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Interview

Hong Kong tests Beijing's wisdom, says prominent Taiwanese writer

Lung Yingtai criticizes China's system that 'suffocates' its own creativity

A protester throws a Molotov cocktail at an MTR station in Hung Hom after a day of protests in Hong Kong on Dec. 1.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Lung Yingtai, an influential Taiwanese writer who has had some of her books banned in mainland China, has come under renewed attack by the Beijing authorities. What touched their nerves this time was her essay showing sympathy to the young pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, who she figuratively depicts as eggs in a garden that ought to be carefully embraced and nurtured, not smashed to pieces.

In a recent interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Lung says, "I could only wish that politicians in Beijing have enough wisdom to understand the situation deeper and to see into the future with longer views and perspectives" in their dealings with Hong Kong.

In the essay, posted on Facebook in early September, the writer admonished the Chinese leadership, saying that a superpower should not rely on the strength of its military or the machinery of one-party rule, but on the spirit of tolerance, farsightedness and magnanimity. She fears Beijing could use force to quell the demonstrators -- or eggs -- in order to put an end to the ongoing tensions in the territory. Lung reposted her essay on Nov. 25 following a landslide victory by pan-democrats in Hong Kong's local district elections.

People's Daily, the news outlet that is a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, criticized the essay, calling Lung "consistently biased" and "sly." Facebook is blocked in mainland China.

Lung has remained unfazed by the criticism, as many of her works are already banned in China, including her bestselling book "Big River, Big Sea: Untold Stories of 1949." Published in 2009 when Beijing was celebrating the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, the book presented alternative views from the losers' side of the Chinese civil war, which inevitably included atrocities committed -- but not revealed -- by the country's communists. Though officially banned, Lung's books have wide readership in mainland China.

Lung Yingtai fears Beijing could use force to quell the demonstrators. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

Lung was born in Taiwan, as a descendant of people who fled to the island in the wake of the communist takeover of the Chinese mainland, but she later studied and lived for decades in the U.S., Germany and Hong Kong.

She says it is "unfortunate" that Beijing does not understand the feelings of the Hong Kong people toward the mainland. In her eyes, "Hong Kongers' historical attachment, sympathy and identity with the Chinese is very powerful and strong. This is very different from the Taiwanese who have been separated from the mainland for more than 100 years."

Many of Hong Kong's older generations fled China in 1949 for the territory by simply crossing the border from the southern province of Guangdong, which was quite loose at the time. Meanwhile, those headed for the island of Taiwan, which had been a place apart since 1895 when it was colonized by Japan, had to cross the sea. Even after the communist takeover in China, Hong Kong embraced runaway mainland compatriots from political disasters, such as the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution.

"However, this very strong identity and attachment coexist with a deep distrust and worry with communist system," says Lung. The two conflicting emotions "have been innate in Hong Kong's collective psyche all along."

This sense of distrust and concern has been exacerbated in recent years by two separate incidents -- the disappearance in 2015 of Causeway Bay booksellers handling books critical of China and the kidnapping in 2017 of mainland billionaire Xiao Jianhua from the Four Seasons Hotel in the territory. "These shocks run very, very deep," she said.

"China and the rest of the world probably don't quite get the extent of the worries in the mind of Hong Kongers, especially the younger generation," said Lung, who is a fellow at the University of Hong Kong.

"They are fighting desperately for their own future," she says, in reference to 2047, when "one country, two systems" framework in Hong Kong is supposed to end. She refrains from making any predictions, but how things develop depends on "how Beijing policymakers understand the situation."

Lung also raises the issue of the mentality of mainland Chinese regarding their country's system. Although the reliability of any Chinese opinion polls are questionable at best, she believes the people, by and large, seem to support the government, mainly owing to the economic prosperity they are witnessing and experiencing. "I think the Chinese government deserves the credit on how they fought poverty."

But she metaphorically describes China as having a huge imaginary net over the country that preserves a sense of normality and stability. "You could live happily under the net without realizing there's a net," she says. The problem arises for "anybody who dare the limit and touch the net, [who will then] probably get an electric shock... You then know your reality is not reality."

China, under the huge net, is now rising to compete with the U.S. For Lung, shake-up of a "self-righteous" superpower like the U.S. "is healthy, not only for that nation but for the whole world." But if China is to shake-up the existing order, she wishes it to rise as a moral and cultural power. "Unfortunately, moral power or cultural power is not what we see so far in China. It's not rising together with its military, political, and economic power," she said.

"My biggest critique for the communist system is that it is not an inclusive system," Lung notes. Many books are banned, the Great Fire Wall disconnects the local internet from that of the rest of the world and freedom of expression is suppressed. "It's an exclusive system, which at the end suffocates the nation's own creativity."

In contrast, the openness of the U.S. is what makes it strong, according to Lung. For her, U.S. President Donald Trump's idea of making the country great again by building a wall and closing the door to immigrants remains a mystery.

"It's simple: 'purity' leads to stiffness, but diversity brings life in."

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