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The Guardian view on

Hong Kong: Beijing’s crisis isn’t over

China’s Communist party is determined to see off the protesters on the question of democratic procedure. But this showdown has revealed that the issue is not merely ‘one country, two systems’; it’s ‘one country, two states of mind’

By late last week, the students who turned central Hong Kong into a sea of demonstrators at the beginning of the month had largely folded the umbrellas with which they fended off teargas and pepper spray, and gone home. Exhausted police were catching up on lost sleep, the Hong Kong government remained in office, the city was open for business, and things were, as the saying goes, returning to normal. Or were they? The calling off of official talks with the student leaders spurred a proportion of the protesters back on to the streets over the weekend, while the chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, has been accused of serious financial irregularities. Hong Kong’s crisis is far from over, even if street violence of the worst kind has been avoided thus far.

It was always plain that the demonstrators had – as Leung reiterated on Sunday – “almost zero chance” of altering Beijing’s decision about how the election of the next chief executive of the territory would be managed. Beijing does not, by its very nature, change its mind. Or at least, it does not do so after it has made the sort of public stand that it has over Hong Kong. But even if it ultimately manages to prevail on the immediate issue of democratic procedures, it is going to be left with a problem: a proportion of Hong Kong’s educated young are now set in their view that their own understanding of life is not compatible with the Communist party’s understanding of life. Suggestions in the overseas edition of the state-run People’s Daily that the US state department was behind the protest do not convince.

A deeper alienation is likely to emerge as the most substantial change to come out of the upsurge of public and civic energy over the past month. In later British days, there was a vogue for the phrase “Hong Kong belonger”. It was a way of slipping past, without exactly denying, both the Chinese Communist and the British connections. That older Hong Kong was a city of refugees and the children of refugees. If there was a political tendency other than that represented by Communist front organisations, the nationalist flags fluttering over squatter huts showed what it was. Hong Kong thus has a long history of being unable to fully express itself politically. Under the British, under the Japanese, and now under the Communists, it has not been able to be itself. This, perhaps, is the message the students are trying to send. The Hong Kong of today is not attracted by communist ideas, especially in the enervated form in which they now exist, nor in the assertive Chinese nationalism that has partly displaced those ideas. It is interested instead in its own assertiveness, its own difference, and its own identity.

Hong Kong people, for example, have made little effort to learn Mandarin, in spite of the fact that this is a relatively easy task for Cantonese speakers. Polls show many in the city avoid identifying themselves as Chinese. The problem it seems, is more “one country, two states of mind” than “one country, two systems”. The confrontation over democracy has widened this gap. Beijing could now face a future in which acquiescence is the most it can hope for in Hong Kong, while Hong Kong could face one in which its aspirations are thwarted. That would not a happy outcome.