Hong Kong protests: A clash of two very different cultures
Friday's scheduled talks between protesters and government show mutual respect
Now that streets are calm for a while, pending the outcome of talks between protest leaders and the government, I was able to take time to visit one of my favourite spots in Hong Kong.
The melancholy spectacle of wild animals in cages makes me loathe zoos. Still, I love strolling through the Edward Youde Aviary, set on a steep hillside in Hong Kong Park a few minutes walk from the barricades in the heart of the city.
It is one of the biggest aviaries in the world. A wooden walkway high above the ground winds through a tropical forest full of birds from all over Southeast Asia, contained in a vast mesh tent that is all but invisible.
Some years ago in Beijing, I interviewed Wang Shuo, a brilliant and enormously popular writer whose greatest review came from the politburo member who described Wang's seamy novels about life in Beijing as "literature about riff-raff, written by riff-raff for riff-raff."
I asked him how he managed to write biting satire deeply offensive to humourless Communist Party officials, get it published and stay out of prison.
"We're like birds in a cage," he said. "Sometimes the cage is very tight, and sometimes it's a little looser. We always keep an eye on the bars, and fly around inside."
The birds in the Youde aviary seem happy enough because their cage is huge, and, I tell myself, they don't know they are enclosed, which somehow tempers my philosophical objections.
Birds in a cage
Many people in China know they are restricted, but manage to live creative lives knowing where the limits are.
People in Hong Kong knew back in 1997 that joining the Peoples' Republic was like being placed in a new political cage.
It seemed acceptable because there was no other choice, and the promise of "One country, two systems" meant that the bars would not be too tight, and that one day, perhaps, the door to real democracy might even be opened.
These past weeks, and months, people took to the streets in Hong Kong because they could feel the door being locked and the bars closing in.
Hong Kong's leaders, and their masters in Beijing, are determined not to give in to the protesters' demands for any dramatic revision to the politburo's plan to control who can run to be Hong Kong's next chief executive in 2017.
Neverthless the volcano of support for the protesters that erupted when riot police were ordered to clear the streets on Sept. 28 has forced them into a dialogue with the protest leaders. Those talks will begin on Friday.
Beijing holds the important cards in these talks, but one fact that must be giving China's leaders heartburn is that since the handover of Hong Kong from Britain they have had 17 years to persuade the people of Hong Kong that to be part of the Peoples' Republic of China is a great and glorious thing.
And yet all the propaganda about the triumph of the Beijing Olympics, the wonder of men and women from China in space, and international envy of the economic and military renaissance that is returning China to its rightful place at the centre of the world stage has fallen on deaf ears.
In June, the University of Hong Kong conducted a poll to find out how people think about themselves.
Of the six choices, "Hongkonger," which sounds a lot less clunky in Chinese, came first.
Then people told the pollsters that they identify themselves as next as "Asian," "Members of the Chinese race," "Global citizen," and "Chinese," in that order.
Trailing far behind, in last place, was "Citizen of the Peoples' Republic of China."
On my way back from the aviary, I stopped to take a picture of the barricade blocking one of main roads in central Hong Kong. There was not a protester to be found.
Given the amazing things that two guys and a truck can achieve in Hong Kong, these unguarded streets could have been cleared in about 10 minutes.
The fact that they are allowed to stand means two things. First, that the Hong Kong government does not underestimate the protesters' threat to abandon talks if their barricades are touched.
Second, that, despite everything, the protesters seem to trust their government's word. That alone is a reminder that Hong Kong really is different from the rest of China.