Divergent China

A tall man with a square face, he looks every bit of his 47 years of age, however you would not know of his past just by looking at him. Wearing a black polo shirt adorned with a yellow ribbon, he walks up a long, winding staircase that leads to Hong Kong’s legislative council. The wall along the staircase has been completely covered with small office-stationary sticky notes in a multitude of colors. The small notes each carry a message of encouragement for the ongoing pro-democracy protests that have been taking place in Hong Kong.

He stops to take a closer look at a message on one of the colored notes and for a brief moment he chokes back emotion, it is evident that he is overcome with a deep sense of grief. Pointing at a message on the wall he says:

“This one. This one reminds me of Tiananmen.”

The note on the wall described the similarities that the current Hong Kong protests have in common with the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. It describes how both protests started out as a gathering of students with a common goal of achieving true democracy.

Zhou Fengsuo Hong Kong Umbrella Movement

Zhou Fengsuo was a 22 year old student leader during the Tiananmen Square Protests that took place in Beijing on June 4th, 1989. The ensuing crackdown by the ruling Communist Party left an estimate of between several hundred to several thousand people dead. Zhou was attributed as the person responsible for the protest communications and was the fifth most wanted on a list of 21 people issued by the Chinese government. Fleeing Beijing for Xi’an, Zhou was arrested on June 13, 1989 and served a year in prison for his part in the protests. Zhou relocated to the United States following his release – where he is now a citizen – and was never formally allowed back into China again.

Zhou has come to Hong Kong to specifically support the pro-democracy protests that have become known as the Umbrella Movement. “It’s reliving the past experience. It’s also looking to the future for the change. For better China, better Hong Kong,” he said of the Hong Kong protests. Zhou has been sleeping in a tent alongside hundreds of other tents that now occupy parts of Admiralty, the city’s administrative and political center.

The movement is in response to the Chinese central government’s plans to vet candidates before allowing them to stand for the position of Chief Executive, Hong Kong’s highest political post. The Umbrella Movement demand true democratic universal suffrage.

To many people, including himself, Zhou represents a link between the past and the present. He embodies the ideals of the Tiananmen protesters. “This generation grew up from the memories of Tiananmen 1989 protesters so they’re very familiar with the image, the ideal, the experience,” said Zhou.

While the protests in Hong Kong parallels certain aspects of the Tiananmen protests, there are also some differences that cannot be ignored. The Tiananmen protests, and the subsequent crackdown, occurred at the dawn of China’s economic reforms.

Established in the early 1980’s by then Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, these reforms have transformed China from a third-rate economy into Asia’s largest today – and the second largest globally. Indeed, these economic reforms have extended to the political sphere, creating a new form of politics: Chinese Socialism. Chinese Socialism was best described by Deng when he created the slogan ‘To get rich is glorious’; which very much reflects the goals of western, market-driven societies.

The Tiananmen protesters demanded more democracy, freedom of press and end to corruption in 1989. Today, the Hong Kong protesters demand universal suffrage and fair elections. Students have been the driving force behind both the Hong Kong and Tiananmen movements and they share certain characteristics including non-violent protest, occupation of public space and demands for government leaders to step down.

Zhou has also drawn comparisons of the two protests. Both events have demanded the Chinese central government forgo some of their authority. “If you give people free expression they will express their love for democracy, freedom, rule of law,” said Zhou.

However, there are also differences amongst the two events. Zhou’s views represents the views of his generation, but just as importantly, the views of his time.

Chinese economic reform has lifted a large proportion of China’s impoverished into a burgeoning middleclass with many more freedoms and opportunities than that was available in 1989; and China is now a global economic superpower with envious eyes watching carefully.

Huang Heming (who refused the use of his real name) was also a student protester at Tiananmen Square. Huang wears a grey suit and polished black leather shoes. He too, has come to the protest site in Hong Kong, however unlike Zhou he is not here for democracy’s sake; he is here for business.

“The government needs time to change,” said Huang.

 “It is a great thing to fight for something you believe in,” said Huang, “but young people are always impatient. I remember being young and also having the same feelings of urgency. But as you get older, you realize things take time.”

Huang never fled China, nor did he need to. Unlike Zhou, he was neither a leader of the 1989 protest nor was he a wanted man. Huang remained in China, and did what he was told. He kept quiet and he got rich.

Huang is now the Chairman of a large stock-exchange listed corporation in China, having made his fortune in the environmental waste industry that has been spurred by the urbanization of Chinese cities.

“This place really does remind me of the old days. I remember being just as energized then,” Huang mused, “but look at me now. I am free to leave China when I want. We couldn’t do that before. China is better than before. I am very comfortable.”

Zhou protests against a China that is vastly different to the China of today. The modern country of over 1.3 billion people has come a long way since 1989. In the year that Zhou left his homeland, less than 4% of the total population belonged to the middleclass (classified as those with an income of between RMB60,000 to RMB229,000 per year). By 2012, this figure had grown to an estimated 68% of China’s population according to a 2013 report published by consulting firm McKinsey.

In a recent report by human rights monitor, Human Rights Watch, China remains an authoritarian one-party state, but rapid socio-economic change has seen the gradual relaxation of some restrictions of basic rights. Exposure on the global stage also increasingly affects China’s ability to define what freedom means to her own people.

Zhou and Huang are two people of the same generation. Their lives have taken divergent paths. One has spent the last twenty-years in the United States and the other, in modern China. Both care deeply for their motherlands. “What’s happening here today will define China’s democracy with its own history, unique characteristics,” Zhou lamented outside his tent in Hong Kong’s Civic Square, “but on the other hand, it’s a long struggle”.

Perhaps they are both right. Perhaps the Chinese government just needs more time.