The Water Is Wide

Ariel Li

Occupy Central is a milestone in relations between Hong Kong and mainland China. For the first time since the return to sovereignty in 1997, the guiding principle of “One Country, Two Systems” is in real jeopardy.

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Sham Chun River, the natural border between Hong Kong and mainland China, is only thirty to forty meters wide at most parts. Half a century ago, despite the barbed wires and vigilant police on the receiving end, thousands of mainland Chinese managed to swim across this river. Today more than forty million mainland tourists cross it every year to visit Hong Kong, yet the gap between the two regions seems wider than ever. Not only are many Hong Kong citizens threatened by the rising of China as a superpower, Chinese people are also struggling to re-position their fellow compatriots, who are (as translated literally from the official language) “their siblings that have returned to the embrace of their motherland.” Though it’s too soon to assess the lasting impact of recent protests, Occupy Central is certainly a milestone in mainland-Hong Kong relations. There were always frictions and conflicts since the return to sovereignty in 1997, but this time the guiding principle of “One Country, Two Systems” is in real jeopardy.

On the Hong Kong side, amending the Basic Law to further constitutional reform and reserve more autonomy for the Special Administrative Region was put on the agenda by the main group of the Occupy movement, the Hong Kong Federation of Students. Ironically this group is now accused of being too conservative and pro-Beijing, and joint signatures are being collected in several universities to withdraw from HKFS. In February 2015, the University of Hong Kong quit the organization based on a campus-wide referendum.

On the other side of the story is Beijing. Officials were unequivocally opposed to any changes to the idea that “One Country” is the premise and foundation of “Two Systems” and firmly denied the protesters’ appeal for elections that “complied with international standards.” But ordinary Chinese people were also opposed to – if not hostile toward – this political movement in Hong Kong that might as well be the chance for democratization in mainland China.

The conflict between Hong Kong and mainland China has a long and complicated history, and it is beyond the scope of this article to analyze it. Here I simply want to share my experiences as a young Chinese person of life and education both within and outside of mainland China. The same mechanisms that make me—and many Chinese with similar life experiences—feel alienated and frustrated with people in mainland China when trying to engage in rational conversation, may also play a part in Hong Kong people’s reluctance to communicate with mainland Chinese. This is where Occupy Central matters: It has not just exposed a rift in opinion between Hong Kongers and mainlanders, but has also brought to light a fundamental disconnect in the worldviews and values of the two sides—one more idealist, the other more pragmatist.

On 31 August 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the main Chinese legislative body, issued a decision that denied full universal suffrage to Hong Kong and instead instituted a system whereby people could vote only for candidates that had been approved by a nominating committee. In the four months between the decision and the end of the Occupy movement, several hardline anti-Occupy articles were feverishly circulated among Chinese Internet users, who comprise of almost half of the whole population and vast majority of educated young people in China. In an article titled “Eight Questions for Our Son Hong Kong”, the writer compared Hong Kong, China, and the UK as a child, a birth-mother, and a step-mother, and asked Hong Kongers why they were so ungrateful to their birth-mother’s selfless support and preferential treatments. The analogy might be misleading at best, but readers seemed to be convinced. I have personally seen dozens of friends posting this article on their WeChat Moments (a Chinese instant communication App) and on Weibo (the Chinese Twitter). During the annual Spring Festival, two colleagues of my parents – ordinary company workers from my hometown, a third-tier small city in northeastern China – also asked me if I had read the article and wanted to know why the “servile Hong Kong people” – to quote from the article – “were so ungrateful.”

Not all mainland Chinese I encountered leveled direct accusations against Hong Kong. Another group instead presented themselves as objective, neutral and insightful analysts who painstakingly tried to reveal the “real problem” to Hong Kong’s short-sighted and misguided people. As one author claimed in an article with the famous headline “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”, the prosperity of Hong Kong in the late 20th century should be seen as the result of the temporary lack of communication between China and the West. As China opens up, this author argued, the advantages and opportunities that Hong Kong has enjoyed will disappear. Hong Kong will keep declining unless it decides to clear its head and rely on mainland China.

The anonymous author suggested that rapprochement between Hong Kong and Beijing is the “only way out”, but that is cannot be accomplished under the current Hong Kong government, which is “much too manipulated by blind popular opinions”. Since Hong Kongers rejected Beijing’s kindness, “the future is dim” and “the good days for Hong Kong are numbered.”

The term “dead end” also appeared in another popular article, whose author ridiculed Hong Kongers’ empty pride: “As they’re losing the economic game to mainland, they talk about rule of law. In a recent film Z Storm, Louis Koo said Hong Kong is a society with rule of law, and the sense of superiority is so evident – that film is made only to get the mainlanders jealous of them.” According to the author, Hong Kongers must realize their dependence on China before things get ugly with “their birth mother”, or “we may as well let the mad dogs such as Raymond Wong and Jimmy Lai [both Hong Kong democrats] lead Hong Kongers to their future. It is a dead end anyway.”

The scope and spread of such articles, together with comments that ranged from conspiratorial ones (“the unrest is manipulated by foreign powers but the ordinary innocent Hong Kong people will suffer in the end”), to genuinely confused ones (“we already granted them universal suffrage, what kind of democracy are they asking for beyond that?”), to vicious ones (“Hong Kongers are the kind of people who have to eat shit to realize that it isn’t edible”), sketches out an image of Hong Kong that is shared by a large number of ordinary mainland Chinese: Hong Kongers are ungrateful to their patron but servile to their colonizers; they possess a groundless sense of superiority over the Chinese; they are stupid to not see their real problem and true interests; they are irrational and commit crimes (i.e. the Occupy Central movement) to vent frustration that stems from economic failure. In most forums, there is never a discussion about what mainland China or the Party could be doing wrong.

China does not have any official opinion polls or any systematic way of gauging political opinion, so it’s hard to know how widespread these views are. Refutations have appeared online, although they seem to be significantly less popular in China than anti-Hong Kong content. Educated Chinese might recognize the absurdity and extremity of the stereotypes more easily – China’s “Great Firewall” of Internet censorship is well known, and many educated people expend much time and effort installing VPNs in order to get external information directly, with the hope of knowing the truth as much as possible –, but they often abstain from online debates. But many mainlanders with study or work experience in Hong Kong (I am one of them) believe that they understand Hong Kong people and the Occupy movement better than ordinary Chinese, and find it hard to avoid confrontations with mainlanders who only want to accuse or rebuke Hong Kongers.

Often we simply chose to “unfriend” these people. “Unfriending” someone on social network sites is not merely ridding one’s timeline of irritating information but in many cases ends a relationship that had existed offline as well as online. In these situations “unfriending” literally means stop being friends anymore. Usually the closer you once were to this person, the more upset you feel about his/her opinions, and the more resolute the break-up is.

Why is it that many young Chinese who have lived in Hong Kong suddenly feel that it is impossible to communicate with their old friends? One possible cause might be the information gap between them and their friends who live on different sides of the “Great Wall” that is strictly maintained by the government. The channels for mainland Chinese to learn about the political event are extremely limited: During the Occupy movement, the mainstream media in mainland China spoke in a unified voice online and in print, citing in full length from the op-eds in the party mouthpiece People’s Daily, which published 19 articles on Occupy Central over seven consecutive days. The articles featured familiar arguments:

“Disturbance in a region reflects the decline of its overall competitiveness, and if some city frets over detailed matters and remains stagnant while others are striving to move forward, that city is bound to fall behind.”

“Occupy Central is manipulated by foreign powers.”

“The protesters are those who maintain a mindset of colonial subjects despite the democratization and prosperity brought by the return of China, and their hopeless fight against the tide of history will eventually be abandoned by history.”

“Occupy Central has already seriously harmed the vitality of economic development in Hong Kong by lowering investors’ confidence and tourists’ willingness to visit the region.”

But the economic assessment is plain wrong: International credit rating institutions like Fitch and Moody’s have kept the rating for Hong Kong at AA level, while the number of visitors from mainland to Hong Kong in the fall of 2014 increased by 15.6 percent compared to the previous year. The total number of visitors increased by 11.4 percent. But while a majority of young Chinese nowadays are skeptical of state-controlled media, these official voices still set the tone for online discussion.

Worse still, other voices were simply blocked out. During Occupy Central, WeChat users in Hong Kong found their postings on WeChat Moments inaccessible from mainland China. The screening of messages was not limited to the Occupy movement, but also included everyday life events. Many speculated that the government had implemented a total shield on information by users located in Hong Kong. Similar things happened on Weibo, where many pro-Occupy postings could only be seen by the users’ followers but could not be commented or forwarded, while other information simply got deleted. Moreover, Instagram, one of the few overseas social networks that used to be accessible from mainland China, had its domain blocked from the second day of the occupation. These tough measures made it extremely difficult for ordinary Chinese people to get the facts about the movement. To this day, many Chinese sincerely believe that the Occupy movement was a riot planned and launched by separatists and sponsored by foreign powers – just as the unreliable but only accessible source of information told them.

However, the cognitive bias of the crowd as a result of the single information channel is not the biggest problem. More worrying is the opinion of the elite, who have access to relatively objective and full information thanks to the use of VPN bypasses (known in China as “climbing over the wall”). If they, too, see Occupy Central as a separatist and foreign-inspired riot, the party propaganda has succeeded.

I often hear Chinese students overseas complain, “I just can’t talk sense to them [friends in mainland] anymore.” Regrettably, the mainlander may feel the same. Many young Chinese with cross-border conversation might find the following dialogue painfully real: It’s composed of bits and pieces from conversations I had with friends from mainland China, as well as from the frustrated complaints many of my friends.

B, a student in mainland China: Here’s an interesting article (like the previously mentioned “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”), what do you think about it?

A, a student from mainland China who now lives in Hong Kong: It has been forwarded to me a lot of times. There certainly are structural problems with the economy in Hong Kong, but it is too extreme to attribute the cause of this movement solely to the economy. After All, Beijing did break its promise of a democratically elected Chief Executive, some people may find that aggravating.

B: They think they’re angry with Beijing’s decision, but in fact they’re just picking it as a target for their frustration toward economic decay. They really shouldn’t go after Beijing. What they should do is to bring down the oligarchy of the big capitalists, they are the culprit of the miserable situation of Hong Kongers.

A: “Miserable” is too much, I guess. For one thing, they don’t need to take trains to someplace just to buy a couple boxes of baby formula because of the food safety issues… and you don’t see their postings deleted or Facebook blocked?

B: Hey! What is that supposed to mean? You do have “freedom of speech” there, but most of the times it’s all kinds of crap – democracy and stuff. How’s democracy gonna help them in Hong Kong? Even if the democrats could be nominated, or were elected, they’d still be bought off by the big capitalists. Hong Kong people just don’t see it.

A: But no one claims that democracy alone will make everything better! What I meant was that the institutional reform is a quite important safeguard of liberty and rule of law. Those things are dear to Hong Kong people.

B: Nonsense! Let’s just see whether they still talk the big talk when they can’t stop the economy from declining.

A: How come you are so determined that Hong Kong’s economy is going down? And even if it is, what’s wrong with people asking for democracy for the intrinsic values it embodies: political freedom and the idea that every voice matters, things like that?

B: You’re such a dork with all your big theories. You really should get out of the university and see how things really work. Beijing is waiting for the politicians to take sides, once the situation clears up they’ll do their stuff. Innocent young people like you should not meddle in it.

A: Please… you can’t possibly buy that, you know it’s just conspiracy theories.

B: You don’t know if it’s true. How can you ever know what’s true and what’s not. Haven’t you ever considered that you’re being used by politicians for their own purposes? What if they’re really working for the US? Are you so arrogant with your “universal values” that you won’t admit that those values could be wrong? We may someday find that freedom, or equality, or humanity, are as illusory as God and socialism have proved to be.

A: I don’t even know how to respond to that.

At this point, the conversation will probably stop,  and A will probably unfriend B.

Where does the lack of understanding come from? I’ve come to see the problem as the conflict between a worldview that is primarily instrumental and one that allows for norms and values. Although the research is more than two decades old, I believe that the findings of Sing Lau are still applicable in this situation. According to his research, despite the general perception of Chinese society as “collectivistic,” surveys and experiments have shown a heavy emphasis on individualism, much more so in the mainland than in Hong Kong or Singapore. As Lau wrote, “mainland Chinese… preferred the personal-extrinsic and competency values, [while] Hong Kong and Singapore Chinese indicated greater preference for the personal-intrinsic and moral values.” Mainland Chinese also expressed a stronger belief in external forces of control, and argued that they could not control everything in their lives. This is demonstrated very clearly in the attitudes of mainland Chinese towards politics in China or Hong Kong, and to people in Hong Kong it can seem either pessimistic or arrogant.

Westerners sometimes accuse Chinese of being “brainwashed”, thinking that millions of Chinese students trust their textbooks about communism – but in my experience, almost no one does. Years of education in politics and history do not turn Chinese people into committed communists who believe in the superiority and progressiveness of the Communist Party. On the contrary, most students learn to write the standard answers to questions just to get ahead in college, and talk in proper language in public while they are really occupied making personal gains. The repercussions of ceaseless political propaganda are driven to the other extreme, and in many young Chinese I see a profound cynical attitude toward politics (for a glimpse into Chinese political attitudes, one need look no further than the vitriolic condemnations of government officials by “netizens”).[1] Fed up with moral education, they develop an instrumental worldview explaining everything with interest calculation and view those who advocate values with suspicion. Tired of taking sides, they frequently renounce personal judgment altogether and ridicule those who still believe they can tell right from wrong. Frustrated with empty grand promises, they choose to rely only on themselves and give up the hope of a better society altogether.

Many mainlanders believe this to be the clever way – if not the only way – of life. They are so disillusioned with grand claims to justice and the good life (thanks, in part, to a turbulent 20th century) that they descend into the other extreme: into nihilism. Perhaps that’s the exact purpose of Communist propaganda: “Totalitarian education has never sought to instill convictions in the masses, but to eliminate the capacity to form any,” argued Hannah Arendt.[2] When the Chinese woke up from the dream of “emancipating all mankind”, the enormous sacrifices they had made seemed like a black comedy.

While this is obviously a generalization, the politically pessimistic attitudes of mainland Chinese have captured the attention of many sociological scholars.[3] The conscious pursuit of a meaningful live is abandoned alongside ideas about historical progress. It doesn’t matter whether one can – or even should – live in a just, virtuous, honorable way; the goal is only to live another day. Chinese nihilism is characterized by a deep relativism regarding values and ethics, and even the central government’s propaganda denies the existence of universal values). In the competition for better living conditions, the sole principles are the rules of the jungle: Power – economic power, administrative power, discursive power, interpersonal power – and the purposive-rationality to secure and expand such power, become the only concerns. Of course a discourse of democracy and the idea of equality and human rights don’t make sense to people living like this: It doesn’t bring them anything, so why would anybody strive for it?

Is there a way out? As a sociology student I tend to pin my hope on the development of civil society, which is still constrained by the cultural and social situation in China. As a mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong, much of the time I’m frustrated by the deep rift between the two regions, which seem to be widening still. With the failure of Occupy Central, the Hong Kong democrats and ordinary citizens who were inspired by the movement will need to find their places in dispersed resistance. Many young people are also being pushed toward more drastic forms of protest, or even become violent populists – which is reflected in the recent series of incidents of verbal abuse and physical assault of people who smuggle goods to Shenzhen for profit. The road towards consensus between the two regions will remain rough for the foreseeable future.


Ariel Li is a master student in sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. After moving from Northeastern China to study in Hong Kong, she became involved in civil society activism in her later years of college. Having shaved her head recently in support of OCLP, she is feeling cool and invites you to reflect upon HK pro-democracy movements.


References and Footnotes

  1. O’Brien, Robert D. 2009. “How China’s Angry Youth Use the Internet to Magnify Their Voices and Impact International Relations.” China Elections and Governance 3: 30-39.
  2. Arendt, Hannah. 1973. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt. p. 468.
  3. For one example, see Whyte, Martin. 2010. Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of inequality and distributive injustice in contemporary China. Sanford: Stanford University Press.