Hong Kong: China’s Other

It is over a year since a mass political protest movement broke out in Hong Kong and, for a time, overwhelmed the business and government centres of that Special Administrative Region of China. As repression of the movement and its legacies continues in fits and starts, two scholars, Li Zhiyu and Mark McConaghy, reflect on its significance and introduce us to two thinkers, Xiang Biao 项飙 (Professor in Social Anthropology at Oxford University) and He Zhaotian 贺照田 (a researcher in the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences). Both Xiang and He, who command sizeable mainland readerships, appreciate what, if there really were China dreams, Hong Kong might mean for the Mainland.

Li Zhiyu 李志毓 is based in Beijing and Mark McConaghy in Toronto, both are members of the Reading and Writing the Chinese Dream Project which most recently convened at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Our thanks to Lois Conner for generously supplying some of her work on Hong Kong to illustrate this article. Lois Conner’s work is copyright and for permission to reproduce or copy any of the images below, please contact her at: Lois@loisconner.net  — The Editors

Admiralty from Kowloon. Photograph: Lois Conner

Admiralty from Kowloon. Photograph: Lois Conner


A student-driven popular movement erupted in Hong Kong in the autumn months of 2014. Protesters rallied around a demand for genuine or ‘true electoral democracy’, what was called in Chinese 真普選. The movement challenged and lobbied for the overturning of a fateful resolution passed on 31 August that year by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) regarding the method by which Hong Kong’s next chief executive would be selected.

According to the NPC resolution, two to three acceptable candidates for chief executive would be chosen by a ‘selectorate’, that is a Selection Committee. The membership of the Selection Committee would be generated on the same basis as Hong Kong’s current Elections Committee, a body which consists of 1200 members divided into four ‘sectors’ 界别 representing various commercial, professional, social and religious groups.[1] Successful candidates to be considered for the position of chief executive would have to garner the support of over fifty percent of the Selection Committee. Hong Kong voters would then be free to chose one of this highly select group of pre-ordained and carefully vetted candidates in an ‘election’ to be held in 2017.

Opponents of this August 2014 resolution felt disenfranchised by its stipulations and argued that such an electoral system could not adequately reflect the popular will of Hong Kong people; rather it would favour the interests of the former British colony’s pro-Beijing political camp as well the business elites associated with it. Not surprisingly, opponents of Beijing’s ruling claimed that the requirement that potential candidates first gain support from fifty percent of the Selection Committee was equivalent to having the chief executive decided in advance by a coterie of a mere 1200 people. This was not democracy, they argued, but a perversion of democratic process; it was tantamount to a betrayal of the so-called ‘high-level of autonomy’ vouchsafed to Hong Kong by the Basic Law adopted by Beijing in 1990, and which went into effect on 1 July 1997. As a result, the popular protest movement decried the passing of the 31 August Resolution on Hong Kong’s voting rights as marking ‘the single darkest day’ in the territory’s long struggle for political rights.

The movement to ‘resist Hong Kong’s [non-democratic] fate’ developed when university and middle-school students started boycotting classes in protest against the Beijing Resolution. It rapidly expanded and, at its height, over 100,000 people took part in a seventy-day movement to ‘Occupy Central’ 佔中, that is to occupy peacefully by sheer weight of numbers the area in and around the central business district on Hong Kong Island. Grass-roots opposition activities continue to this day.[2] The movement did not succeed in overturning or even reformulating the 31 August Resolution, nor was it able to get the government to accept citizen-nominations for the 2017 elections. It did, however, generate a wide range of political phenomena of significance, including:

— a powerful sense of solidarity amongst its participants springing from a recognition of Hong Kong’s fate as a self-determining entity;
— a desire to persist in what is a divisive political course of action despite the tremendous difficulties involved in so doing; and,
— a series of critical reflections on Hong Kong’s social life that reveal a spirit of idealism and utopianism.

Such phenomena represent both a local awareness and international appreciation that Hong Kong is not merely a commercial entity in which ‘society doesn’t exist’. The movement has awakened political consciousness in a generation of young people and ensured that they have come of age in a period of participatory mobilisation.

Central, Hong Kong. Photograph: Lois Conner

Central, Hong Kong. Photograph: Lois Conner

The movement has exacerbated the estrangement between Hong Kong and the Mainland. As such, it has generated concern and some public discussion amongst mainland intellectuals. In December 2014, for example, Beijing Cultural Review 文化纵横 published an essay by Xiang Biao 项飙 entitled ‘Rethinking Hong Kong: The Democratic Demands of a Mass Movement and Party Politics’. Xiang appealed both to the government and to the people of China to confront the substantial social and economic problems that had fuelled the movement in Hong Kong, in particular he referred to the extreme social inequalities of the region, the chokehold that financial and real estate moguls have over the economic life of the territory and the lack of opportunity for upward social mobility facing young people there. As Xiang Biao puts it:

These questions have been linked with the problem of ‘democracy’ because many Hong Kong people feel that the Central Government’s rule privileges elites over commoners, that it works to bolster Hong Kong’s real estate and finance capital while furthering social inequality in the process. The slogan ‘A Hong Kong Ruled by Hong Kong People’ 港人治港 is in effect ‘A Hong Kong Ruled by Merchants’ 商人治港. The fact that the recent anti-corruption campaign on the Mainland has revealed that high officials treat Hong Kong as a base to dispose of illegally-gained assets has only further stoked fears that red capital will dominate the region… . Some Hong Kong people believe that if broad-based democracy is not achieved in the region then the Hong Kong government will not set any value on the perspectives of average urbanites or work to change the current situation.[3]

Regarding the impact that the Hong Kong democracy movement may have on Chinese politics as a whole, Xiang Biao argued that:

It would be valuable for the Mainland to look at Hong Kong’s various [socio–political] explorations as an opportunity for political innovation [here at home]. The original impetus of Occupy Admiralty was not unreasonable. If one completely frustrates any hope that the pro-democracy camp has to [participate legally in] politics, you may get the exact opposite of the intended result; namely, you will push them to become ever more radical to the point of being completely uncompromising. Thereafter, they will only be able to pursue a politics of protest, one that will eventually become a politics of resistance… . If the public of Hong Kong does not have confidence in the Central Government’s approved chief executive it will be profoundly problematic. Indeed if, from 2017 onward, many voters boycott the elections as a protest over the voting system itself, Hong Kong politics will face a profound crisis of legitimacy. However, if Hong Kong can find a new form of consultative political democracy, it will be extremely significant for the country as a whole.[4]

Despite the failure of the movement to achieve its basic aims, Xiang Biao offers the opinion that it was not a failure:

The success or failure of any movement cannot be estimated simply by looking at whether or not its original demands were immediately satisfied. If a movement’s specific demands are met but basic economic and social relations do not change, then perhaps that movement is in actual fact a failure. The ‘Arab Spring’ comes to mind. Obversely, if a movement fails to achieve its initial demands that is indeed a preliminary defeat. However, if it can stimulate zeal within a society, transforming thereby the revolutionary mobilisation of one moment into a sustainable social force, then defeat is perhaps, in reality, a victory. The defeat of the 1989 social movement on the Mainland was not simply that it was suppressed, but also due to the fact that it did not form the basis of a positive and sustainable force. In fact, it never even provided any significant intellectual resources [for the future]. Any movement that seeks victory in one bound, and disappears without a trace after its initial flourish, is illusory. The only real and successful movements are the ones that continue to reverberate over time.[5]

Hong Kong Island: Central and Admiralty. Photograph: Lois Conner

Hong Kong Island: Central and Admiralty. Photograph: Lois Conner

The events in Hong Kong encourage comparisons to the student-led Sunflower Movement in Taiwan of March-April 2014 against the ‘Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement’ 海峽兩岸服務貿易協議 that had been negotiated between the Mainland and Taiwanese governments. [See Mark Harrison ‘The Sunflower Movement in Taiwan‘, The China Story Journal,  18 April 2014. — Ed.] The shared characteristics of the two movements — their nativism, separatism and ‘anti-China’ hues — generated a considerable discord among intellectuals and citizens on the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The new historical forces operating in both of these border regions have pushed Chinese intellectuals to ask:

— Why, when China is integrated with the world to an unprecedented extent and economic relations with its neighbours have only grown closer has this generated, not a growing sense of mutual understanding, but a deepening sense of estrangement?
— Why can a rising China, one that considers itself to represent a unique civilisation, not give the people of neighbouring countries and regions a new sense of hope?
— Why is their such a disparity between the understanding that Chinese people have of their country and the way it is perceived internationally? And;
— If Chinese intellectuals are to do more than simply champion national security and power, how can they productively reconsider the role China plays in Asia?

The Beijing-based literary critic He Zhaotian 贺照田 offered another perspective. In the June 2014 issue of Open Era 开放时代 He introduced mainland readers to Ashis Nandy, one of India’s most important social theorists and public intellectuals. Engaging with Nandy’s ideas, He reflected upon the changes that have occurred since the 1990s in how mainland China knows, feels and thinks itself, as well as the way it knows, feels and thinks about the world. He argues that if China truly wants to understand the difficulties and negative responses it has experienced in the international arena in recent years, Chinese intellectuals must produce a multi-directional critique of the nation’s behaviour. First, in relation to the outside world, they must reconsider both the country’s remorseless developmentalism and the logic which underpins it: that the achievement of brute national strength alone will not be enough to earn China respect on the world stage. In relation to domestic affairs, Chinese intellectuals must reconsider the notion of an Harmonious Society, which in reality is used by the party-state to suppress those without rights and to control further public expression.

Central, Hong Kong. Photograph: Lois Conner

Central, Hong Kong. Photograph: Lois Conner

Speaking in 2012 at the Asian Intellectual Circles Shanghai Forum 亚洲思想界上海论坛, Nandy cited the economist Joan Robinson: ‘The only thing more terrible than having been colonised is not having been so.’[6] Though fully cognisant of the fact that Robinson’s words represent a homogenising perspective regarding colonised peoples, and one that Nandy has consistently critiqued, He Zhaotian himself admitted that a literal reading of Robinson’s words still made a tremendous impact on him. They forced him to consider the possibility that it was precisely because China did not have the experience of colonisation that it has been so hard for its intellectuals to understand the modern histories of its neighbours, most importantly those who had experienced, and continue to experience, the cultural, social and psychological consequences of colonialism. This gap in understanding has ensured that Chinese intellectuals have consistently tried to appreciate ‘the Other’ not by recognising it as ‘an Other,’ but by imposing their own sentiments and experiences upon it. When you combine this attitude of mind with the fact that in the last twenty years Mainland understandings of its own ‘Self’ have been extremely narrow, so constrained by a logic of pure economism, it has made it extremely difficult for China to exceed the boundaries of its own cultural frames of reference to truly ‘Consider Others’ 推已及人.[7] In fact, when such attempts at understanding have been made, they have not accorded at all with the sentiments of ‘the Other’, but rather have created even greater discord between the two parties. [One is reminded of the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo’s notorious observation in a 1988 interview in the then British territory that it had taken one hundred years of British colonialism to bring it up to its level of development and that it may well take three hundred years to achieve the same on the Mainland. — Ed.]

Hong Kong and Taiwan are, of course, not outside of the thrall of China, but nor are they completely inside it either. They are China’s ‘internal Others’. This has been particularly so in the case of Hong Kong following its ‘return’ to the Mainland in 1997. He Zhaotian argues that in this critical moment of capitalist globalisation, Chinese society needs to embark upon a new epistemological practice by which it can consider itself and the world anew. As He puts it, only when you take ‘the Other’ as being truly ‘Other’ can you ‘enter into the historical and cultural currents of your counterpart, and from within those currents feel, understand and grasp this counterpart.’[8] He Zhaotian thus urges Chinese intellectuals to consider carefully the intellectual and emotional perspectives of their counterparts. When it comes to the question of Hong Kong, this no doubt entails the need for mainland intellectuals to foster an attitude that regards Hong Kong as an internal ‘Other’, one with its own particular cultural history and political institutions. Most importantly, China cannot simply impose it own historical experience on its neighbours, a behaviour that would effectively destroy their very existence as ‘Others’. Only when China can develop such a complex form of cultural understanding will it be able to understand truly what the terms ‘Win-Win’ and ‘Cooperation’ (terms that Chinese officials employ with such regularity in their discussions of foreign policy) mean for its neighbours.

Both Xiang Biao and He Zhaotian have given voice to a pressing sense of anxiety regarding China’s capitalist transformation and its current role in Asia. Both of their articles discussed here can be interpreted as attempts to articulate a way forward for China, one that takes into account the country’s internal moral and theoretical crises. Both thinkers urge their fellow intellectuals to pay close attention to the structures of knowing and feeling that various Asian societies have developed as a result of their modern experiences of colonialism, experiences which themselves have given rise, and are giving rise, to numerous political impasses with China. This complex reality presents an epistemological challenge to both Chinese intellectuals and to their Asian counterparts as they seek new forms of mutual understanding.

While both He Zhaotian and Xiang Biao may not be noted mainstream voices in contemporary Chinese thought, to say nothing of public opinion on the Mainland, they are asking the country’s intellectuals to grapple with some uncomfortable realities. As such, their work represents an important contribution to the contemporary intellectual scene.

Admiralty, Hong Kong. Photograph: Lous Conner

Admiralty, Hong Kong. Photograph: Lous Conner



* The Chinese title of this text is 正视中国内部的‘他者’. The essay was conceived of and written in Chinese, and translated into English by Mark McConaghy. The authors would like to acknowledge the extensive editorial suggestions of Geremie R Barmé of The China Story Journal and thank him for commissioning this essay.

[1] The 4 sectors of the Election Committee are: 1) industry, commerce and finance; 2) specialised professions; 3) social services, religious and labor groups; and, 4) representatives from regional and national legislative bodies. The four sectors are further subdivided into thirty-eight different ‘subsections’ 界別分組. Thirty-five of the thirty-eight subsections employ corporate elections amongst their members to elect representatives to the committee. Members of the religious subsection are nominated by six designated bodies. Hong Kong deputies to the National People’s Congress (NPC) as well as members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) serve on the committee as ex-officio members. For a breakdown of the current composition of the Elections Committee, see:

[2] ‘Central’ here refers to Hong Kong’s Central District 中環, the main business district on the north shore of Hong Kong Island. Xiang Biao 项飙 notes that at the height of the protests there was also an Occupy Admiralty 佔鐘 movement, which sought to occupy the administrative precinct that lies adjacent to Central. According to Xiang, there were distinct, though at times overlapping, agendas behind these two occupy camps. While Occupy Central was a long-planned protest against the 31 August Resolution, Occupy Admiralty erupted in opposition to the violent tactics initially employed by the Hong Kong authorities in dealing with the protests. Xiang claims it is a distinction lost on most foreign and domestic commentators. See, Xiang Biao 项飙, ‘Rethinking Hong Kong: The Democratic Demands of a Mass Movement and Party Politics’ 反思香港:大众运动中的民主诉求与政党政治, Beijing Cultural Review 文化纵横, no.6 (2014): 38-45.

[3] Xiang, ‘Rethinking Hong Kong’, p.39.

[4] Xiang, ‘Rethinking Hong Kong’, p.42.

[5] This paragraph was not included in the version of Xiang Biao’s article published in Beijing Cultural Review. It can be found in various online versions of his essay. See, for example, Xiang, ‘Rethinking Hong Kong: The Democratic Demands of a Mass Movement and Party Politics’ 反思香港:大众运动中的民主诉求与政党政治, 9 November 2014, online at: http://www.guancha.cn/xiangbiao/2014_11_09_284446.shtml.

[6] He Zhaotian, ‘When China Immerses Itself in the World: Nandy and Chinese History’s Crucial Moment’ 当中国开始深入世界: 南迪与中国历史的关键时刻, Open Era 开放时代, no.3 (2014): 220.

[7] The phrase ‘Consider Others’ 推己及人 is one that He Zhaotian uses extensively in his essay. Finding its philosophical source in The Analects, He claims that it represents an ethical principle that underlines the ‘Win-Win’ discourse of mutual benefit central to China’s foreign policy. He reckons with a basic contradiction: that while Chinese foreign policy is formulated in terms of this self-effacing principle, it has in fact only led to greater tension with its Asian neighbours.

[8] He Zhaotian, ‘When China Immerses Itself in the World’, p.219.