Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Other China

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 18, 2019 --  

Protesters in Hong Kong show that the cause of freedom is not dead in the Chinese world.

Images of hundreds of thousands of students facing down Hong Kong's unelected chief executive are an inspiring sight.  Despite a large police presence that unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets1, protesters refused to back down from their confrontation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who was chosen by a group of Hong Kong elites from a candidate list provided by the communist Chinese central government.

The protesters are angry about a proposed law that would allow extradition of suspects to communist China’s politicized judicial system. Lam admitted defeat on Saturday, suspending work on the law and handing a victory to the protest movement. Refusing to back down, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of them returned to the streets on Sunday to demand her resignation. Despite disputes over the crowd size2, these may be the largest demonstrations in the history of the Chinese world, surpassing even the size of those in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But across the border in the People’s Republic, images of these protests are nowhere to be seen. The great firewall blocks all photos, and search engines censor any news results of the demonstrations.3 Government news reports speak only of disturbances caused by foreign meddling in Hong Kong. The place where the inspiring crowds most need to be seen is precisely where they cannot be.

Events in Hong Kong prove that China’s ruling Communist Party has failed to win over the hearts and minds of the ethnically Chinese youth of Hong Kong. More than two decades after the territory was returned to China from British control under an arrangement promising the territory autonomy, residents relish their freedom of speech and assembly more than ever, and are highly conscious that their neighboring cousins have none of these rights.

A similar phenomenon can be seen a few hundred miles north in Taiwan, a Chinese territory completely removed from the control of the communist mainland. There, a giant inflatable tank facing down an inflatable protester stood in the main square of Taipei in memory of those killed in communist China’s last large protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the city saw demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong over the weekend.4

Events in Hong Kong make it less likely than ever that Taiwan, free from mainland control since the end of the Chinese civil war, will eventually agree to return to the rule of Beijing under a Hong Kong-like two systems agreement. They can see with their own eyes the consequences of such an arrangement — an appointed stooge of the central communist government trying to ram through a law designed to take people’s freedoms away.

30 years of stunning-catch up growth have made China a world power, and have proved inspiring for residents of other developing countries. But for all its bragging about the advantages of its authoritarian system, China can’t manage to convince its ethically Chinese neighbors in Taiwan and Hong Kong. They’re already rich and already free. What can the mainland offer them besides a loss of that freedom?

Meanwhile, in Singapore, the world’s only other independent state dominated by ethnic Chinese, financial institutions are enjoying a windfall of new business provided by Hong Kong’s tycoons as they spirit their money to safety.5 Far from communist China’s shores and free from any Chinese territorial claims, Singapore is seen as an ultimate safe haven for Chinese elites. But unlike Taiwan, there are no sympathetic protests in Singapore. Citizens suffer a milder version of China’s authoritarian bent, with public protests banned and controversial political speech restricted.

But don’t confuse Singapore’s silence as support for Beijing’s bullying. Like their cousins in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Singapore has long enjoyed its relative freedom. 30 years ago, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, said Hong Kong’s business elite should threaten to abandon the city if the communists meddled with their affairs.6

Make no mistake: it is mainland China’s communist government, not the Hong Kong protest movement, that is on the wrong side of history. As the mainland giant fumbles on, it is the relatively free citizens of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore — the other China — that must show the way.


1. Reuters, Hong Kong Police Fire Rubber Bullets as Extradition Bill Protests Turn to Chaos, June 11, 2019

2. BBC News, Hong Kong protest: 'Nearly Two Million' Join Demonstration, June 17, 2019

3. Reuters, 'Hong Kong' Searches Surge Behind China's Great Firewall, June 13, 2019

4. Slate, The Hong Kong Protests Could Be a Prelude to a Big Showdown Over Taiwan, June 17, 2019

5. Reuters, Exclusive: Hong Kong Tycoons Start Moving Assets Offshore as Fears Rise Over New Extradition law, June 14, 2019

6. South China Morning Post, After Tiananmen Crackdown, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew Said 200,000 Influential Hongkongers Should ‘Band Together’ and Bargain if Beijing Interfered in City’s Affairs, December 28, 2018