What Beijing’s ideologues can learn from Zhou Enlai’s restraint when dealing with rebellious youth

Gary Cheung says the late premier’s pragmatism contrasts with the hardline approach taken by some central government officials towards Hong Kong’s independence advocates

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 12:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 8:09pm

Forty-five years ago last month, the American table tennis team arrived in China for a historic visit which kicked off the “ping-pong diplomacy” between Washington and Beijing. On April 14, 1971, the conversation between US player Glenn Cowan and then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing marked the most intriguing moment of the team’s 10-day visit. The table tennis player from California had caused a media sensation by wearing a T-shirt with a peace sign on it in China.

Zhou, who was known for his charisma, said: “It appears you are also a hippie.”

If Zhou could show empathy for a young hippie, why can’t central government officials today show more understanding of Hong Kong’s rebellious youth?

Then, instead of lecturing the 19-year-old American about the ills of decadence, Zhou simply noted: “Young people around the world are discontented with the status quo and are seeking truth. Out of this search, various forms of change in thinking are bound to come forth. This is a kind of transitional period and these should be allowed.”

He went on to say: “Young people should change their course if they realise what they had done is incorrect. I wish you progress.” Cowan was impressed, and his mother sent the Chinese leader a bouquet of roses, with a message thanking him for the “wonderful hospitality shown my son”.

Zhou, who served as premier until his death in 1976, advocated a pragmatic policy towards Hong Kong. He criticised ultra-leftists in Beijing and officials from the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua News Agency, China’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong at the time, for having “mistakenly instigated” the 1967 riots in the then British colony.

If Zhou could show empathy for a young hippie who indulged in “corrupt bourgeois ways of life”, why can’t central government officials today show more understanding of the rebellious youth in Hong Kong?

Talk of Hong Kong independence is not criminal, but it’s not helpful either

There is a growing sense of alienation among the city’s young people towards the mainland and some are influenced by ideas of separatism. Instead of delivering lectures and blaming them as “rubbish youth”, as some pro-establishment figures have done since the Occupy Central protests, mainland officials should strive to better understand the root of such anti-mainland sentiment.

Like their cohorts elsewhere, internet-savvy young people in the city are more critical on social and political issues. Beijing’s hardline approach on Hong Kong affairs and the perceived erosion of the “one country, two systems” model are fanning the fire of rebellion for some. Mainland officials cannot brush aside this fact.

As rightly observed by Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office deputy director Feng Wei in an interview with the Post in March, advocates of separatism and Hong Kong independence are a minority, but their views have been magnified.

Both Beijing and Hong Kong activists should heed the words of the Confucian sage Mencius: “It requires a perfectly virtuous prince to be able, with a great country, to serve a small one. It requires a wise prince to be able, with a small country, to serve a large one.” In other words, the more powerful side should handle its ties with the weaker side with benevolence, while the weaker side should have wisdom in its dealings with the more powerful side.

It’s within Beijing’s power to halt the march of radicalism in Hong Kong

Mencius’ insight, penned nearly 2,500 years ago, sheds light on how to strike a balance between “one country” and “two systems”.

Like it or not, Beijing and Hong Kong – in particular, the city’s opposition camp – are not on equal footing in terms of power and strength. Repeated challenges to Beijing’s bottom line, such as by openly advocating separatism and even independence, will only play into the hands of ideologues in Beijing who would love to play hardball with Hong Kong.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor