After two months of protest and occupation, is the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement over?
It seems the protests are not going to achieve what they set out to do, let alone pose any threat to the rule of the Chinese Government. Chinese people on the mainland are basically uninterested and generally unsupportive of the Hong Kong protests, and Chinese authorities have vast experience in skilfully dismantling dissent, honed to a fine craft in responding to over 100,000 mass incidents of social unrest each year.
Over the past eight weeks the world has watched, with a gently waning interest, the protesters in Hong Kong, and reflecting on what the demonstrations mean for Hong Kong and mainland China. There is a presumption in the West that the liberal democratic system is the best way a society can operate and that all roads will eventually lead to that shining city. This view underpins an assumption that the Chinese population must be chafing under the current leadership model and waiting for an opportunity to embrace electoral democracy. Early on in the Hong Kong protests, there was talk of a 'contagion effect', in which mainlanders would see what their brethren in the former British colony were striving for, and join the struggle.
This was never very likely.
There is a strong belief in China that while the situation in China is not perfect, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not without fault, things are better than they have been in a long time (see this Eric Li Ted Talk). The general view is that only the CCP could have brought China out of the century of humiliation (beginning with the Opium Wars in the 1840s) and built the country back up to where it is today. And it is only the CCP that can steer China forwards into a future that sees it restored to its former position of dignity and grandeur.
These views of China and its relationship with the world are based on a powerful web of understandings constructed and perpetuated across every aspect of society, including through the patriotic education campaign introduced after the Tiananmen incident of 1989.
While I was studying in China, a fellow foreign student asked our young language teacher what she knew about Tiananmen. Our teacher replied that she had heard a few stories, but did not know any detail. The foreign student gave her some readings he had brought with him, setting out the events of June 1989. Our teacher's first response was to ask where he had got this information, and whether he was sure it was reliable – she did not see how it could possibly be true. A week later the foreign student asked our teacher if she had finished the article, and what she thought. He evidently expected her to be shocked and dismayed, but our teacher told us the article seemed a bit long and overcomplicated, and she hadn't really got around to finishing it. She was not faking a lack of interest; the information just did not fit at all with her understanding of how the world worked.
This kind of indifferent response by Chinese friends to what Westerners presume will be life-changing material is not unusual. In 2012 I was at the US Embassy in Beijing counting down to the announcement of the next US president. The Embassy had invited some Chinese officials to attend and to observe how 'real democracy' works. Chatting to these officials during the evening, I found that rather than being impressed, they were perplexed about the confusion and big spending that went into choosing a leader.
The belief that 'Western-style democracy' is inappropriate for China is as powerful there as the belief in the West that liberal democracy is the best model for a fair society.
Of course there are Chinese people who question and criticise what is happening around them. Petitioners come from the provinces to beg Beijing to intercede in local injustices. They are angry about corruption, unfair real estate deals, enforced child control, environmental degradation, and other issues. It is difficult to calculate how many 'mass incidents' occur in China as the Government does not release figures. Chinese academics reported in 2012 that annual incidents now regularly exceed 100,000. However the Chinese Government is practiced at dealing with these incidents and uses a variety of sophisticated mechanisms, tailored precisely to the individual and situation, to dispel discontent. As Perry and Selden point out in their book Chinese Society, the Chinese state has repeatedly shown its sophistication in quashing attempts to expand resistance beyond isolated cases. They argue that the forces for maintaining stability and order have grown alongside China's modernisation, urbanisation, internationalisation and new prosperity.
This is what we are seeing now in Hong Kong. The early over-enthusiasm by police, when they used tear gas, has not been repeated. Instead, authorities have played a long waiting game which protesters could never really win. Although there have been violent scuffles over the past few days as police moved in to take down barricades at protest sites, it remains to be seen whether the arrest of the young student leaders Joshua Wong and Lester Shum will take the wind out of the sails of resistance, or whether they will be replaced by new leadership advocating further protest.
It is a tempting but unrealistic presumption that protests in Hong Kong will catch on across China. The firmly entrenched beliefs of mainland Chinese people about how Chinese society and the state should operate are just as true and right to them as ours are to us. The combination of a strong and coherent set of values with a capable and highly-skilled state will ensure that they remain prevalent for some time to come.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Pasu Au Yeung.