So, a few days ago, I saw this: “One of Sun Yat-sen’s final speeches was to the Students’ Union of the university in 1923, when he said he got his revolutionary and modern ideas in Hong Kong after seeing the security that people enjoyed there without a corrupt government … [then he went on to say] … “Afterwards, I saw the outside world and I began to wonder how, it was that foreigners, that Englishmen could do such things as they had done, for example, with the barren rock of Hong Kong, within 70 or 80 years, while China, in 4,000 years, had no places like Hong Kong,” Sun is quoted as saying,” at this site (the Philippines Star).
It’s a good question.
What is it in Chinese history and culture that seems to make liberalism and democracy so foreign? My guess is that part of the reason lies in two of China’s great gifts to the world of philosophy: Confucianism and the Tao. At the risk of (even more than usual) grossly oversimplifying:
- Confucius gave the world a doctrine of hierarchy, based on the notion of filial responsibility. It led the Chinese to accept that the nation could be best led, like a happy and successful family, by a wise and patient father … or maybe and emperor or even a paramount leader; and
- The scholars who wrote the Tao Te Ching (I’m one of many who believe that it was written by several sages who lived more than 2,500 years ago) taught that each person should strive to be as “good” and as “happy” as possible (there is a strong utilitarian streak in the Tao which presages the English liberal notion that “happiness” is found by doing one’s best for oneself and one’s family and the community while doing no harm to others) and leave the universe (and the government, too) to unfold as it should. This lies in sharp contrast to the (16th century and later) liberal interpretation of the Judeo-Christian message which suggests that each individual should take some responsibility for the governing of himself or herself, of the community and of the nation.
The (largely English) liberal notions, it seems to me, explain why the liberal English (and Scots) left strong institutions, especially individualism (and a concomitant sense of socio-political responsibility) and the rule of law in so many places like Australia, Canada, India, Japan and Singapore and, indeed, in Hong Kong. Those institutions underpin strong economies and a healthy desire for democracy, which is, after all, nothing more than each individual sharing in the responsibility to govern the community. They proved that strong, open, honest liberal institutions and practical democracy can be central to deeply conservative (Confucian) societies.
But China never had much liberal influence. The earliest and longest-lasting European influences were the conservative (Catholic) Italians and Portuguese. The political intercourse with the more liberal English and their ideas came later and was less than pleasant.
But the result, it seems to me, was as Dr Sun Yat-sen said: “I saw the outside world and I began to wonder how, it was that foreigners, that Englishmen could do such things as they had done, for example, with the barren rock of Hong Kong, within 70 or 80 years, while China, in 4,000 years, had no places like Hong Kong,”
The English came, took a barren rock from the Chinese (unequal treaties and all that) and built a peaceful, prosperous, law-abiding place ~ Hong Kong. Now China wants (needs?) to tear it down because some Chinese leaders believe that Hong Kong, as it exists today, inside China, would be like a cancerous tumour ~ spreading very antithetical (to the Chinese) ideas.
But crushing Hong Kong is, at best, a stop-gap solution. The emerging Chinese middle-class can visit Japan and Singapore and Taiwan. They can see that what works in so much of the world can work in conservative (Confucian) Asia, too. Dr Sun was right, Xi Jinping is wrong. The question is: will Hong Kong have to be destroyed to prove it?