If one read the news or listened to coverage of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong one could readily imagine that Hong Kong demonstrators were fighting to maintain their right of universal suffrage long held during the many years Hong Kong was a British colony. The debate is portrayed as a simple one. Students are fighting to maintain their right to elect the Hong Kong executive through universal suffrage while Communist China is seeking to impose an election restricted to a choice between candidates selected by Beijing–an election in name only.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As a British Colony Hong Kong had no general elections. The governor and for most of the colonial era, the governing legislative council was appointed by the Crown. Only briefly during an era after which return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 was agreed to, did the governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, introduce reforms that made a majority of his Legislative Council elected officials. After the 1997 return to China, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive was elected by a Selection Committee who were themselves elected from professional sectors and pro-Chinese business in Hong Kong.
What is under debate is a process for moving Hong Kong to “universal suffrage” by 2017. This debate has been ongoing since Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 and there are a variety of approaches taken by various interest groups which result in differing degrees of universal suffrage. At on extreme is Beijing’s proposal that they somehow select candidates from which the citizens of Hong Kong choose. At the other extreme is the Pro-democracy demonstrators who wish that anyone in Hong Kong, meeting basic qualifications be able to run for office. In many respects the pro-democracy demonstrators are closer to those in Tienanmen in 1989 than they are to traditional Western notions of democratic processes. It is not necessary for us to go into the details of the various proposals here. But a clearer understanding of the issues at stake that make clear that pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong may be more threatening to Beijing than those in 1989 come from discussion of broader Chinese culture.
As important as Beijing is politically, Hong Kong and its surrounding regions are the economic juggernaut driving much of China’s economy. Diverse demonstrations in many Chinese cities in 1989 while disrupting could not destroy the economy as a shutdown in Hong Kong could. One-third of China’s direct foreign investment flows through Hong Kong. A shutdown of Hong Kong’s economy could be devastating. That China is not a monolithic culture is perhaps even more significant. China is a cultural hodge podge of “insiders” and “outsiders”. One has obligations to the “insiders” of ones community and region in comparison to the “outsiders” who are not culturally local.
One way insiders and outsiders are defined is by dialect. While everyone reads the same Chinese, community is defined by oral communication. China has many dialects where oral communication in one community cannot be understood in neighboring communities. For most of China, Mandarin, the dialect around Beijing, remains the formal language of the educated elites and business. However, Cantonese, a formal version of the Yue dialect is an official language of Hong Kong and, along with English, is used as the language of business and law in Hong Kong. Mandarin, and by implication, Beijing, are outsiders.
As the above map indicates, Beijing will be viewed as an outsider by much of South China. The 1989 Tienanmen pro-democracy demonstrations appeared as insiders protesting against insiders. But Beijing, as an outsider in South China will find a pro-democracy movement focused in Hong Kong will raise broader cultural issues that many might view as an empire imposing its will on a peripheral subject. South China cultures which also see Beijing as “outsider” could potentially realign their allegiance in ways that the 1989 pro-democracy movement could not create. However, Hong Kong will be even more distinctively outside Beijing’s cultural realm in that Hong Kong, unlike it’s mainland Cantonese speaking compatriots, has not adopted the short form of written Chinese that mainland China developed in 1954. Hong Kong’s written documents use the traditional long form Chinese still in use in Taiwan and a majority of “overseas” Chinese. Culturally in both their oral and written communications, Hong Kong and Beijing will view the other has outsiders.
Hong Kong as economic influence in South China. It also has cultural commonality with mainland China on its borders and a substantial region between it and Beijing that culturally might remain at worst indifferent to a struggle for democracy or “local interests” versus national interests. We might see future cultural battles dealing with the use of short form versus long form written Chinese as Beijing might seek to further standardize Hong Kong Culture. We may also see an effort from Beijing to impose traditional Mandarin combined with short form written Chinese on Hong Kong’s education system. The cultural dynamics of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement will be interesting to watch.