Despite Censorship, Mainland Chinese Are Watching Hong Kong

Protesters walk along a blocked off area outside of the government headquarters building in Hong Kong, October 1, 2014. Carlos Barria/Reuters

"Arise People Who Do Not Want to Be Enslaved."

So reads the headline today in the Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong on China's National Day—the 65th anniversary of the Communist Party becoming the sole governing power in The People's Republic. It is the first line of the PRC's national anthem.

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When Deng Xiaoping was in power, there used to be an old joke that played upon the insecurities of Hong Kong as China was finally opening itself up to the world: What's the first thing the paramount leader doesn't think about when he wakes up in the morning?

Answer: Hong Kong.

To whatever extent, in Deng's time, there might have been a kernel of truth in that joke. On this National Day, rest assured, Party Secretary Xi Jinping is thinking about Hong Kong, and the pro-democracy demonstrations that are roiling the former British colony. He is thinking about it because of people like Zhao Xia (not her real name), a university student not in Hong Kong, but in Shanghai. For centuries, students have often been in the vanguard of unrest in China. What they think, and do, matters acutely to the rulers in Beijing.

That is part of the reason why the government has frantically thrown up a blanket of censorship across all media on the mainland, immediately taking down, for example, any posting on social media platforms that might seem sympathetic to the Hong Kong demonstrators. In the meantime the main state owned media organs have adopted a sternly negative (albeit not yet hysterical) tone about the events in Hong Kong. The People's Daily, in an editorial today, called the "Occupy Central" demonstrations "illegal," and called for police to "decisively restore social order as soon as possible." Type "Hong Kong democracy demonstrations'' into Baidu, China's number one search engine, and the top stories are Chief Executive C.Y. Leung saying the government is "decisively against the Occupy Central movement" (from Xinhua, the main state-owned wire service); a piece on how much money Hong Kong has lost over the past few days (40 billion Hong Kong dollars, according to the newspaper China Economy); and the website ChinaNet reporting that "Hong Kong society calls for the prosecution of those behind Occupy Central movement."

It is, to put it mildly, a different prism through which to look at what's happening in Hong Kong. But Zhao, the Shanghai student, nonetheless is aware of what's happening and has a far more nuanced view of the events to date than the Chinese propagandists would like. So too, she says, do any number of her friends. How do they come by their information? For one thing, Zhao has two friends from the mainland who are attending universities in Hong Kong now. She hears from them directly, via email. One of her friends has a cousin studying in Hong Kong who does the same.

"We understand the desire of students there seeking a more democratic system," says Zhao. "I support them." That would be enough to give Chinese leaders heartburn, but sitting with a group of her friends at a Shanghai coffee shop, she then tempers her view. "There are different stages of development. Maybe Hong Kong people can afford democracy. After all, Taiwan has a democratic system. They are small places. We [mainland China] are different. It has to be a slow process here. We are a giant country with many contradictions. Political change can't just come overnight. It's very different." Several of her friends nod in agreement.

Cue the sighs of relief from the party, because this is very close to the line that the government peddles. And in truth, it's a defensible position. When, and how exactly, a more representative form of government comes to China (if it ever does) are two of the great political questions of the 21st century.

What makes Hong Kong very tricky for Beijing is that the party has two very firm answers to those questions—answers which are not debatable. When? Not now, and not anytime soon. And how? Most certainly not via public demonstrations.

For Beijing, "stability" is everything, and what is happening now on the streets of Hong Kong is its opposite. The fear is visceral: If Hong Kong gets a popular vote to elect its leaders, why not Shenzhen across the border? Or Shanghai? That is why a post today on We-Chat (China's Twitter) from a young professional woman in Shanghai is exactly of the sort that will give Beijing hives.

She first repeated a widespread meme—that Hong Kong Chinese are increasingly resentful of their mainland compatriots: The rich are driving up real estate prices and tuition at local schools, the tourists are coarse, etc. (Ask most Hong Kong citizens, and you'll find that these are actually accurate observations about sentiment there.)

But then our We-Chatter added this: "But if they are really fighting for democracy, I am for them. The fact that we are not fighting doesn't mean that others can't fight."

It's sentiments like these that make it extremely unlikely that there will be any give in Beijing's position, because the protesters in Hong Kong are fighting for democracy.

To date, since the protests started, a guiding assumption has been that Xi Jinping will handle this crisis without resorting to force, a la Tiananmen Square in 1989. Even the Global Times, a normally hysterical, hypernationalist China mouthpiece, recently wrote that Beijing had learned from 1989 and was much smarter now. And this evening, the Hong Kong government announced that it was open to sitting down and talking with the leaders of the protests—the first public sign of movement toward a dialogue that could, in turn, create the space for resolution. But that is far from a given at this point. And university students and young professionals throughout the mainland are watching, very carefully.