By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Hong Kong, Taiwan and the amazing appeal of freedom

Image: Shutterstock

I am spending this week chairing an executive education program for 45 mid- and senior-level civil servants from Taiwan, and of course following the daily news reports on the protests in Hong Kong. So this week I will depart from my normal blog themes to reflect on the significance of what is going on in these two small places.

I have been talking with my Taiwanese students about how it is that young people in Taiwan are ardent advocates of their country keeping itself outside China’s control. And we all have been watching the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people (in a place with a population of only 7 million), mostly young, taking to the streets to protest Chinese control.

A sober view of the world's realities suggests that this should not be happening. This is so for a number of reasons. For starters, both Hong Kong and Taiwan are Confucian societies, whose cultural tradition is based on hierarchy and those below listening to those above, and on harmony, not rocking the boat. A common view -- and one eagerly embraced by the Chinese government – is that Chinese culture therefore is inconsistent with democracy, which is often presented as a Western rather than an Asian idea.

The second reason is the rise of China. China’s economic rise has been very dramatic. In 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China, tiny Hong Kong’s GNP was fully 18% of China’s. Today Hong Kong’s GNP is just 3% of China’s. China is alive with business opportunities for people in both places.

Third, both these places, but especially Hong Kong, were traditionally regarded as apolitical, where people were oriented primarily toward making money.

The sober, “rational” thing for people in Hong Kong and Taiwan to do would be to be grateful for the opportunities that an ascendant China provides -- and hitch themselves to the China wagon. But that hasn’t happened.

The desire for freedom and democracy is a big part of that story. If you read accounts of the motivations of Hong Kong protesters, you will see they are worried that greater mainland control will erode their ability to protest and undermine the rule of law. China is not trying to restrict the ability of Hong Kong people to start businesses and make money -- indeed, the message aimed at Hong Kong is basically that people should stop protesting and go back to making money. So Hong Kong does not fit the model of many American conservatives, who emphasize what they call economic freedom over individual and political freedoms.

In Taiwan this is, if anything, more clear. Many Taiwanese, asked what is specific about Taiwan as opposed to China, will immediately answer back “freedom and democracy.” I have heard many Taiwanese say that in Taiwan they can criticize their leaders, but in China people can’t. Many Taiwanese are proud that Taiwan is the first country in Asia to legalize gay marriage and that the country has an active gay rights movement.

Of course, in reality the story is a bit more complicated. One thing going on in both places is people separating themselves from China in terms of identity. This is most obvious in Taiwan, where 20% of the population descends from people who came to Taiwan after the Communist victory in 1949. The other 80% have much deeper roots in Taiwan and traditionally did not speak Mandarin but another dialect. The peaceful revolution the early 1990s that ended the "mainlander" dictatorship and created democracy in Taiwan was spearheaded by native Taiwanese. The democratic governments in Taiwan have moved to promote the rights of native, non-ethnically Chinese people. And Hong Kong is dominated by people from the southernmost part of China, who also speak a dialect other than Mandarin and have a tradition of assertiveness compared with other parts of the Chinese mainland.

So yes, identity is part of this, and it strengthens the attractiveness of freedom there in comparison with some other countries. But it would also be a mistake to ignore the universal aspects of this.

I am surely dating myself, but I remember the line from the 1960’s pop song by The Rascals, “All the world over so easy to see, people everywhere just want to be free.” At a time when it is fashionable in the U.S. to belittle the value of our democracy, this should be a good reminder.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 28, 2019 at 9:08 AM


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