Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Black Sheep that is Hong KongA Discussion of Western Hypocrisy & The Wider Clash Through Huntington

By Eric LeePublished October 13, 2019

July 1st, 2019. Provided by AFP
As the clash between the United States and China rages on, we can see how Hong Kong can be viewed as a poster child for a greater civilizational rift that both follows and transcends geopolitical rivalries.

Summer has gone rather fast. Aside from the record-breaking heat in places all over the Northern Hemisphere from France to Korea, an event whose growth and continuity had made international headlines and persists to this day are the Hong Kong riots. Going above and beyond previous instances of civil strife and protests in the streets of the Fragrant Harbor (literal translation of Hong Kong from Chinese), this year’s round of unrest seems as unending as it is violent. Already, live rounds have been fired, and with threats of military intervention from mainland China’s authorities, as unlikely as it is, continuing, it seems to be the entire city’s future that is at stake. This much we already know as connected citizens in a Western country with access to Facebook, television news, and the lot.

However, what if one was to conjecture that the current pandemonium in Hong Kong is emblematic of a much greater geopolitical and perhaps civilizational rift that is taking hold as of now? What if I was to say this rift exemplified by the recent Sino-American trade dispute, Hong Kong protests among other clashes is one that is as cultural, historical, and ultimately civilizational as it is geopolitical?

We who reside comfortably in America love to see foreign affairs through the prism of what we view is morally just and systemically proper; there is a horizontal line from barbarism or primitiveness on one end (although we never dare call it such in our own virtuous prudishness for fear of being labeled a bigot) to modernized civilization of the Western variety on the other. Moreover, any country that does not follow this model to becoming a carbon copy of an economically capitalist, socially liberal, and politically democratic “mini-America” is viewed as still having to make efforts in the “right” direction.

This sort of universalistic thinking has largely taken shape following the end of the Cold War, as more and more countries from the Third World and former Communist bloc adopted the Washington Consensus among other doctrinal precepts of governance and culture offered by America. Indeed, it was actually a fellow Cornell graduate and long-time professor of international politics, Francis Fukuyama, that published an essay in The National Review in 1992 called The End of History? on this very matter. A literary piece that would go on to succinctly summarize the political zeitgeist of the post-Cold War nineties, The End of History is probably not only a piece that epitomizes the confidence of Western civilization in its values and morals, but in today’s world, is probably the prime example of how such confidence begets fallibility. A few years after Fukuyama’s contribution, another renowned American academic as austere in his prose as he is in appearance, Samuel Huntington, would come along with his own rejoinder to his former student’s bold thesis in a Foreign Affairs article titled The Clash of Civilizations.

All the celebratory jubilance of the West’s and more specifically America’s apparent triumph over the Soviet system notwithstanding, Huntington warned of the upcoming international challenges that countries would face in a world that is increasingly defined along what he viewed as civilizational and more fundamentally cultural lines. In Huntington’s view, this so-called universalization of Western norms towards pluralistic democratic government, free-market capitalism, and social progressivism seemed as unlikely as it was over-optimistic. In the world such as we see today, one most likely does not need the knowledge or intellect of a Harvard government professor in order to see whose perspective has prevailed.

Of course, individuals such as the typical Cornell student will not even take one moment of reflection before they unilaterally reject such a perspective and begin hurling admonitions at any and all who concur. This was indeed the reaction my introductory comparative government class had against the professor for even assigning Huntington. But who can blame them? Most of them, as well as their counterparts at all the country’s top-ranking colleges, come from a comfortable background having grown up in a mostly American or, at the very least, Westernized environment. Chances are that they have been fed from a young age the falsehood that racial and ethnic diversity, as well as individuality of the flashy and bohemian variety, is something to be glorified in all contexts and places whatsoever.

Fundamentally, they would reject Huntington for the fear of what the implications are of his words being true. If civilizations are to inevitably clash with one another as a consequence of inherent cultural, historical, ethnic, and religious differences as Huntington examines, then the empirical validity of such a statement would absolutely crush their wishful thinking of a world that is not predisposed to conflict. But let us be frank. In the world, as we see it today, the clashes are real. While the smaller conflicts limited mostly to intrastate wars, skirmishes, or attacks are of religious, historical, ethnic, or national animosity, even the larger ones that encompass the macro-level actors of great powers, entire regions, and blocs of countries are essentially clashes that pit one civilization identified rather loosely in Huntington’s work against another.

Hong Kong in the greater Chinese civilization is an outlier. Under British rule for almost two centuries, the city and its inhabitants showcase how a polity can over the long term be assimilated by a Western power to accept and cherish the values and morals its colonial overlords export. Now that the mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been reenergized to reassert its predominance in the Asia-Pacific region, most mainland ethnic Chinese, as well as the leadership in Beijing, simply view the PRC’s takeover of the city as getting back what was originally theirs.

And what could realistically stop them? Even if the eventual takeover of Hong Kong were to momentarily damage or halt the city’s economy, Hong Kong would only represent around a meager 2.7% of the PRC’s 2018 GDP. Of course, a country’s gross domestic product is not everything; the strength and vitality of the constituent parts and sectors that make up the economy is just as important. Hong Kong is a huge finance and global capital hub with its stock exchange alone having a market capitalization that is just short of four trillion dollars. Hong Kong is also significant for its business-friendly environment that encourages entrepreneurship, technological innovation, and commerce.

However, for each advantage or forte Hong Kong offers, there is a mainland city in the PRC that eclipses it and is ready to take its place. Shanghai now outranks Hong Kong as home to the third-largest stock exchange and hosts major transnational banks and investment corporations in its central business district of Pudong. Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, has reprised its role as the main commercial entrepot of Southern China with an infrastructure boom and a strategic position on the western side of the Pearl River Delta across from Hong Kong. Finally, Shenzhen has taken the mantle as the technological and entrepreneurship powerhouse of mainland China. Hong Kong remains, without a doubt, a prosperous and important metropolis. But as time goes on and the mainland steadfastly incubates its own cities as economic and cultural centers, Hong Kong need not apply.

In the end, the civil strife in Hong Kong symbolizes a civilizational clash between a group of cosmopolitan, ethnic Hong Kong Chinese who have been inculcated with the galvanizing values of popular sovereignty and civil liberties and all the other Chinese whose world view does not necessarily oblige Western-style pluralism and freedoms as universal prerequisites for progress. Beijing’s sternness on Hong Kong as well as its untoward aggressiveness against neighboring states (particularly in the South China Sea) also demonstrates a revanchist desire to recoup lost ground from a previous era when it stood tall as Asia’s preeminent imperial dynasty. The interests of the PRC, the world’s paramount Sinic power with almost 1.3 billion ethnic Han Chinese, are undeniably at odds with America, the West’s paramount Anglo-Saxon power. Great power confrontation is something nobody wants and that should be avoided at all costs. Nevertheless, as America’s relative power wanes and its power projection capabilities become increasingly challenged by emerging regional players, clashes along civilizational lines will arise within and between states as long as mankind’s territorial and tribalistic impulses remain. Only those trapped in the bubble of cosmopolitan elitism and material well-being fueled by the recent explosion of wealth from globalization’s fruit will feel we are above such impulses.

This last point on the disconnect of the globalized, self-righteous, and, at times, hypocritical elite that seems to reside in every developed or fairly developed country nowadays also pertains to Hong Kong. While the local Hong Kong Chinese in Kowloon and the New Territories are throwing Molotov cocktails and getting their bodies beaten for better or worst in a spirit that is almost analogous to that of 1789, the bulk of Western expats in Hong Kong that are always the first to condemn the mainland’s despotism and preach so-called democracy are nowhere to be seen in the streets. Clearly, this is not their fight, but it is worth noting the paradox that the West loves to lecture everyone else on right and wrong with no steadfast motivation to fight for their “universal values” when push comes to shove.