Occupy Central

Mainland Chinese youth remain cool to Hong Kong's democracy fever

Yun Tang says economic growth and rising nationalism are key factors

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 December, 2014, 12:59pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 December, 2014, 7:29pm

Hong Kong is still smouldering from the fire of the Occupy protests, the largest in China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. But the flames haven't spread to the mainland. While many believe it is the result of the central government's efforts to censor the news, that hasn't played a decisive role.

After the Hong Kong unrest erupted in late September, China's state media were briefly gagged. Soon, though, they were firing salvos of criticism at the protesters.

Besides, China's internet firewall is porous, so it is virtually impossible to block news of such magnitude. There are many tools available to get round attempts at censorship.

Instead, China's continuing economic stability is the primary reason mainlanders are seemingly unconcerned with the Hong Kong protests. The country's rapid economic progress has brought wealth and comfort, as well as a fear and loathing of politics.

For their part, the Hong Kong protesters simply want their grievances to be heard by Beijing. They have no desire for their protests to spill over to the mainland. Thus, the protests have neither appealed to nor affected the lives of those across the border.

Another factor is the ongoing anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi Jinping , which has helped to pacify the rising tide of public indignation. Unprecedented in scale, the campaign is shaking up the whole ruling class. The average citizen is happy to see the anti-corruption measures limit the privileges of officials. In a traditionally "official takes all" society, one campaign cannot root out all corruption but, in this case, it has defused the social tensions that otherwise could have flared up over the Hong Kong protests.

Furthermore, the younger generation is not seeking a Hong Kong-style rebellion. Today's college students are too young to remember Tiananmen. For Chinese citizens under 30, their will to challenge the authorities has been severely curtailed by the daily burdens of life, such as finding job opportunities and housing.

In addition, the crass commercialism the younger generation is exposed to makes them self-centered, and encourages them to worship money while remaining politically apathetic.

The silence of the mainland's masses can also be attributed to an outburst of nationalist sentiment over the chaos in Hong Kong. On China's vibrant social media, the overwhelming tone of the discussions has been against the protests. The usually cynical netizens firmly believe Beijing's assertion that the upheaval was fomented by outside forces. Obviously, Beijing's rising global clout fuels nationalism.

China is now economically united with the outside world, but its political development follows its own path. In recent years, Beijing has successfully averted any potential fallout from political shock waves such as the Arab spring of 2011 and the Hong Kong protests. Neither has disturbed China's overall stability.

Nevertheless, the government still has to handle daily protests across the country involving social disputes and remains extremely vigilant against political mobilisation. Above all, the disturbance the government fears most is economic stagnation.

China's growth has been slowing, reflecting policy efforts to rebalance the economy. Nevertheless, according to the World Bank, the average growth of the world's second-largest economy is expected to be slightly above 7 per cent for 2015-16, still robust enough to move society forward. But it is becoming more and more challenging for the ruling elite to keep China free from political turmoil as citizens' consciousness of and desire for democracy and freedom of information awakens.

Yun Tang is a commentator in Washington. tangletters@gmail.com