In Hong Kong, a Shallow Blog of Reconciliation Has Deep Implications

Fanshuike

(Image Courtesy of Apple Daily)

“Do Hong Kong people detest all mainlanders? No! Basically, we resent those whom our mainland brothers also resent: the ‘rich rednecks’(土豪), who are loud everywhere they go, have no taste, and are bad-mannered and self-centered.”

This is a quote from a widely read post on WeChat this week which is supposedly written by a Hong Kong author. The post is a response to an earlier incident that has once again rattled the cyberspace in both Hong Kong and mainland China.

On Mar 9, video footage of an act of aggression against innocent passers-by in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong, started to spread on social media. In the video, a group of Hong Kong youngsters, some of them masked, were shown bullying a woman and her little daughter from mainland China, whom they considered “parallel traders.” The little girl was terribly scared while her mother angrily quarreled with the offenders. There are also reports about the same group of bullies going after an old man who later turned out to be a native.

This is just another episode of the ominous drama that has been unfolding in front of the eyes of this country in recent years, from the milk powder frenzy to ugly confrontations at popular shopping locations, where Hong Kong nativists harassed shoppers from mainland China with abusive languages such as “locusts”. Even though many incidents look trivial in the details (some of them concern individual mainlanders’ etiquette in public space), when amplified by print and social media, the collective effect is a rapid alienation of the two communities (mainland and Hong Kong) from each other.

New incidents like the one on Mar 9 only rubs salt in the old wound. Not surprisingly, the Chinese cyberspace is filled with vitriolic comments and abuses that do not deserve much analysis. What interest me more are the spontaneous attempts at reconciliation on social media, which are different from the official posturing and clumsy off-line efforts. Some of such attempts use the usual tactic of distancing the “mainstream Hong Kong society” from the obvious act of extreme, showing evidence that the majority of the Hong Kong public condemns such behaviors. Even though it might be true in this particular case, it has limited effect on mainland Chinese netizens who have long associated the perceived hostility with the Hong Kong society as a whole. Some liberal commentators on Weibo tried to discount the mainlanders’ indignation by challenging them about their reactions to atrocities within the mainland. But such a provocative stance only further agitates those who are rightly offended.

This is when the aforementioned WeChat post appeared. To turn around a prevailing mood of mutual resentment, the author makes use of a story that happened almost in parallel with the bullying incident: a mainland laborer in transit from Singapore was stranded at Hong Kong International Airport after he missed his next flight. The man was so hungry that he pulled out an electric rice cooker from his luggage to cook meal in the middle of the airport. But instead of scolding him for “bad manners”, the local people extended helping hands to him after learning of his misfortune. Building on such a show of goodwill by the Hong Kong public, the author tries to strike a tone of reconciliation by invoking a vague sense of “class solidarity” as is shown by the quote at the beginning. By explaining the resentment in such terms, the author seems to be appealing to a sentiment on the mainland (a general loathing toward the newly rich) that he believes cuts across the Hong Kong/mainland divide. What the post also does, though, is throwing the entire Occupy movement under the bus in order to appease the uneasy mainlanders (“Most of Hong Kong people don’t care about politics. Only a tiny bunch of them gets ‘high’ with such things — and they had all shown up at last year’s Occupy Central activities.”).

If this vague invocation of “class solidarity” is more of a superficial show of goodwill to deflect tension, what it does highlight is the overall absence of such “value outreach” in Hong Kong’s social movements for the past few years.

Actually there have been serious arguments for the Occupy movement to proactively tap into the prevailing moods on the mainland to advance its objectives. In the middle of the intense stand-off last year, author and fellow blogger Joe Studwell wrote on the Financial Times that the movement should try to “resonate with (President Xi Jinping)’s mindset” instead of backing him into a corner. To do so, he argues that the movement should turn its focus to Hong Kong’s “tycoon economy” and the cartels that have been ripping off the ordinary people and strangling competition. He implies that China’s top leader, with his own anti-monopoly sentiments, might be more sympathetic to such a line of campaigning.

I’m not sure if Xi really cares that much about monopoly in Hong Kong. And it is probably too risky for a whole movement to play into the mindset of a single person. Nonetheless, the argument is still refreshing in the sense that it is one of the very few that have stressed the importance for the Hong Kong social movement to connect with the “zeitgeist” on the mainland. But what makes this argument unique also underlines the ironic truth that it is probably very far from a shared idea among the movement’s leaders. The consequence is a missed opportunity in creating real resonance between the two societies that could have made the movement much more politically potent for those in power.

In her in-depth piece tracing the intellectual evolution of both Taiwan’s Sunflower movement and Hong Kong’s Occupy movement, commentator Zhang Jieping recounts how, over the course of time, a set of complex forces re-shaping both societies’ socio-economic orders get reduced to a simplistic, politically charged concept of the threatening “China factors.” And by over-emphasizing the “China factors” in a multi-facet movement that is as much about resisting the erosion of local  governance systems as about fighting an unjust domestic economic order, activists run the risk of alienating a constituency that could have proved helpful for their struggles, as authorities in China increasingly need to accommodate public opinion in decision making. That might be the price of lumping individual milk powder shoppers together with power-wielding oligarchs.

Throughout the Occupy movement that garnered the entire world’s attention, public opinion on the mainland was distinctively characterized by a deep “antipathy” if not outright hostility. Even if much of it can be attributed to the heavy censorship and biased coverage by mainstream Chinese media, it is still disheartening to see the movement failing big in relating to an audience that had been equally disgruntled by political corruption, economic inequality and social injustices.

As the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has reminded the Hong Kong students, “Without economic rights, without social justice and solidarity, a ballot is merely a fetish.” Even if class solidarity might be just a myth, a value-based alliance is still worth exploring for those who truly care about the future of both societies. At least some mainland netizens are making efforts in this direction.

 

 

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