Why do mainland Chinese and Hong Kong youth clash at universities abroad? History has the answer

We should not be surprised by the vociferous counterprotests mounted against Hong Kong students abroad by mainland Chinese, particularly within Australia - but we should try to understand why they happen.

In universities throughout Australia, pro-Beijing counterprotesters have confronted Hong Kong democracy advocates. At a minimum, pro-democracy posters have been torn down and replaced with messages of support for communist China. At times, violence has ensued.

Large numbers of young people from mainland China have been invited to Australia, to live, study and, of course, to spend their money. Abroad, they enjoy levels of freedom of speech unseen in the People's Republic - so we should not be surprised when they speak freely, and speak up for China. To understand their views, we need to pay attention to history.

History has an arresting habit of providing answers. For example, Americans' ongoing fascination with guns derives from the history of the wild west, just as Brexit emanates from the 1940 Battle of Britain, which cemented the notion that Britain is stronger when it stands alone.

Mainstream views in China are coloured by the nation's history of vassalage under Western powers through the 19th century and beyond. Britain, France, Portugal, America and others helped themselves to China's trading ports and imposed unequal treaties on the local people.

Bilingual pages in the Treaty of Nanking, signed after the first opium war, in which the Daoguang Emperor of China's Qing dynasty ceded Hong Kong Island in perpetuity to Queen Victoria of Britain. Photo: Handout

Britain even forced on the nation the mass purchase of what are now classified as class-A drugs. China's military weakness and waning economic power made opposition futile - as their capitulation during the opium wars against Victorian Britain showed.

Hong Kong became Britain's victory prize. China, where absolute rule is ingrained throughout its 2,200-year history, is on a mission to reassert complete hegemony over wayward territories, most obviously Hong Kong.

The historical narrative of a China splintering under external pressure - albeit a history narrowly controlled and propagandised through state media and state education - is founded on truth. Moreover, it dovetails conveniently with the Communist Party's spin that foreign powers, particularly America and Britain, are behind the current Hong Kong protests.

This distorted narrative stokes nationalist passions within the Chinese diaspora. Widely read by Chinese at home and abroad, the WeChat online platform delivers state-controlled reporting: Hong Kong students are described as "toxic" and their slogans such as "fight for freedom" are misrepresented as though all protesters are separatists demanding full independence.

Some mainland students abroad quietly support the Hong Kong democracy movement, but many, nationalised since birth, feel incited into mounting a national defence of their People's Republic. Some do so with don't-mess-with-a-superpower physical aggression, at times punching pro-democracy protesters and even issuing death threats.

Pro-democracy students on Australian university campuses have increasingly taken to covering their faces for fear of recriminations, especially if they have family in mainland China.

A history of a nation downtrodden by outsiders just a few generations ago gives no moral justification to how authorities have handled the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. For many Westerners, and others used to living under the rule of law (and that includes Hongkongers), categorising the "good", the "bad" and the "ugly" is straightforward.

The general behaviour of the protesters looks remarkably good compared to the ugly scenes - widely shared on Western social media - of police actions. In the midst of the "good" and the "ugly", we catch only glimpses of the unequivocally "bad": popping up occasionally to bungle another press conference, along shuffles a helpless Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, her Hong Kong government in tow.

The anti-protester movement allies millions of "patriotic" mainland Chinese, brought up on a restricted diet of nationalist history and national aspiration, with Hong Kong's pro-Beijing interest groups. Such groups, led by the rich elite who own the city's property, utilities and businesses, stay on-message with Beijing because they cannot abide any disruption that dents profits.

History goes a long way to explaining why so many mainlanders support the ugly, ignore the bad and see no good in protesters who seek greater independence from China; money may explain why key figures within Hong Kong do likewise.

Paul Letters is a novelist, journalist and historian. His latest wartime novel, "The Slightest Chance", is set in and around Hong Kong. See paulletters.com

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Comment 0