China frequently accuses the West, and the United States in particular, of stirring up trouble and fanning fears of China. From foreign-funded NGOs that spread ideas about human rights and constitutional government to Western journalistic exposes of the wealth of Chinese officials, the West seems bent on humiliating China, as it has since the early 19th century. Last week, the pro-Chinese Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po identified “a wide range of evidence” that purportedly shows that Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old organizer at the center of the current Hong Kong protests, is controlled by the “black hand of U.S. forces.”
But fear of China is not a Western machination. In the span of six months, massive protests in Taipei and Hong Kong show that fear of China is most acute along its own borders. The Chinese might reasonably expect demonstrations in Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and other countries with which it has maritime disputes. But the thousands of students occupying central Hong Kong, and the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese citizens who protested in March in Taipei, are not CIA operatives. Rather, it is the inhabitants of greater China — the ones whom Beijing hopes one day to incorporate into a unified motherland — who fear China the most. They are protesting Chinese encroachments in far greater numbers than either the Vietnamese or Japanese.
In March, for the first time in Taiwan’s history, students and demonstrators seized control of its legislature. In an unprecedented show of force, students occupied the building — analogous to the U.S. Capitol — for more than three weeks. Outside the building, hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese joined the protest, both to support the students and to show disapproval of their government’s handling of a trade pact with China. But lurking behind the dissatisfaction was a deep-seated fear of China.
On one level, demonstrators worried that opening Taiwan to Chinese investment would spell the end of local enterprise, bring inexpensive Chinese labor onto the island and give China influence over the Taiwanese economy. But on a deeper level, many Taiwanese feared, and still fear, further integration with China, even in the relatively abstract form of trade in services.
Alongside signs to “oppose the black box” — a criticism of the obscure conditions under which the trade pact was negotiated — protesters brandished placards reading “Safeguard democracy,” “Withdraw the services pact” and “Yes to Taiwan, no to China.” For these demonstrators and many of their Taiwanese brethren, a minor step toward reunification with China would mean a major retrenchment of the democratic progress that Taiwan has made in the last quarter of a century.
Similarly, the protests in Hong Kong stem from fear of Chinese reunification. But unlike in Taiwan, reunification is not an abstract threat in Hong Kong but a process well underway. For Hong Kongers, and particularly the students spearheading the protests, the imminent concern is the Chinese government’s plan to select the region’s next chief executive. It requires that any candidate receive more than one-half of the votes from an election committee, a group of 1,200 people viewed as mostly loyal to Beijing. If approved, this proposal would hew more closely to “democracy with Chinese characteristics” — in which voters choose from among vetted candidates — than representative democracy.
The Hong Kong protesters fear that China’s dilution of voting rights will lead to the erosion of other rights. Under the Basic Law of 1990, which governs Hong Kong, residents enjoy an enviable spectrum of human rights: freedom of speech, press and publication; freedom of association, assembly and demonstration; and many others. Vigorously exercising these rights may be the best way to ensure they are respected in the future. Just across the Shenzhen River on the mainland, Chinese citizens can be detained, imprisoned or worse for the very same acts.
In 2014, the residents of Hong Kong and citizens of Taiwan have taken to the streets in enormous, perhaps unprecedented, numbers. Their protests have different targets but reveal the same basic anxiety. If and when China reincorporates the remaining vestiges of its former empire, Hong Kongers and Taiwanese will lose the rights they worked so hard to wring from past oppressors, as well as the unique identity of being both ethnically Chinese and politically democratic. No Western scheme could bring about a loss of that magnitude, or set off such far-reaching concerns.
Timothy Webster is a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, where he teaches international law and Chinese law.