A century ago, Chinese philosopher Liang Qichao, considered the most influential thinker of his generation, electrified readers with his calls for, as he termed it, “new citizens.” As China’s ossified Qing dynasty stumbled toward collapse, Liang insisted that the outdated political system was not the country’s real malady. Instead, what held China back was the pervasive lack of civic-mindedness and “public virtue” among his compatriots, who passively accepted being imperial subjects rather than demanding the right, and embracing the responsibilities, of acting like modern citizens.
Sadly, Liang’s notion of transforming China into a nation of new citizens remains as revolutionary today as it was when he first proposed it at the dawn of the twentieth century. But the latest twist in China’s saga of deferred democracy is found in Hong Kong—a former British colony still unsure of how Chinese it wants to be. It is there that the frontline has emerged in the battle to make civic-minded citizenship possible within the People’s Republic of China.
Were Liang able to come along on a recent visit to Hong Kong, he would have been deeply stirred to witness the city’s civic passions on display. Civic engagement is not limited only to the students armed with yellow umbrellas who captured the world’s attention late last year during the Occupy Central demonstrations. The same intensity characterizes some of the Umbrella movement’s would-be adversaries: middle-aged professionals, for example, who seek a pragmatic way to balance pride in their city’s distinctiveness with prudence in the face of Beijing’s power. And then there are the animated elders—retired civil servants who held a stiff upper lip for decades under both British and Chinese rule but are now speaking out against Beijing. They are challenged by pro-mainland business tycoons who are frustrated that money cannot purchase the hearts and minds of their city’s youth. Ever since the yellow umbrellas came out, and even after they folded, the
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