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Is Hong Kong moving closer to the abyss that its leaders warn about?

Economist - Thu, 08/15/2019 - 17:08

A TEN-WEEK-OLD political crisis in Hong Kong has taken a lurch for the worse. Flash-mob protests across the territory have led to a sharp increase in violence, with hardball tactics employed both by anti-government demonstrators and police. In an unprecedented move for Asia’s pre-eminent financial centre, the authorities shut down Hong Kong’s airport for two days in a row in response to large demonstrations there. The protests in the terminal culminated in ugly scenes that China was quick to describe as “terrorism”.

The escalation has fuelled speculation about how China might respond. “If the situation gets worse, and turmoil occurs that the Hong Kong government is unable to control, the central government will not sit idly by,” the head of China’s Hong Kong affairs office, Zhang Xiaoming, had warned the previous week. The unrest does not yet appear impossible to contain using Hong Kong’s police, but China’s state media have broadcast footage of the mainland’s anti-riot forces manoeuvring on the border with the territory. The threat is clear.

After three days of low-key protests at the airport, the mood changed on August 12th. Huge numbers massed at the terminal following an alleged case of police brutality, when a young woman appeared to have been shot in the eye with a beanbag round during a separate demonstration....

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Why Chinese officials imagine America is behind unrest in Hong Kong

Economist - Thu, 08/15/2019 - 17:08

THERE IS SOMETHING depressing about the Chinese government’s claim that foreign “black hands” are behind the protests in Hong Kong. For the claim is both nonsensical and, in mainland China, widely believed. It is a fresh lesson in the power of disinformation to see decent, patriotic Chinese sharing tales of the CIA paying gullible Hong Kongers to join marches or smuggling in foreign rioters on late-night flights (a rumour sourced to a driver at Hong Kong airport, in the version that Chaguan heard).

There is something positively alarming about signs that, at some level, Communist Party bosses believe the black-hands story. Neither evidence nor common sense supports the tale’s central charge that outsiders tricked or provoked as many as 2m Hong Kongers into joining marches. The accusations began while the protesters were still overwhelmingly peaceful, focused on a planned law that would send suspects from their city’s Western-style justice system into Communist-controlled mainland courts. To propagandists in Beijing, no free will has been marshalling those students and pensioners, doctors in hospital scrubs and black-suited lawyers, off-duty civil servants and parents with pushchairs. Instead the protesters are at best dupes, and at worst foreigner-loving race traitors, ashamed of being Chinese.

The drumbeat has...

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For some in China, the aim of travel is to create 15-second videos

Economist - Thu, 08/15/2019 - 17:08

PERCHED ON CLIFFS above a river, Hongyadong is a stilt-house complex in mock-traditional style in the city of Chongqing. Its bars, restaurants and golden neon lights (pictured) have been a popular draw since it was built in 2006. Last year the number of visitors surged.

The main reason, it seemed, was Hongyadong’s sudden popularity on a social-media app, Douyin, which is used for sharing photographs and 15-second videos. By the end of the year the waiting time to get in was three hours. For a while Hongyadong—a jolly enough place but hitherto on few people’s bucket lists—became the biggest attraction in China after the Forbidden City, says Mafengwo, a travel website.

Social media have transformed tourism worldwide. Instead of having fun, some people now flock to remote strawberry farms or Icelandic fjords to take photos to impress their friends on Instagram. Foreign-operated social-media sites, including Instagram, are blocked in China. But domestic ones are hugely popular. Douyin, launched in 2016, has 230m monthly active users (its owner, ByteDance, has an uncensored version of the app for users outside China, called TikTok). Unlike users of Instagram, who mainly browse feeds of pictures posted by people they follow, Douyin’s fans commonly use the app to watch hot-trending videos posted by users they do not know under...

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China is trying to browbeat Taiwan by keeping its tourists away

Economist - Thu, 08/08/2019 - 16:45

ON THE AFTERNOON of July 31st youngsters in dozens of Chinese cities raced to government offices, pursuing a precious commodity. Earlier that day the authorities had announced that from midnight they would no longer issue the passes that allow mainland tourists to visit Taiwan independently, without having to join a tour. A 25-year-old newlywed from the eastern province of Zhejiang, who uses the nickname Yuyi, says she got a permit just before the cut-off. Now she wonders whether, given rising tensions between China and Taiwan, it might be wiser to junk the September getaway on the island that she and her husband have been planning.

China has long used carrots and sticks to persuade Taiwan’s people to accept its demand for “peaceful reunification”. But the sudden suspension of the solo-travel programme, launched eight years ago, was still a surprise. A spokesperson for China’s government blamed Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which abhors the idea of unification. He said it had “incited hostility towards the mainland”. Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, retorted that China had made “a big strategic mistake” and that its decision would irk both mainlanders and Taiwanese.

Visitors from China accounted for just over one-quarter of Taiwan’s tourist arrivals in the first half of this year. About...

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In China’s old urban neighbourhoods, conservationists sometimes win

Economist - Thu, 08/08/2019 - 16:45

IN A LEAFY street close to a busy underground station in the southern city of Guangzhou, two middle-aged women sit in a booth giving out hand-drawn local maps to passers-by. These feature cartoon-style images of churches and other grand architectural relics of the city’s pre-Communist past. Nearby, giggling youngsters take pictures of each other outside one such edifice: a European-looking villa, its high garden wall topped with ornate green tiles. There are few foreign visitors. The hand-drawn maps are all in Chinese. It is young locals who are drawn to this neighbourhood of large three- or four-storey houses built in the 1920s and 1930s in Western and Chinese styles (one is pictured). Its tree-lined lanes dotted with cafés and art galleries have become fashionable hangouts.

The area, known as Dongshan, is close to central Guangzhou, the capital of the southern province of Guangdong. It was built by the families of Cantonese who moved to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many old neighbourhoods in China have been bulldozed to make way for new development. Dongshan is an example of how some are being saved, and even turning chic.

The survival of Dongshan’s old buildings owes much to growing public interest in preserving urban heritage—not merely the few structures that the government designates as...

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Huawei is trying to solve a hard problem

Economist - Thu, 08/08/2019 - 16:45

ON BALANCE, it seems implausible that a committee—let alone a committee run by grey-suited Communist Party commissars—could design anything as odd as the new research campus of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. Comprising 12 replica European “towns” spread across lush subtropical hills near the southern city of Dongguan, the campus houses 18,000 scientists, designers and other boffins in turreted German castles, Spanish mansions and Italian palazzi, connected by an antique-style red train. Staff canteens include Illy espresso bars and French bistros. A herd of bronze rhinoceroses grazes by the river that divides faux Verona from ersatz Heidelberg. It is not hard to see why the campus is a stop on tours that Huawei has started offering to foreign journalists in recent months. Impressive, mad and a bit tacky, the research campus is a suggestive bit of evidence. Perhaps Huawei may just be what it claims to be, at least when it comes to decisions about architecture: a privately held company guided by the ambitions and quirks of its billionaire founder, Ren Zhengfei, a former military engineer and Europhile history buff.

After 30 years spent largely shunning publicity, Huawei has turned into one of the world’s chattier high-technology firms, inviting journalists into once-secret research laboratories and smartphone assembly...

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The growing ranks of unemployed graduates worry China’s government

Economist - Thu, 08/01/2019 - 16:46

THRONGS OF YOUNG people roam around the makeshift booths in an exhibition hall in northern Beijing. They are at a job fair organised by the municipal government, aimed at unemployed college graduates. Like most jobseekers in attendance, Su Jian has brought along a stack of CVs to hand out to prospective employers. But Mr Su (not his real name), who graduated in June from a second-tier university in the capital, is unimpressed by what he sees. 

The most popular booth at the fair belongs to China Railway, a state-owned behemoth. The firm’s recruiter says it pays new graduates around 4,000 yuan ($580) a month. That is less than half the average salary in Beijing and not even double the city’s minimum wage. Mr Su nonetheless submits his CV. “What can you do? There are too many of us,” he laments.  

Chinese universities produced a record 8.3m graduates this summer. That is more than the entire population of Hong Kong, and up from 5.7m a decade ago. Tougher visa policies in much of the West mean that China will also receive nearly half a million returning graduates from foreign institutions this year. It is not a propitious time to enter the job market. China’s economy, buffeted by the trade war with America, is growing at its slowest pace in nearly 30 years. This year fully two-thirds of all workers...

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Beijing urges a stronger response to the protests in Hong Kong

Economist - Thu, 08/01/2019 - 16:46

FOLLOWING EIGHT weeks of protests and mounting violence, the news that the authorities in Beijing planned to hold a rare press conference had many in Hong Kong holding their breath. The result was a (welcome) anti-climax. There were no threats to send in the army, as some had feared. A speech by the spokesperson from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office made no mention of that until, when asked by a journalist whether troops could be deployed on the streets he simply pointed to the relevant sections of Hong Kong-related laws. While condemning the violence of recent protests he took care not to criticise the local government and heaped praise on the work of the Hong Kong police.

Communist Party newspapers are a better place to look for evidence of the party’s growing frustration. The People’s Daily ordered the police to have no “psychological worries” about being much tougher. Activists are already being punished. After a weekend of violent confrontations between young pro-democracy protesters and police using tear-gas and rubber bullets, 44 people arrested during the clashes were told they would be charged with rioting. They face up to ten years in prison.

The forceful stance of the police has not quelled the demonstrations. Indeed, many gathered outside police stations to protest against the...

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Why Chinese officials like useless meetings in over-stuffed chairs

Economist - Thu, 08/01/2019 - 16:46

REVEALINGLY OFTEN, when foreigners meet Chinese leaders the encounter is a pain in the neck. The cause is not mysterious. For reasons that may involve both high culture and low political calculation, important visitors to China are typically invited to sink into one of a pair of side-by-side armchairs, at one end of a formal reception room. There the guest must sit, head twisted through 90 degrees, to see and hear a host whose opening remarks may stretch to an hour.

Foreign bigwigs planning to consult aides in such a meeting room are further out of luck. Their entourage will be trapped in their own armchairs, placed in a horseshoe pattern or marching down one long wall of the room, opposite a matching row of Chinese officials. In a recent episode of the US-China Dialogue Podcast, an oral history project at Georgetown University, Wendy Cutler, who as an American official played a leading role in negotiating China’s entry to the World Trade Organisation, recalls how her Chinese counterparts used exhaustion and embarrassment to manipulate visitors. For one thing, they have a habit of beginning meetings with envoys at 10pm. Then there is the hazard of reception rooms that make it daunting to stand up from an armchair, cross yards of empty carpet and hand a boss a note about a detail of policy or tactics. Visitors have to be very sure that...

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Chinese actions in Xinjiang become a matter of international dispute

Economist - Thu, 07/25/2019 - 17:07

FOR THE PAST three years China’s government, citing national-security concerns, has run relentless campaigns against the culture and religion of the Uighur people, 11m Muslims who speak a Turkic language and live in Xinjiang, China’s north-westernmost corner. Mosques have been shut. Men are forbidden to grow beards, women may not wear head coverings and children are barred from prayers. Most troubling are the growing details emerging about a network of detention facilities, which Chinese officials call vocational-training centres but which look for all the world like internment camps. Credible reports say these are holding at least 1m people—mostly Uighurs but also Chinese people of Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicity—in extra-judicial detention.

Until the middle of 2018, Chinese diplomats managed to keep international criticism of the camps in check. At that point America’s vice-president, Mike Pence, raised concerns about “round-the-clock political indoctrination”. Since then, the Chinese have lost their battle to persuade foreign countries that Xinjiang is purely an internal matter, of no concern to anyone else. But they have turned it into an issue that polarises diplomatic opinion. That polarisation has now burst into the open.

On July 8th, 22 countries signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council, calling on China to...

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Hong Kong’s violent protests against Chinese rule

Economist - Thu, 07/25/2019 - 17:07

NOT SINCE the 1960s, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution spilled over into Hong Kong, triggering riots and bombings, have political tensions in the city run so high. After weeks of protests, antagonism between critics and supporters of the Communist Party in Beijing has risen sharply. The local government seems paralysed. Relations with the police have deteriorated. And worries abound that turmoil will grow.

July 21st brought a crucial change. During the day hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, many in black, the chosen colour of those who support democracy, marched through the city. They were calling for the formal withdrawal of an extradition bill (now shelved) allowing criminal suspects to be extradited to the mainland. The demonstration was orderly, but two incidents that came after it were not.

One was an outbreak of thuggery in a suburb called Yuen Long, in which 100 men in white shirts, armed with canes and rods, attacked passengers at a railway station, many of them returning from the march downtown. Dozens were injured, one critically. The other was an unauthorised protest outside the central government’s headquarters in Hong Kong. This was the most direct challenge so far to the rulers in Beijing. The demonstrators spattered the country’s emblem with paint (see picture) and covered the walls with slogans. One...

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Chinese are big customers for schemes selling foreign residency

Economist - Thu, 07/18/2019 - 16:52

TANG SHOUGANG is one of a generation of young Chinese who seem to have it all. Aged just 35, Mr Tang (not his real name) has a well-paid job for a tech firm, and his wife owns a successful shop. They have two young sons, two cars and an apartment in downtown Shanghai worth a fortune. One perk enjoyed by others of their class, however, eludes them: a passport or long-term residents’ visa for a country other than China. Ideally they would like a green card that makes it easier to live, work and educate their children in America. That looks difficult, so the Tangs are pondering other options.

A whole industry has grown in China to help them choose. About a hundred countries around the world have schemes that offer residence—a “golden visa”—in return for a big investment from the applicant. A dozen or so of these go further, and also offer a passport, in effect selling citizenship. By far the biggest users of these “residence or citizenship by investment” (RCBI) schemes are Chinese. Hundreds of businesses compete to help them navigate the labyrinthine procedures. They usually offer other services as well, such as help with applications for student visas.

There are various reasons why Chinese citizens want residence abroad. By far the most common—the Tangs in this respect are typical—is education. Parents want to spare their...

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Politically correct cross-dressing in China

Economist - Thu, 07/18/2019 - 16:52

THE FIRST time Wang Zhi performed in drag, 17 years ago, it was in a seedy gay bar three hours’ drive from his university dorm. Today Mr Wang (pictured) says he can make a tidy 2m yuan ($290,000) a year from his cross-dressing routines. Remarkably, they have the Communist Party’s blessing. He regularly appears on nationally televised variety shows. Officials often invite him to entertain people in poor areas. In Xinjiang and Tibet, he boasts, he has enraptured his ethnic-minority audiences.

Mr Wang’s success may seem surprising. In recent years the party has been trying to sanitise or suppress any kind of culture that it does not regard as wholesome—including art that challenges conventional gender roles. Last September Xinhua, a state-run news agency, condemned some male performers simply for looking too feminine. Unusually, the party’s main mouthpiece, People’s Daily, retorted that men should be judged by their character, not appearance. But Xinhua’s views reflected a conservative turn since Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012.

Mr Xi, however, has allowed Mr Wang’s style of drag to flourish. That is because it has a long and respected history in traditional Chinese opera, an art form which Mr Xi has been trying to promote. It used to be that female operatic roles, or dan...

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Few things worry China’s elite more than getting their kids into Harvard

Economist - Thu, 07/11/2019 - 16:51

DIZZIED BY TRUMPIAN flip-flops and clashing policy announcements, China’s ruling classes no longer know quite what to expect from America—with one exception. Chinese elites appear sure that President Donald Trump’s America is willing to hurt their children, as part of a racist scheme to keep China down.

Outsiders might think it odd to spend time fretting about the roughly 360,000 Chinese youngsters studying in America, and whether they face tougher visa rules or unfair scrutiny from FBI agents hunting spies on college campuses. After all, tariffs worth billions of dollars are at stake in the trade war. Depending on what Mr Trump’s dealmaking gut tells him, America may or may not be bent on crushing Huawei, the telecommunications giant key to China’s hopes of becoming a technological superpower.

Yet when Chinese officials meet Westerners, America’s treatment of Chinese students and scholars comes up time and again. For many, the issue is personal: in China as elsewhere, few things matter more to the elite than getting their offspring into Stanford. Chaguan spent July 8th and 9th at the World Peace Forum, a conference attended by Chinese leaders and foreign grandees, hosted by Tsinghua University in Beijing. In public debates and in private corridor conversations, Americans were repeatedly scolded by Chinese government...

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China’s Silicon Valley is transforming China, but not yet the world

Economist - Thu, 07/11/2019 - 16:51

AS A TEENAGER, Wang Hanyang was fascinated by the electronics markets of Zhongguancun. He wandered the aisles of hard drives and graphics cards like a kid in a zoo, asking questions and learning. By 2009, government attempts to foster a tech hub in Mr Wang’s patch of Beijing had yielded little else to inspire a 14-year-old’s imagination. There were a few successful Chinese tech firms mimicking their American counterparts in search and social media, along with other startups. But in general Zhongguancun, a byword for cheap knock-offs, was still a disappointment.

No longer. Today Mr Wang, 25, is at the helm of his second startup, Generalized Aviation, which creates software for drones. Trendy coffee chains and boutique supermarkets dot the streets. Zhongguancun has spread out from the electronics markets into a sweeping quadrant of northwestern Beijing that takes in its two leading universities, Peking and Tsinghua. Zhongguancun is now a concept as much as a place, China’s “Silicon Valley”.

It is also China’s best hope for the domestic innovation that might insulate the country from a world perturbed by its rise. The government calls this “self-dependent innovation”, an idea that the trade war with America has given urgency. In January, during a visit to the new Binhai-Zhongguancun Science and Technology Park (...

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Cheerleaders and police usher in a new era of trash-sorting

Economist - Thu, 07/04/2019 - 16:59

“WHAT KIND of rubbish are you?” This question might normally provoke anger, but in Shanghai it has elicited weary groans over the past week. On July 1st the city introduced stringent trash-sorting regulations that are expected to be used as a model for the country. Residents must divide their waste into four separate categories and toss it into specific public bins. They must do so at scheduled times, when monitors are present to ensure compliance (and to inquire into the nature of one’s rubbish.) Violators face the prospect of fines and worse.

Shanghai authorities are responding to an obvious environmental problem. It generates 9m tonnes of garbage a year, more than London’s annual output and rising quickly. But like other cities in China, it lacks a recycling system. Instead, it has relied on trash pickers to sift through the waste, plucking out whatever can be reused. This has limits. As people get wealthier, fewer of them want to do such dirty work. The waste, meanwhile, just keeps piling up. China churns out 80bn pairs of disposable chopsticks a year.

Officials have tried before to get people to limit their rubbish. But bins marked for recycling have in practice served as yet more garbage cans. This time the government sent a signal that it was more serious: Xi Jinping, the president, visited Shanghai last year and...

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Protesters expose a fractured Hong Kong, but China’s grip only tightens

Economist - Thu, 07/04/2019 - 16:59

IT WAS A dramatic rebuke of Chinese rule of Hong Kong, on the day it was meant to be celebrated. On July 1st, a public holiday known as Establishment Day in honour of the handover of the territory in 1997 from Britain to China, anti-government protesters stormed into and ransacked the city’s Legislative Council, displaying a British-era colonial flag for cameras and live social-media feeds. Hours after Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, had toasted the putative success of 22 years of mainland rule, protesters laid bare for the world the reality of a deeply fractured, fractious Hong Kong.

The violence provided Mrs Lam and Chinese leaders in Beijing, on the defensive after weeks of massive but mostly peaceful protests, an opening to harden their line against protesters. They moved quickly to take it. Mrs Lam held a press conference at police headquarters at 4am on July 2nd, condemning the break-in and defacement of the Legislative Council, known as Legco, and vowing that perpetrators would be caught and punished (there have already been some arrests). The Chinese central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong declared that the “savage acts were an outright provocation and trampling of the city’s rule of law.” On July 3rd Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to Britain, denounced Hong Kong’s “ultra-radicals”, saying they had...

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China’s maritime expansion reflects a curious mix of ambition and paranoia

Economist - Thu, 07/04/2019 - 16:59

GEOGRAPHICAL GOOD luck gave Wu Zhaozong a front-row seat as China opened to the world. As a boy he watched his grandfather steer a horse-drawn cart through the docks of Tianjin, on China’s northern coast. Poor neighbours, living in courtyard homes shared with four families, would follow carts to pick up horse dung and fallen coal-lumps for fuel. Coal was a Tianjin export, as was garlic for Japan. “I very rarely saw cars,” Mr Wu recalls.

Today Tianjin is one of the world’s ten busiest ports, and Mr Wu is operations director of a ship-supply company. The firm’s work includes securing giant wind turbines on ships bound for Chinese partners in Africa. Earlier this week Mr Wu gave Chaguan a lift in his BMW to Tianjin’s passenger terminal. There he oversaw crisply uniformed Filipino sailors loading fresh produce onto a cruise ship, before it carried newly affluent Chinese tourists to Japan. The changes witnessed by Mr Wu—driven by Tianjin’s location as a gateway to Beijing and other northern cities—have been both dramatic and astonishingly rapid. For Mr Wu, an amiable father of two little girls, is just 38 years old.

China was an inward-looking, continental power when Mr Wu was born. It rose in part by turning to the sea. Seven of the world’s ten largest container ports are in China. Overseas, Chinese companies had by 2018...

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China is waging war on Western names for buildings and places

Economist - Thu, 06/27/2019 - 16:25

CHINA’S SOUTHERNMOST province of Hainan is a tropical tourist-magnet of white-sand beaches, mountains and rainforests. Posh resorts line the island’s shore. It is also on the front lines of a culture war. In June Hainan’s government published a list of 53 places and buildings, including many hotels, with names that “worship foreign things and toady to foreign powers”. It said these names must be “cleaned up and rectified”—ie, changed.

Many of the offending names use Chinese characters that, put together, sound like foreign words: Kaisa for Caesar, for example (used in a hotel name), or Weiduoliya for Victoria (the name of a residential area in the capital, Haikou). Several of the buildings are hotels called Weiyena, or Vienna. They belong to the Jinjiang Group, a state-owned firm. The Vienna chain has publicly complained, saying its brand was legally registered in 2012.

That was the year Xi Jinping took over as China’s leader. Since then Mr Xi has been waging a campaign against Western influence and to instil “cultural confidence”. Hainan issued its directive in response to one published late last year by several central ministries on the “rectification” of foreign names as well as “strange” or “exaggerated” ones. Examples given by the ministries included the phonetic renderings in Chinese of foreign names as well as...

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Xi Jinping sees protests in Hong Kong as a threat to the party

Economist - Thu, 06/27/2019 - 16:25

STRIKINGLY OFTEN, campaigners for Western-style freedoms in Hong Kong pretend that they are not seeking a fight with the Communist Party of China. Rather, activists say that their goals and those of party chiefs in Beijing should be nicely aligned: both camps seek continued prosperity for Hong Kong, 22 years after the former British colony became a free-market enclave in China, under the slogan “one country, two systems”. Instead, the campaigners sound crossest with Hong Kong’s government, for failing to maintain a strict enough separation from the mainland.

Campaigners have mostly held to that don’t-poke-the-Chinese-dragon stance during protests that have snarled central Hong Kong since June 9th. Two of the demonstrations have involved more than a million people demanding the withdrawal of a bill that would allow extraditions from the city to mainland China. At times, the contradictions have been a little dizzying. Some protesters defied baton-swinging police and tear-gas as they denounced the Hong Kong government—and above all its chief executive Carrie Lam—for exposing them to a Chinese justice system in which they have no confidence. Marchers waved blood-red banners adorned with images of handcuffs. They yelled obscene Cantonese insults aimed at Mrs Lam, at police officers and (Chaguan regrets to report) at the mothers of those...

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