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'It's not about the money': What Beijing doesn't get about Hong Kong protesters

Alice Su, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIJING -- Chinese state media released a video this month that was directed at Hong Kong youth and titled: "Shenzhen's success could be yours too."

It features old and new shots of the mainland city located just across the border from Hong Kong, set to a triumphant chorus celebrating its transformation over the last three decades from a collection of fishing villages into a metropolis of shiny new skyscrapers.

"When you are on the right track, positive changes will occur," says a caption.

The video appeared on China's National Day, as tens of thousands of protesters were marching in Hong Kong, burning celebratory banners and hoisting up signs condemning the Communist Party for human rights abuses.

As the demonstrations enter their fifth month, the Chinese government continues to pursue a strategy that misunderstands the motives of the protesters and has little chance of quelling the unrest.

The video encapsulates a trade-off at the core of the Chinese Communist Party's domestic legitimacy: Give up your freedoms in exchange for stability, development and wealth.

 

It's a social contract that's been widely successful in mainland China, where many of the 1.4 billion people remember living through famine and poverty, and willingly eschew freedom of speech and other rights for the sake of economic well-being.

But it does not resonate in Hong Kong, the semiautonomous Chinese territory that was a British colony until 1997 and remains one of the world's top financial centers. Many of its residents arrived as refugees fleeing communist rule and are accustomed to legal and education systems established by the British.

What started as a series of protests against an unwanted extradition bill has become a movement with five demands, none of them economic: withdrawal of the bill, investigation into police violence, amnesty for arrested protesters, the right of Hong Kongers to elect their own politicians and an end to government descriptions of the protests as "riots."

Recently, with two teenagers shot by police and a new ban on masks under an emergency law likely to lead to harsher crackdown on public assembly, some have also begun to chant: "Disband the police!"

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