Step back for one moment from the frenzied scenes of tear gas in underground railway stations and armoured personnel carriers massing on the border and there’s a grotesque historical irony which helps reveal the future for Hong Kong.
In China, the notion represents heresy but recent evidence suggests that protestors have more in common with Chairman Mao Zedong and the early ideology for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) than the Chinese government does.
While no one is suggesting that protesters are advocating Marxism, their revolutionary idealism is straight out of Mao’s little red book.
An image posted on social media last week of some graffiti painted on a wall by protestors was a direct quote from Mao, aimed directly at Beijing.
"A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another."
One of the most popular Cantonese slogans heard on protest marches is “Tzee-doi-ga-ming” which means revolution of our times, first coined by student leader, Edward Leung Tin-kai. Even seasoned local politicians, reluctant to talk of revolution, recognise the significance
Sin Chung Kai, former Legislative Council member and now Treasurer of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, told me at the the Yuen Long protest that he believed the younger generation now have a “revolutionary heart – they want to change the system.”
Mao was the arch revolutionary and originally, an advocate of democracy. His early ideology was forged on a visceral opposition to the social injustice in rural China. Later it embraced a moral disgust of the widespread corruption, violent oppression, crony capitalism and collusion with gangsters which characterised Chiang’s Kai-shek’s Nationalist government.
There are obvious parallels with 2019 Hong Kong where it’s cruelly ironic to see white-shirted triad gangs defending Beijing’s interests and attacking pro-democracy protestors with impunity. Jimmy Sham, convener of Hong Kong Civil Human Rights told local reporters yesterday that protests were no longer about political views but “about moral values and conscience.”
As Minxin Pei explains in his book China’s Crony Capitalism, China’s post 1979 economic policy has become “an incipient kleptocracy, characterised by endemic corruption, soaring income inequality and growing social tensions”. In Hong Kong, a handful of powerful corporate interests continue to control the economy with the tacit consent of Beijing.
Money talks in Hong Kong and after business leaders were summoned to Beijing this week, corporations like Cathay Pacific Airways, hastily announced their unerring support for Carrie Lam’s zombie government, praised the police and condemned “violent protests”. These days the tycoons will say almost anything to kowtow to Beijing’s economic might, as share prices trump ethics.
“The revolutionary war is a war of the masses,” Mao wrote in 1934 and on Sunday afternoon the masses will be mobilised once more. Radicals dressed in black, geared up in hard hats, goggles and face masks will be out in force but they are just the vanguard.
It’s disingenuous for Beijing to dismiss the protests as the work of radical extremists supported by Western powers when civil servants march, bankers march and lawyers march. Medics at Queen Elizabeth hospital staged a protest against police brutality today. I have interviewed teachers, IT consultants and social workers on recent protests. I have observed parents pushing toddlers in push-chairs and several protesters in wheelchairs.
They represent a mass rejection of the political and economic establishment, brutality by the police force and its alleged collusion with organised crime. They believe the democracy which they were promised in 1997, is the only way to change things for the better.
“We should support whatever the enemy opposes and oppose whatever the enemy supports,” Mao said, which is about where the Hong Kong protesters are 80 years later
One twist to the historical irony is that the last time Hong Kong saw protests and civil unrest on this scale was the 1967 riots which were largely inspired and encouraged by Mao and the CCP, looking to destabilize the (then) British colony built on rampant capitalism. While Mao may have sympathised with the current protests, the modern CCP now finds itself as the poacher turned gamekeeper, defending crony capitalism and compliance with the status quo, at all costs.
“‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,’” Mao wrote in 1938 and in August 2019, everyone in Hong Kong is praying it doesn’t come to that.
Stuart Heaver is a full-time freelance journalist and writer who lives and works in Hong Kong and has a special interest in Chinese history, culture, politics and maritime affairs. He has reported from 17 Chinese cities over the last five years including Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, Shenzhen and Quanzhou and has been published in local and international publications including the South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Free Press.
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