In the neighbouring province of Guangdong, many people have surprisingly little sympathy for them
“I CAN SYMPATHISE with the protesters in Hong Kong,” says a young saleswoman from Guangdong province, which borders on the territory. “The rule of law, greater democracy—these are good things to be demanding,” she adds, attributing her views to an “open mind” and software that allows her to bypass China’s censorship apparatus. Then she wonders whether she might have said too much.
Since the protests broke out in Hong Kong three months ago, officials on the Chinese mainland have been working hard to prevent views like hers from circulating openly. China’s state-controlled media have focused only on the more chaotic aspects of the unrest, portraying participants as a small number of violent separatists in cahoots with foreign “black hands”. They have ignored the record numbers who have joined peaceful demonstrations and dismissed their pleas for democracy as merely a ruse to achieve independence. So it is hardly surprising that many people echo the government’s line. They often argue that the “rioters” in Hong Kong deserve to be crushed. The saleswoman is a rarity.
But the authorities are jittery. In an article published last month on the website of Newsweek, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to America, said the biggest threat to China’s “one country, two systems” arrangement for Hong Kong was posed by “ill-intentioned forces” trying to turn Hong Kong “into a bridgehead to attack the mainland’s system and spark chaos across China.” On August 19th Xinhua, a government news agency, accused “anti-Chinese Western powers” of trying to unleash a “colour revolution” in Hong Kong that would “penetrate” the mainland. A week later China’s public-security minister visited Guangdong and urged local police to “resolutely defend the great southern gate of China’s political security” by combating “all kinds of infiltration, sabotage and subversion”. In other words, he appeared to suggest, they must guard the province from Hong Kong’s political influence.
If the government has reason to worry about contagion from Hong Kong, Guangdong—the country’s most populous province, with as many residents as France and Spain combined—would be a logical place to look for it. One reason is shared culture and language. Many Hong Kongers are refugees from Guangdong, or their descendants. Hundreds of thousands fled from the province to the then British-ruled territory to escape famine or persecution during Mao Zedong’s rule. Inhabitants of both places commonly speak Cantonese, which sounds very different from the mainland’s official tongue, Mandarin. They take pride in the region’s distinct traditions. Many travel back and forth frequently.
Another reason is that Guangdong has a history of relatively liberal thinking. It was a laboratory for the economic reforms launched four decades ago by Deng Xiaoping. Perhaps because it is so far from Beijing (the province’s capital, Guangzhou, is more than 1,800km from the national one) and so close to Hong Kong, Guangdong has also sometimes enjoyed more leeway to experiment politically, such as in the development of NGOs and trade unions. Under China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, those freedoms have been chipped away. This has given Guangdong something else in common with Hong Kong: a shared sense of the Communist Party’s tightening grip.
But in interviews across the province, few people express sympathy for Hong Kong’s protesters. This is partly the result of the censorship that prevails across China. People in Guangdong have legal access only to a couple of television channels from Hong Kong: TVB and Phoenix, which are known for their relatively pro-party stance. When these channels report on the protests in Hong Kong, censors cut the feed to avoid any scenes being shown that might embarrass the mainland authorities. The government has been trying harder to stop people using illegally installed satellite dishes that can pick up other channels from Hong Kong. A few years ago such dishes were a far more common sight.
Gone are the days when Guangdong’s media were given freer rein than those elsewhere in China. In 2013, not long after Mr Xi took power, hundreds of people gathered outside the headquarters of Southern Weekend, a newspaper in Guangzhou with a national reputation for its investigative reports. They were protesting against the party’s ban on the publication of an editorial calling on China to uphold its constitution, which notionally enshrines wide-ranging freedoms. Incensed readers gave speeches at the gate. One even called for a competitive multiparty system. But the authorities tightened control over Southern Weekend. A former journalist there says that what was once China’s “boldest” newspaper has been completely tamed.
The province’s leadership has become tamer, too. In the five years leading up to Mr Xi’s accession, Guangdong’s party chief was Wang Yang, a relatively liberal official who was linked with what admiring academics in China called the “Guangdong model”. (Mr Wang is now one of the seven members of the party’s most powerful organ, the Politburo Standing Committee, but shows fewer signs of liberal thinking.) The model included innovations such as making government budgets public—in 2010 Guangdong became the first province to do so—and making it easier for NGOs to register. Mr Wang emphasised the need for “thought emancipation” among officials, reviving a slogan promoted by Deng and the then party chief in Guangdong, Xi Zhongxun (Mr Xi’s father, ironically).
It was on Mr Wang’s watch that thousands of residents of the fishing village of Wukan, in south-eastern Guangdong, rose up in 2011 against local officials who had illegally sold large tracts of collectively owned land to developers. The protesters demanded, and were granted, a free election by secret ballot for the village leadership—a rarity in China. The villagers’ extraordinary pluck made headlines around the world.
Much has changed. Mr Wang was succeeded in 2012 by a less adventurous official. Guangdong’s current party chief, Li Xi, who took over in 2017, is an ally of Mr Xi and shows little enthusiasm for reform. Wukan, meanwhile, has long since reverted to the grip of the local officials whom the villagers had once defied. The leaders they elected were turfed out in 2016. Reporters who visit Wukan risk detention. On a recent, entirely legal, trip, your correspondent and a colleague were interrogated for hours by plainclothes police.
Cutting the shoots
The chill is also evident among NGOs. Fu Changguo, a labour-rights activist in Shenzhen, was arrested last year for allegedly organising a protest by workers at Jasic, a tech firm in the city (the authorities accused him of colluding with a Hong Kong-based NGO). Dozens of students from elsewhere in the country were also detained for supporting the strike. In January the director of Chunfeng Labour Dispute Service Centre, another labour NGO in Shenzhen, was arrested for “disturbing social order”. An employee at the centre says that last year she had four colleagues. She is now the only one left—the others have been “scared off”. A decade ago Shenzhen had about two dozen such groups. Today, there are “just a handful”, says one activist. He says his NGO survives because of its “consciously mild approach”.
Guangdong’s many Christians are feeling the impact, too. In the past year numerous house churches (informal congregations which often meet in people’s homes) have been shut. One of China’s biggest and best known, Rongguili Church in Guangzhou, which had a congregation of several thousand, was closed last December. A former pastor at the church says the local government cited “fire-safety regulations”.
The province retains its strong cultural affinity with Hong Kong. A commentator from Guangdong with more than 3m followers on Weibo, a microblog platform, said last year that more than 90% of Guangdong natives cannot stand to watch even five minutes of China’s annual televised Spring Festival gala. He said people preferred shows from Hong Kong. Lao Zhenyu, the founder of a popular local news website, writes that when he was at primary school in Guangzhou in the 1980s, he was taught in his native Cantonese. Now, he notes, some schools in the city ban the use of it even during breaks.
A young native of Guangzhou admits to feeling “more culturally at home in Hong Kong than Beijing”. But he says education in China, which stresses patriotism, has “completely inoculated us” against even thinking about siding with Hong Kong’s protesters. Others are less diplomatic. Asked about the demonstrators, an old man strolling outside Jinan University in Guangzhou huffs, in broken Mandarin, that the army should “just kill them all”.
In recent years some people in Guangdong have come to resent Hong Kongers for their perceived arrogance, which they say has grown in tandem with a localist movement in the territory. The localists, including some of today’s protesters, resent the huge influx of mainlanders into Hong Kong since China took over, many from Guangdong. An article last month on gznf.net, the news site founded by Mr Lao, accused Hong Kongers of harbouring “prejudice” towards people from his city.
If Guangdong is resistant to contagion from Hong Kong, it is likely that the rest of the country is immune, too. China’s liberals have never drawn much inspiration from the territory’s democratic aspirations. Its politics have not exerted the same fascination as that of Taiwan, where democratisation in the 1980s and 1990s offered hope to some observers on the mainland that the same might happen in China.
The party, however, never takes chances. The 70th anniversary on October 1st of the founding of the People’s Republic is fast approaching. Hong Kongers are widely expected to spoil the occasion by holding a mass pro-democracy demonstration that day. Short of unleashing the army in Hong Kong with a mandate to use extreme force—which the party now seems reluctant to do—it is hard to see how the central government can stop it. It can, however, step up efforts to prevent copycats in the mainland. The big gate of Guangdong will be under close watch.