Hong Kong as Golden Goose and Coal Mine Canary

Hong Kong protests
Pro-democracy protesters gesture at police as they retreat from a protest site after clashes, in the Mongkok shopping district of Hong Kong October 17, 2014. Carlos Barria/Reuters

As Hong Kong events continue to move in dramatic directions, with protests often seeming about to wind down only to pick up steam again, it is worth taking a step back and asking how best to put the last few weeks of roller coaster twists and turns into long term perspective. One seemingly fanciful but useful way to do this is to zero in on two avian analogies often used in the past to make sense of the city’s present and assess its future prospects. One of these involves thinking of Hong Kong as an enchanted fowl that gets protected, while the other likens it to a precariously positioned songbird trying to stay alive and singing in a stultifying atmosphere.

As different as the implications are of what I’ll call upbeat Golden Goose and downbeat Coal Mine Canary thinking, two things the differing logics have in common right now are worth noting. First, some specific parts of the recent roller coaster of events can be seen as adding support to each way of thinking. Second, when it comes to both metaphors, it is crucial to note things that have been taking place in the last few months and years not just in Hong Kong but also in other cities.

Before expanding on those two points, here’s a basic recap of past uses of the two avian analogies.

The Hong Kong as Golden Goose idea tends to go like this. The Communist Party’s leaders are bound to feel uncomfortable about the things that make Hong Kong so different from mainland cities, such as its freewheeling media scene and the broader rights of assembly that locals have, but Beijing will appreciate the need to be very cautious in moving to alter these. They will be cognizant of the riskiness of making dramatic moves toward “mainlandization”—a useful if inelegant term that some analysts, including journalist John Garnaut, have been using to describe the phenomenon against which last spring’s Sunflower protesters in Taiwan and the current Umbrella activists in Hong Kong have been pushing back. Eager to benefit from Hong Kong’s special status as a financial hub, Golden Goose logic suggests, Beijing is ever mindful of how easy it would be to scare away international investors, defang the territory’s bustling and admired film industry, diminish the former Crown Colony’s role as a financial hub, or do other things that would make the territory less valuable a prize.   

Conversely, the Hong Kong as Coal Mine Canary view stresses the importance of keeping in mind that on July 1, 1997, the territory became part of a country that is characterized by a political environment that is not conducive to free spirits. Even located on its fringes and with guarantees offered to it that would protect it, this logic goes, the people of Hong Kong are bound to find it harder and harder to breathe freely. Yes, the Basic Law held out hope that Hong Kong residents would not just retain some things they valued about the system they had grown used to under the final and most liberalized phase of the British colonial period, when a loosening of control of the press had been added to longstanding rule of law traditions, but also be able to play a direct role in choosing those who governed them.  But surely Beijing would never let that happen.

Whether or not commentators bring up birds, the Golden Goose and Coal Mine Canary tendencies just outlined have affected much international thinking on recent Hong Kong events—and things have happened that can be interpreted as lending renewed credence to both the hopefulness of the former and despairing sense of the latter. It’s striking, a proponent of Golden Goose logic can note, that the demonstrations have not been dealt with nearly as harshly as ongoing events of this kind would have been in any mainland city  It’s disturbing, though, a Coal Mine Canary thinker can counter, that there has been so little readiness by the authorities to compromise on the proposed plan to only allow locals to vote in 2017 for candidates for Hong Kong's top office who are selected by a small set of nominators, sure to be influenced strongly by Beijing. The press has been reporting on events more openly than would have happened elsewhere in the PRC, yet it has been disturbing to see reports of thugs trying to prevent the fiercely independent Apple Daily newspaper from being distributed. That activists have been arrested on flimsy charges is worrisome; the fact that courts have acted to get them released is a sign that the rule of law still works differently in Hong Kong. And so on.  

Two things, which some analysts certainly have been bringing in, are easy to lose sight of in all this back and forth.  First, the preservation of Hong Kong’s special features to date has not been the result simply of inaction by Beijing due to Golden Goose calculations. Action by the territory’s citizens has made an enormous difference. This latest push against mainlandization comes in the wake of the Sunflower protests, and some participants in Hong Kong were surely inspired in part by those Taipei events. But two local struggles—one in 2003, which successfully stalled the implementation of an anti-subversion law, and another in 2012, which led to a scuttling of plans to introduce Beijing-backed patriotic education—were crucial precedents for the current protests and gave some student leaders, including Joshua Wong, important experience to build on.

The other thing that is too easy to overlook is the many ways that things other than protests that have been happening in cities in the region of which Hong Kong is part have influenced events in that territory. The Golden Goose side of things has been altered, though not completely undermined, by Hong Kong’s shrinking role in the PRC’s total GDP, for example, as well as the reemergence of Shanghai as an attractive site for some, though not all, forms of international financial activity. It has also been altered, in a very different way, by the rising importance of tourism and investment from Taiwan.  Taipei is not a Golden Goose for Beijing now by any means, but heavy-handed repression in Hong Kong, a city that residents of Taiwan are watching closely now, could make traveling to or investing in the mainland less attractive to some people there whose tourist and business dollars Beijing has courted.

Equally importantly, many Hong Kong’s residents are keen followers of events on the mainland.  They keep up with these via the local press as well as social media and international reporting accessed through a wide-open and very fast Internet.  And while international observers may think of them as Mineshaft Canaries, they view some daring mainland individuals and publications as those sorts of songbirds.

This matters because the last few years have not been easy ones for some important mainland Mineshaft Canaries. I am thinking of the repressive moves against rights lawyers, such as Xu Zhiyong, whose ability in the past to work for change within the system using moderate methods were sources of optimism for those hoping to see the PRC become a freer society.  I am also thinking of the fact that many NGOs have found it harder from year to year, whereas in the past it often seemed easier from year to year, to operated in mainland cities. 

One series of events that were covered extensively in Hong Kong, in part because of the nearness of the setting, were the early 2013 official moves to rein in Nanfang Zhoumo, a Guangzhou newspaper known for the often daring way it pushed the envelope in investigative reporting and commentary.  When Nanfang Zhoumo was able to do its best work, it was possible to hope that, in terms of media, the flow into the mainland of Hong Kong traditions might be as relevant as the creep in Hong Kong of mainland ones, so the tightening of control of that newspaper soon after Xi Jinping was enshrined as Party leader was an ominous sign. To understand the determination that some Hong Kong citizens have shown in making a stand just now against mainlandization, it is crucial to keep in mind their awareness of ways that the political atmosphere across the border from their territory has become of late more rather than less stultifying.

It may seem frivolous to talk about a movement as serious as the current Hong Kong one is via allusions to a Coal Mine Canary.  I like to think, though, that it is one that at least some of those involved would find appealing.  The struggle, after all, has chosen yellow as its signature color, and songs, including ones that express the possibility for staying hopeful even in difficult settings, have been sung throughout the movement.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at UC Irvine and the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2013).