Hong Kong in Chinese

A protester sleeps under an umbrella as she blocks a street outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong“Hong Kong people! Hong Kong people!” shouted tens of thousands of Occupy Central demonstrators on the streets of downtown Hong Kong as they braved police pepper spray and tear gas this weekend. So simple and self-evident, the slogan gets to the heart of the matter, because beyond the immediate causes of contention are the much larger existential issues of who gets to define just exactly what it means to be part of China, and to be Chinese.

Hong Kong, normally the most civil and efficient of cities, has been swept by an enormous wave of characteristically polite and peaceful protest directed against the Beijing-leaning government’s dilution of long-promised reforms. These would have allowed direct election of the chief executive, under the much touted but perhaps never well understood “One Country; Two Systems” formula.

RTR480EE.jpgIt was never going to be easy, to have one country where there is still a border dividing the two sides, separate currencies, cars driving on opposite sides of the road, and mutually incomprehensible languages; let alone competing political systems with vastly different ideas of citizenship, rule of law, and transparency.

China is a one-party state; Hong Kong has many political parties, all operating freely. China has the Great Firewall that just now has blocked Instagram, fearing people on the mainland would see the protests; Hong Kong has open Internet. These and countless other contrasts may outweigh — perhaps far outweigh — the shared cultural heritage and economic prosperity that bind these two Chinas together.

For 150 years, Hong Kong was a British colony. Especially during the Cold War, it felt like that would be the case forever. But Hong Kong was first occupied during the gunboat imperialism of the 19th century Opium Wars, so even fervently anti-Communist and Westernized Chinese always felt great ambivalence towards the British: gratitude and admiration terribly tempered by sufferance of arrogance and injustice.

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