141001 Kerry Wang press meetingComparing current events to past events is all the rage in amateur analysis.  That’s why we’re happy to read from Zheng Wang, Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS) at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, his wise statement that “Hong Kong is not Beijing, and 2014 is not 1989.”  So true.  Regarding the events unfolding in Hong Kong, what can the perspective of The Tai Initiative lend to a clearer or more nuanced understanding of what is going on?  Let’s focus on this particularly helpful video from The Guardian.

There are two amazing things about this video.  One is the appearance of Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Wang Yi alongside one another on the same stage, in Washington D.C., commenting in a press meeting.  I don’t think we’ve ever seen two such prominent national leaders standing side-by-side, as if in mutual support, to comment in the opening stages of an event that clearly puts them “at odds”.  That Wang agreed to this action in the run-up to his talks with Kerry is quite interesting and even encouraging.

The other amazing thing is the palpable presence of the concept of sovereignty in the current conversation.   Between the two sovereign states we see (as evidenced by the cooperation just noted) a significant amount of mutual understanding that was not present twenty years ago.  Both sides have managed to listen and learn, to a degree.  Kerry does not tell China what to do (at least in this video) and China reminds the listener (as if we needed reminding at this stage) that everyone else can keep their noses out of PRC business.

Yet there is a very different conversation going on at the same time, with sovereignty still in the picture, between the PRC and Hong Kong, the latter of which lacks sovereignty because it is a city, not a city-state (as one might describe it as having been before).  Yet the lack of sovereignty has not made the city of Hong Kong any less powerful in terms of being able to send a message to the world and to the PRC leadership.  Note the intentional and powerful contrast in the video between the phrase “violate public order” in Wang’s translated words and the image of thousands sitting calmly, quietly, waiting for the effect of their presence to accomplish their goals.

As this story unfolds, watch carefully for the stance, and listen to the statements, of Hong Kong’s municipal leaders.  Not just because the issue of their leadership appointment is at the center of the protest issues, but also because it will be interesting to note  how their authority – which they have, for authority is not the same as sovereignty – does or does not translate diplomatically between other Chinese cities and US cities.

Perhaps a prominent US city leader will (or has, I don’t know) come out publically (likely without US State Department coordination) to comment on the protest events as an indication of Hong Kong’s identity as a global city found within the boundaries of the PRC nation-state?  No doubt we will not soon be seeing any such statement from a Chinese municipal leader.

The future is not in the past.  It is being made today, so build it with us.