lines all over China. Hong Kong’s recent defiance creates the possibility of support protests in other parts of the mainland, not only from pro-democracy groups, but also from ethnic minorities, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang, where secessionist groups and movements are already quite strong.

The bottom line here is that modernity and endless economic growth is fragile, and nothing says fragility than a group of people protesting about some sensitive issue. I think that most Chinese know this, even if this knowledge exists only on an emotional level. Whether it’s secession, a slowing growth rate, an environmental crisis, an aging demographic, a looming banking crisis, domestic terrorists, or a large group of protesters, the fact remains that modern growth is not as strong as most people want it to be. This is why people enjoy talking about sustainable development whenever social or economic news come up. Modernity, whether described as the American Dream, sustainable development, Zhōngguó mèng or globalization, remains a very fragile thing.

The Chinese Dream or the Chinese nightmare?
Most rich, developing countries shield themselves and their populations from this reality by constructing massive building projects. These projects help to project not only economic power on the world stage, but also help to remove the fear that growth is no longer viable. Projects, like ridiculously gigantic shopping malls, artificial islands in the middle of a desert, or overpriced skyscrapers are symbols of grandeur for countries that wish to impress upon their muttering masses that everything is going according to plan. These totemic symbols are supposed to serve as proof of that.

However, such positive symbols of progress can suddenly become negative ones. Large skyscrapers may seem like impressive emblems of progress, but when those very same skyscrapers are surrounded by angry mobs they can suddenly become symbols of spiritual bankruptcy.

There was nothing overtly revolutionary about the Hong Kong protests. The protesters merely fought to bring back the status quo, which was to allow Hong Kong to exercise a certain degree of autonomy with regards to the election of their officials. However, like the greatest political acts, such protests have symbolic repercussions which go far beyond their intended goal. In this case, it reminded China, and perhaps most of the developing world, that the modern dream is nothing more than a dead end.

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