I’ll cover a couple of China-related items in this post, first briefly discussing Mark Zuckerberg’s humorous but admirable efforts to learn to speak Chinese, and then on a more serious aspect, give my view of the Hong Kong protest movement.
So, in case you haven’t heard, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg held a Q&A at China’s Tsinghua University the other day — completely in Mandarin Chinese! No, this isn’t a joke. Zuck has been learning to speak Chinese in the last few years, using a private tutor. The ostensible reason is that he would like to be able to converse with his Chinese-American wife’s grandmother. I’m sure that Zuck is sincere in that, but since Mrs. Zuck’s family speaks Cantonese, purely family issues might suggest Cantonese as the language he should learn. And as a Cantonese speaker myself (I speak Mandarin when I need to, but that’s not often and I’m never comfortable in it), I favor that particular brand of Chinese. But Zuck is undoubtably aware of the salutary effect his linguistic efforts will have on developing business in China, especially the all-important right for Facebook to be freely used within China, and Mandarin is the official language of China. Mandarin is of course the obvious choice.
So, how did Zuckerberg do in the Q&A? Well, his accent is truly awful, so much so that I stopped listening after the first 30 seconds or so; it was too painful to watch. He seems oblivious to tones, a core aspect of any Chinese language. It made me think, “OMG, do I sound that bad too?” :-)
But other than creative tonal structure, he wasn’t bad at all. He was fluent — i.e. his sentences flowed well, without pauses — and I was able to understand him. His level is well above that of, say, a university student with two years of coursework and no prior background. If he keeps up with this, I’ve no doubt that he will become quite skilled at the language. While I disagree with some of his political views, I say 加油, 加油 Zuck!
While Zuck was cavorting linguistically in Beijing — he constantly had a broad smile on his face while wowing the crowd — on the other end of China the pro-democracy protests were continuing in Hong Kong, much longer than many people had expected. What’s the real story there?
To begin with, I hesitated when I typed the phrase pro-democracy above, because this is something the Western press often gets wrong. As a notable example, the comparisons we’ve been seeing on CNN etc. the last few weeks of the Hong Kong protests to the 1989 student movement in Beijing are way off base; those students in Beijing were just as anti-democratic as Deng Xiao-ping was, elitists who opposed enfranchising the populace with real voting rights.
The motivation in the 1989 protests was primarily economic: There was ravaging inflation that threatened the civil service sector, at the time the main source of jobs for them after graduation. They didn’t use the term democracy until they noticed that it was a magic word with the Western press. I won’t go into the whole mythology that was built up, such as the post facto claim that the protests arose spontaneously upon the death of pro-reform party official Hu Yaobang, but let’s just say that a lot of what you read is incorrect, much of it calculated. (I’m also not going to get into the issue violence that ensued on June 4; a pox on the houses of all sides.) If you wish to know more, I recommend J. Unger’s academic book on the demonstrators, or even a careful reading of TIME and Newsweek of that period.
By contrast, my strong impression is that the students currently protesting in Hong Kong are sincere. I’ll go into some of the reasons, including a quite central one that has rarely been mentioned in the U.S. press.
Before beginning, some disclosure: I’m highly partial to Hong Kong, have been for 30 years. My wife is from the area and still has family there. We visit often, and I’ve given talks at HK universities a number of times. I love the mixture of East and West, and never tire of riding the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, with the thrilling view of the city skyline and the mountain backdrop.
As many of you know, the core of HK was granted to Britain “in perpetuity” in the 19th century, as the spoils of war. Then in 1897 further lands were leased to Britain, with the leases expiring in 1997. At that latter point, Britain handed all the lands, even the core, over to China.
The Basic Law, a mini-constitution for Hong Kong developed after the 1997 handover, promised that HK would continue to enjoy its freedoms, e.g. freedom of speech and the press, for 50 years. But the document’s call for “universal suffrage” in elections, like lots of terms in legal documents, is open to interpretation. And as has been pointed out often in recent weeks, most HKers had been quite content under British rule without democracy. (An interesting side issue recently discovered is that even in the 1950s Britain felt pressured by China not to institute democracy, under the threat of China fomenting civil disorder in HK.) But the difference is that HKers never felt the need for it before now.
Today, a big issue is “immigration,” i.e. migration from inland China to HK. The complaints are quite similar, unsurprisingly, to what we hear in the U.S. about immigrants: “They’re taking our jobs! They’re flooding the housing market! The schools are becoming overcrowded!” And indeed, these things aren’t disputed, while they are in the U.S. (Also missing in HK: the Race Card, which advocates of expanded immigration policies sometimes play in the U.S.)
Both within China proper and between China and HK, migration is restricted in various ways. But the popular perception in HK is that the government is allowing too much migration into HK from inland China, creating great resentment. Even tourists who visit HK from China are disliked, accused of boorish behavior.
Thus democracy has suddenly become a big issue for what had been one of the most apolitical peoples in the world. This is why the recent protests have enjoyed so much sympathy from the HK populace (though many are beginning to think enough is enough). Though again part of the motivation is economic, the aim is to give the people a say in economic issues, rather than restrict power to the elites as the 1989 Beijinger students wanted.
But the “elephant in the room,” perhaps THE central issue, is that most HKers don’t identify with China as the Motherland. They regard themselves as Chinese culturally, of course, but to many China is rather like a foreign country. Before 1997, they were OK with rule by a foreign country that largely acted benevolently, but today are uncomfortable under rule by what they see as a less benevolent foreign power.
As is often the case, language plays a key role, as seen for example in what occurred in 1997 with HK elementary and high schools. With the handover, many schools switched from English to Chinese — but meaning Cantonese, not Mandarin. The latter is China’s national language, thus arguably the natural candidate for a new China orientation in Hong Kong. For reasons of commerce, most HK adults today can speak Mandarin, but the refusal to switch the schools to Mandarin speaks volumes. And the action, eventually reversed, of the Chinese government a few years ago to suppress use of Cantonese in neighboring Canton (Guangdong) Province must have made many HKers even more leery of China.
Indeed, the official slogan devised by China for Hong Kong’s status after 1997, “50 years, no change,” 五十年不變, flows and rhymes much better in Cantonese than in Mandarin. Some might argue that the concept itself behind the slogan flows better in HK than in China.
One small, personal observation I’d offer as the pride HKers take in their home involves the many ethnic Chinese foreign students we’ve had in our Computer Science graduate program. A number of those from HK have returned home after graduation, while I’m not aware of a single example of this among students from China.
I would argue that the Chinese government would benefit from understanding this “Hong Kong pride” in the current crisis. This leads to the broader question of how those in the Chinese government — and for that matter, many ordinary citizens in China — are viewing the situation. One irritant to them is that there appear to be U.S. connections to the HK protestors. By all accounts, these ties are quite weak, and no one really denies that the concerns voiced by protestors are heartfelt. Yet such ties add one more obstacle to resolution of the crisis. And besides, American preaching about democracy must sound hollow to people in China, given our perenially deadlocked Congress, and the legal bribery of the members of that body via campaign donations. Yes, the press in China exaggerates this, and really doesn’t fully understand it to begin with, yet we must admit democracy in the U.S. isn’t working too well these days.
Nevertheless, the Chinese government can easily afford to make concessions regarding the situation in HK. China has much to be proud of economically — one new subway line in Shanghai every year! — and there has been some political progress as well. Surely there are some face-saving but concrete actions China could take to show the HKers that the latter’s concerns do have some validity.
Letting the Chinese populace access Facebook wouldn’t be such a terrible thing either.