The Rise and Fall of Greater China | Zhang Jieping

Published (HKT): 2020.10.19 10:06

It is a fact that Taiwan and Hong Kong are emotionally drifting further away from China. In the two outlying regions, animosity and resentment are heating up toward China. In such a context, tens of millions of the ex- or current China-Taiwan-HK travelers who are acting as bridges to promote and translate the three places' emotions, cultures, industries, and wealth have decided to shut their mouths or stay unseen.

No kidding. Tens of millions! Merely calculate the number of Taiwanese and Hongkongers moving to China, the headcounts of the mainland Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and those doing business in the three places, along with their spouses, kids, and parents, and you will find the population is close to the number, not an exaggeration.

Given the current political reality, many of them avoid making judgments, keep seeking nothing but profits, and eventually turn out to be opportunists. These people are powerful and influential, but their voices are neither honest nor truthful. Their remarks are neither thoughtful nor independent. Instead, they follow the crowd, go along with the trend. They are therefore not included in my discussion given their importance in the study of history.

However, there are many others who certainly have their judgment, perspectives, and positions. If they speak up their mind, they have to take sides. It turns out that they will disagree with their current circles, feel out of place with the original culture, turn their backs on their ancestors, or feel repulsed by younger generations.

Given the compelling circumstances, many of them have ended with migration, settling down in one of the three places. On the surface, they are merging into a perceived mainstream that is in line with their standing. But their experiences in other societies tend to contradict the dominant nationalist discourse. They end up voiceless even after they choose a side.

A tacit nod to avoid unification/independence issue

A few are trying to transcend the nationalist framework, searching for universal values by juxtaposing experiences in various societies. Unfortunately, they are under harsh attack for “being out of touch,” “sitting on the fence,” and “surrendering.” These people were actually the most-praised cultural celebrities and resource bridges at a time of close interaction across the three places.

It took only a decade to see the tides shifting. Things are now different from what they were. Many are asking: who has changed? In terms of individuals, nothing has changed. Opportunists remain opportunistic. Hypocrites remain hypocritical. Those who advocate exchanges keep faith with exchanges. Only times have changed, from open-door policy to closed-door approach. Stuck in the middle are those who were traveling to and from the three societies. And now they end up the most embarrassed.

I recall the popular term “Greater China.” It represents a regional concept that was built at a time when the East Asian economy was growing and global cities were arising.

The term, which emerged in the 1980s-1990s, was intended to avoid political correctness-induced conflicts when referring to China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The term is relatively neutral as it is a notion of geography. It covers a bigger region than “three places across the Strait.” (兩岸三地). It is agreed implicitly that the term does not deal with political sensitivities, like unification/independence, identities, and others. Many multinational corporations use it to describe their businesses and name their headquarters in the three places and Southeast Asia. It has never been accepted by all. Beijing authorities think it is used to equate China with Taiwan, banning its people from using it. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, some associate it with China’s mindset of expansion. Nevertheless, exchange across the three places was accelerating.

I myself am the product of this exchange. I was born and raised in China. I have worked and settled in Hong Kong. I have visited China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to cover news, write stories, start my own business, and spend holidays. This is not only my life but also my career. In retrospect, all the media I have worked with and created are all trying to seek cross-regional perspectives as they share the same language, experience cultural diversity and collision, and are placed in a sensitive/awkward political environment.

In 2005, I started to work for Asia Weekly and focus on “global Chinese,” a term no longer used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 2010, I participated in the founding of Isun Affairs陽光時務, which is designed to create a “Chinese cultural community.” The weekly has made a compromise, avoiding covering politically-charged Chinese identities. Instead, it talks about languages and the cultures behind the language in question. But it is unfeasible too.

Constructing a new narrative between open-door and closed-door

Gone are the days when Hong Kong’s homegrown forces actively drew in the Cantonese-speaking Cantonese cultural community to discuss “Greater Guangdong.” So is the era when both sides across the Strait shared a national Utopia. Since the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan in 2014, the concept of “Greater China” has fallen out of favor with the public. It is even considered “worse than the F-word.” China, Hong Kong and Taiwan no longer see the motivation to look for a new mechanism to facilitate economic, social and cultural exchanges. Swept by the tide, many have lost their voice.

Scholar He Zhaotian (賀照田) proposed in 2014 a new way to develop the cross-regional perspective: “understanding others in the context of others.” We know how hard it can be in practice. But it is an alternative to open-door and closed-door policies. And I hope from the bottom of my heart that I as well as many other intellectuals and cultural workers will not diverge from reality, or resort to old dreams. Instead, I expect myself and others to follow Mr. He’s path when proposing a new narrative.

(Zhang Jieping is the founder of Matters.)

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