South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Lijia Zhang says few on the mainland appear to be interested in finding out about Hong Kong’s democracy protest, much less sympathising with it – clearly a reflection of their political apathy
When the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests started, I was still in India, attending the Bangalore Literature Festival. As someone who took part in the pro-democracy movement back in 1989, I followed the unfolding events with keen interest and found the images of umbrellas being used as shields against the pouring rain, and later tear gas, exciting and inspiring.
However, my sentiments are not shared by all my fellow citizens on the mainland. I cut short my trip due to my father’s ill health. As soon as I returned to China, I started to ask everyone I came across their views on the events in Hong Kong. Although people gave me different answers, overall, I was struck by a lack of interest, and little if any signs of sympathy for our compatriots across the border.
Over the dinner table at the hospital canteen in Nanjing , where my father is now, I couldn’t help but probe my relatives for a reaction. They all turned to look at me, frowning. “Why would you be interested in such a matter?” they asked. “It has nothing to do with you.”
Beyond the hospital gate, people from this prosperous eastern city were enjoying the national holiday, busy shopping, eating and merry-making in the warm sunshine. It was a world away from the tense atmosphere in Hong Kong.
Even if my relatives had not been preoccupied with my father’s terminal illness, they would not care about the “umbrella movement”. Like millions of ordinary Chinese, they don’t have a clear idea what has been happening in Hong Kong. The dramatic images of the protests that have snatched headlines in most parts of the world were absent in the strictly controlled mainland Chinese media. Even the word “umbrella” was blocked on Sina Weibo, China’s microblogging site.
Not highly educated, my relatives don’t know how to jump over the firewall to access the international media. Nor would they have any interest in doing so.
Even among the more sophisticated crowds who do take an interest in the Occupy movement, sympathy is thin on the ground. A friend in her 30s who works for a feature programme on CCTV said they were told not to report on the movement. She and her colleagues have been discussing it, however. The consensus is that the protesters are ungrateful.
To start with, Hong Kong is nothing without the mainland, she pointed out. It wouldn’t survive a day if the mainland didn’t supply it with water and vegetables. Secondly, since 1997, Hong Kong has belonged to China following the handover by the British. And, finally, Hongkongers enjoy more prosperity and political rights today than they did under colonial rule. So what’s the fuss about? And the troublemakers are only a handful of the total Hong Kong population, my friend added.
Of course, there are those on the mainland who support the movement. According to Western media, at least a dozen mainlanders who dared to voice their support openly have been arrested, some at Songzhuang, an art colony in Beijing, and others in a Guangzhou park. Most sympathisers have made their stand known subtly, by writing on WeChat or discussing with friends. I received plenty of WeChat notes from my feminist group and from an art salon in Beijing. Still, I would say supporters only number a handful.
In recent years, Hong Kong residents’ resentment towards the Beijing authorities has been growing as the latter tries to exert their influence on electoral freedom, media and politics. The rift between the two sides has been further deepened by squabbles over the ill-behaved, massive number of mainland tourists.
The protesters in Hong Kong are demanding not only universal suffrage but also their own political identity.
Interestingly, as Hongkongers experience a political awakening, mainlanders are becoming less interested in politics, as the government desires. Since 1989, it has deliberately channelled people’s energy into making money while showing them how futile it is to get involved in politics.
Naturally, Beijing authorities worry about the contagious effects of the Hong Kong protests. But they needn’t worry too much, in my view. A few days ago, in a commentary published in The Guardian, dissident writer Ma Jian ended in an uplifting tone, talking about “the unstoppable river of democracy”. “The river will flow again, despite efforts to block it, and will one day, perhaps this year or many years from now, surge across the border all the way to Tiananmen Square.”
I don’t think it will be this year; the Lo Wu border divides more than the physical territory.
Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator