Kong Qingdong has gone viral. The Peking University professor of literature and descendant of Confucius has become an overnight celebrity with his televised rant against Hong Kong. In an interview on CCTV, Kong rails against non-Mandarin speaking Hong Kongers, denounces their rule of law system, and calls them “running dogs,” a Maoist-era epithet that typified the class warfare of the 1950s and 60s. What induced this attack was a momentary interchange on a Hong Kong subway between a Hong Kong resident and a mainland woman, in which the Hong Konger told the woman that her child should not be eating on the subway.
While these two events may pass quickly into the Internet ether, what they signify will not – namely how will Hong Kong, China, and even Taiwan come to terms? By all reports, Hong Kong is being flooded by mainland tourists – a good thing if you want to keep your economy buoyant in these difficult times, not such a good thing if these “tourists” are overwhelming your public transportation, schools, hospitals, and more because those things don’t work as well where they come from. So resentment, for obvious reasons, is rising. At the same time, many in Hong Kong are concerned about their freedoms. Despite “one country, two systems,” the right to vote, freedom of expression, and the rule of law all seem perpetually at risk as a result of Beijing’s own political insecurities.
The mainland, in turn, views Hong Kong with a mixture of admiration and envy for its world class services and well-run bureaucracy as well as occasional irritation with the island’s ongoing complaints about mainland rule. When a 2011 University of Hong Kong poll revealed that Hong Kong residents identified more closely as Hong Kong citizens than as Chinese citizens, mainland officials and the media launched a broadside against the poll and its backers.
At the time of the handover, there was much speculation over whether the mainland would change Hong Kong or Hong Kong would act as a model for the mainland. Almost fifteen years on, it seems that neither is the case. Instead, both Hong Kong and the mainland talk about another model – Taiwan. Its recent presidential election caused a stir in the mainland, forcing even the mainland’s nationalistic Global Times to admit, however grudgingly, that the election “touched a nerve of the Chinese mainland,” and the questions that “overwhelmed the Internet” was: “Why can’t the same style of elections be held here?”
The Global Times answered its own question by saying the price for stability and unity is a lack of democracy or more to the point, you can’t have everything. Still, not everyone is convinced. Wealthy mainland businessmen who observed the elections in Taiwan were favorably impressed, with one reporting ”This is an amazing idea, to be able to choose the people who represent you.” And with up to 250 million mainland microbloggers watching the election and all chattering on the Internet, Taiwan may well become the tail that wags that running dog.
Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.' She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. Follow her on Twitter: @lizeconomy