I have not followed the protests in Hong Kong in any way closely, but the role of the city in China strikes me as similar to the role played by St. Petersburg in Russia. Both cities (especially Hong Kong) have a somewhat artificial history imposed upon it by the west — though Peter the Great himself imposed the west on St. Petersburg. Both cities lead their respective civilizations in producing western style culture. Neither city has of yet been able to turn their respective civilizations in a more western leaning direction, but perhaps time will tell.
I read a bit of Josephus recently and saw that the Romans got a foothold in Palestine initially because those the rebelled against Antiochus Epiphanes IV and the Seluecid Empire asked for Rome’s aid. Asking for Rome’s aid proved akin to casting out one devil so that seven might take its place. Had the Jews had the chance to read Machiavelli, they might have reconsidered their request. Machiavelli writes concerning such unequal alliances,
And here it is to be noted that a prince ought to take care never to make an alliance with one more powerful than himself for the purpose of attacking others, unless necessity compels him, as is said above; because if he conquers you are at his discretion, and princes ought to avoid as much as possible being at the discretion of any one (The Prince, Ch. XXI).
We need not imagine Rome accepting this alliance ca. 165 B.C. knowing that 200 years later they would raze Jerusalem under Emperor Vespasian. Rather, it seems to be the way of things that stronger powers almost always subsume the weaker when it suddenly becomes “necessary,” or “convenient.”
The question remain then, which is the stronger, the possible tide of westernization creeping into China largely through Hong Kong, or the rising Chinese nationalism along more traditional and authoritarian lines?
The Guardian weighed in with an essay that argues the future lies with China, not Hong Kong:
Much has changed since 1997. The Chinese economy has grown many times, the standard of living of the Chinese likewise. If you want to access the Chinese market nowadays, why move to Hong Kong when you can go straight to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and a host of other major cities? Hong Kong has lost its role as the gateway to China. Where previously Hong Kong was China’s unrivalled financial centre, now it is increasingly dwarfed by Shanghai. Until recently, Hong Kong was by far China’s largest port: now it has been surpassed by Shanghai and Shenzhen, and Guangzhou will shortly overtake it.
Two decades ago westerners comprised the bulk of Hong Kong’s tourists, today mainlanders account for the overwhelming majority, many of them rather more wealthy than most Hong Kong Chinese. Likewise, an increasing number of mainlanders have moved to the territory – which is a growing source of resentment. If China needed Hong Kong in an earlier period, this is no longer nearly as true as it was. On the contrary, without China, Hong Kong would be in deep trouble.
Understandably, many Hong Kong Chinese are struggling to come to terms with these new realities. They are experiencing a crisis of identity and a sense of displacement. They know their future is inextricably bound up with China but that is very different from embracing the fact. Yet there is no alternative: China is the future of Hong Kong.
All these issues, in a most complex way, are being played out in the present arguments over universal suffrage. Hong Kong is divided. About half the population support China’s proposals on universal suffrage, either because they think they are a step forward or because they take the pragmatic view that they will happen anyway. The other half is opposed. A relatively small minority of these have never really accepted Chinese sovereignty. Anson Chan, the former head of the civil service under Chris Patten, and Jimmy Lai, a prominent businessman, fall into this category, and so do some of the Democrats. Then there is a much larger group, among them many students, who oppose Beijing’s plans for more idealistic reasons.
One scenario can be immediately discounted. China will not accept the election of a chief executive hostile to Chinese rule. If the present unrest continues, then a conceivable backstop might be to continue indefinitely with the status quo, which, from the point of view of democratic change, both in Hong Kong and China, would be a retrograde step. More likely is that the Chinese government will persist with its proposals, perhaps with minor concessions, and anticipate that the opposition will slowly abate. This remains the most likely scenario.*
At another point the article explains a basic difference of approach between China and the West:
This proposal should be seen in the context of what was a highly innovative – and, to westerners, completely unfamiliar – constitutional approach by the Chinese. The idea of “one country, two systems” under which Hong Kong would maintain its distinctive legal and political system for 50 years. Hong Kong would, in these respects, remain singularly different from the rest of China, while at the same time being subject to Chinese sovereignty. In contrast, the western view has always embraced the principle of “one country, one system” – as, for example, in German unification. But China is more a civilisation-state than a nation-state: historically it would have been impossible to hold together such a vast country without allowing much greater flexibility. Its thinking – “one civilisation, many systems” – was shaped by its very different history.
The United States for the most part adopts this “one country, one system” approach. In our history it has its roots at least as far back as Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech. So we end slavery, end segregation, and impose homosexual marriage from our more centralized court system, rather than the more diverse state legislatures, based on this principle. It has its pro’s and con’s. But the increasing polarization of the political landscape makes me wonder how long this can continue. We see cracks in our “one system” approach in the drug laws of Colorado which directly contradict Washington. If China takes in Hong Kong successfully (and I agree with the article cited above, I think it will. “Democracy” as an idea doesn’t seem to have the power these days that “China” does), will they model this “one country, two systems” for the world at large successfully? Could this system provide relief for American democratic practice?
*If you read the whole article, one detects an unnecessary amount of British imperial guilt throughout. Maybe England should not have had Hong Kong in the first place, but who would argue that under Mao people in Hong Kong were much better off than those under his control?