I have been totally captivated by the extraordinary events in Hong Kong this past week. Twitter has been my medium of choice, allowing, as it does, real time contact with people on the scene. Here are some thoughts.
Having followed Hong Kong politics intermittently for the past thirty years, I am not at all surprised that at the critical moment the PRC leadership would resist the creation of an electoral system that might allow a party beyond CCP control to gain the Chief Executive position. At the end of the day, Xi and company quite obviously take the maintenance of single party hegemony as their number one task. And they will not let Hong Kong, however remote it may be politically from the PRC, become an example of what might be possible for opposition within the strictures of NPC sovereignty.
I am also not surprised that a politically significant portion of the Hong Kong population would now reject CCP limitation on their right to select the candidate of their choice for CE. Hong Kong is a sophisticated city. People there are used to certain civil and political liberties, and they know very well that the CCP wants to restrict those very things. PRC-instigated efforts to impose a draconian "security law" in 2003 and a more "patriotic" school curriculum in 2012 have only served to heighten anxiety in Hong Kong over a tightening of CCP control. Indeed, the ham-handed efforts of pro-Beijing HK leaders have had quite the opposite effect: contributing to the rise of a distinct "Hong Kong" identity, over and against a "PRC" identity. Here is a summary statement from this year's Hong Kong University Pulbic Opinion Programme poll on ethnic identity:
The survey finds that in terms of absolute rating, the strength rating of “Hongkongers” has significantly increased, that of “Chinese” and “citizens of the PRC” have significantly dropped to their respective record low since 1997 and 2007...
More and more Hong Kong people see themselves as distinct from those they understand as "Chinese" and "citizens of the PRC." And that shift in identity helps us understand the very strong desire for self-determination and self-government demonstrated by the mass protests of the past several days.
My sense is that the identity poll reflects the political or civic aspect of what "Hongkonger" means. Hong Kong people are different from mainland Chinese people because they share a common political life that is freer and more open than that in the PRC. We often think of "Chinese" as simply an expression of a cultural group (which is also problematic, since "Chinese culture" is quite diverse), but in this context I think it has a more of a political connotation because, in fact, Hong Kong is culturally "Chinese" while it is simultaneously politically "Hong Kong." James Palmer gets at this point nicely:
....the truth is that Hong Kong is in many ways more Chinese these days than mainland China. That might be what scares the authorities so much. The shrines and altars that dot Hong Kong speak to the richness of Chinese custom, annihilated between 1949 and 1976 in the mainland...
It is fashionable now for PRC officials, including Xi Jinping, to drape themselves in traditional Chinese cultural rhetoric. They pepper their speeches with references to Confucius, while maintaining a most un-Confucian political regime. They are desperate to keep Hong Kong in line but when they press too hard they reveal their old-school Leninist core, illustrating to people in Hong Kong, who well know what "Chinese culture" is, that they are upholding neither traditional Chinese values nor modern Hong Kong liberties.
The faux-Confucian PRC leadership thus legitimates a genuinely Confucian critique of their actions in Hong Kong. And that critique is aptly provided by Chris Fraser, professor of Chinese philosophy at Hong Kong University. He gave some remarks to the gathered protesters in Admirality on October 1, and he brought Mencius (Mengzi) into the discussion:
How do we know how well a leader is fulfilling his responsibility and maintaining his mandate? For Mengzi, the people do not choose their leaders or run their own government. But public approval or disapproval serves as an indicator, or a gauge, of how well the leadership are doing their jobs.
You might argue that public demonstrations such as this week’s are just the sort of thing Mengzi is talking about. When tens of thousands of people pour into the street day after day in frustration, this is a sign that the leader is failing and his mandate is weak.
When he says that, for Menicus, the "people do not choose their leaders" he is simply making an historical observation: people in ancient China did not choose their leaders. This is not to suggest that Mencius cannot be relevant to modern democracy; quite the contrary, Menicus has been an inspiration to various East Asian democratizers. And one of ways that the old text applies to what is happening in Hong Kong right now, is what Fraser points to: the mere fact of massive public protest is a sign that the leadership - and that means the Beijing leadership - has lost the mandate of the people.
And we can take it one Mencian step further: since the people are the eyes and ears of Heaven, it is plain the regime has not only lost the mandate of the people, but also the mandate of heaven.