Do you Hear the People Sing?

On 25th February, Kevin Lau, the former editor of a major Chinese newspaper in Hong Kong, Ming Pao, was attacked by a cleaver by two men and remains in critical condition at the time of writing. The attack sparked protests across HK against what was seen as a symbolic and direct attack on her press freedom. Indeed, seen in context of events such as attacks against journalists, ad-withdrawing from anti-Beijing newspapers, and Lau’s own replacement by an allegedly pro-Beijing Malaysian editor, it is not hard to see why HK people regard the incident as the beginning of a regime of open press repression. Indeed, the attack sparked protests of ‘thousands’, with the ominous slogan of ‘You Can’t Kill Us All’.

Image courtesy of Tom Arneson, ©2013. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Tom Arneson, ©2013. Some rights reserved.

In less than a week, there was a horrific attack at Kunming train station on 1st March, leaving 29 dead and 130 wounded.[1] ‘Eight attackers burst into the station, stabbing people at random’. The act was blamed on Uighur extremists by the Chinese government, and was described by Xinhua as ‘China’s 9/11’.[2] After pressure from the Chinese government, the US State Department changed from their initial position of describing the act as ‘a horrific, senseless act of violence’[3] to an ‘act of terrorism’.

It would be absurd to claim that these events are connected. That said, violence is a method of communication, and these incidents can give us a glimpse into the otherwise impervious social fabric of China.

The perpetrators behind the HK incident are still at large at the time of writing, but public opinion, judging from the reactions of local activists, anti-Beijing politicians and student protests such as those of CUHK, has already decided that the PRC government played a part in the incident.

Such an assumption, while unwarranted for the moment, reflects a new phase of deteriorating relations between HK and Beijing. The source of these grievances can warrant an article by themselves, so I won’t deal with them in detail. Regardless of who was behind the attacks, many believe that it was a symbolic move against a newspaper that recently published an exposé on the overseas assets of Chinese government officials. More broadly, it was seen as a move against HK’s autonomy.

Given Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy it is tempting to put her in the same category with regions such as Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet. Indeed some analysts have claimed that HK is being used as a ‘demonstration’ of how a highly autonomous region might be treated— a live example for Taiwan.

Such a comparison can be misleading and obscure the real causes of civil resentment. Analogies are seldom accurate, and in this case, talk of independence does not dominate the political discourse in Hong Kong, especially when compared to regions such as Taiwan or Xinjiang. Resentment in Hong Kong stems from social issues and a lack of adequate political channels rather than dissatisfaction towards the system of autonomy itself.  According to a HKU student run survey of her student population[4], over half (53%) of the students surveyed claimed that there was no political party or organization that could represent their views. More interestingly, 68% wanted to maintain the current ‘one country, two systems’[5] framework, and only 15% thought HK should become an independent country.

It is more plausible to see the source of resentment as an identity conflict of the HK people. It is not that they reject being ‘Chinese’— it is their rejection of the concept of nationality that is causing pushbacks against attempts at imposing ‘nationality’ as a concept onto their identity. The legacy of colonialism plays a large part in this, in that during the colonial era the majority of HK people just didn’t identify with a ‘nationality’ in particular— they were neither truly British nor Chinese. After the handover in 1997, a series of policies were implemented to foster a sense of ‘Chinese identity’, which is, I argue, the main source of tensions. Therefore, the protests in HK, which are ostensibly anti-Beijing, shouldn’t be understood in solely political terms, but as a process of social identity formation.

I argue that the incident in Kunming should be treated in a similar way. Beijing’s now standard reaction of branding it as an act of Uighur extremism, while may be true, is not helpful. Hooking it onto the peg of ‘international terrorism’ validates the ‘speech act’ theories of the Copenhagen School, and when such a branding is corroborated by significant others such as the US, it enables the Chinese government to pursue a more assertive policy in Xinjiang, which is already under intensified security that allegedly marginalized the Uighur population there.

Branding it as ‘international terrorism’, however, might not be helpful in resolving the conflict. Indeed, the party chief of the XUAR (Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) claimed, contrary to the official line in Beijing, that the attack should not be linked to ethnicity or religion.[6]

What makes this attack unique is how the perpetrators didn’t have a clear political motive. Neither the target nor the venue were symbolic, and there were no statements before or after the incident that sends a clear political message. As such it was a rare case of pure violence, and the message it sends belongs to a more basic level than politics; beit frustration at social reality or confusion about what some think is an increasingly amoral society.

Limiting the message to the political is therefore not helpful and will only increase frustration. Indeed, the cracks are showing in other less headline-grabbing phenomena, such as the series of attacks against medical personnel[7], which increased from 20.6 per hospital in 2007 to 27.3 in 2012, and were caused by social frustration at corruption both in and outside of the medical system, and the allegedly declining moral fabric of the sector.

Violence, and reactions to violence, are some of the most direct forms of communication. Limiting these messages to the political will only worsen tensions and lead to more tragedies. The people are singing a song of blood and frustration, but will the government be willing to hear it?

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