In the midst of a street crowded with young protesters denouncing Chinese authoritarianism, Leo Chang walked with a full-sized Nikon camera around his neck, scanning the scene for images that might tell a different story.
“Of course, I don’t support them,” he said of protesters who have used violence to push a list of demands, including greater democratic freedoms. “I just want to use my camera as a weapon.”
He scrolled through his phone to show what he meant. In one image, he is holding shards of glass with a crumpled Coke can in the background. Mr. Chang calls it Crystals of Democracy. “Both democracy and Coca-Cola come from the Western world. And now they are all broken like this,” he said. In another photo, he has tossed a yellow paper with the text “Hong Kong suffrage” into a metal pot filled with bricks that protesters have thrown at police and businesses they fault for being friendly to China. “This is what they want Hong Kong suffrage to be, which means they use violence,” he said.
As he walked the streets, Mr. Chang, 25, looked little different from the crowd chanting “Fight for freedom,” save that he was not dressed in black. But unlike most of the people gathered for one of the protests that have brought tumult to this Asian financial capital for 19 weeks now, he had arrived by high-speed train from the nearby Chinese city of Guangzhou, where he is a PhD finance student in his home country.
And his perspective suggests that Beijing has little to fear from the Hong Kong protests. Instead, the lengthy outbreak of violence has served to underscore the skill of China’s leadership in addressing the shifting demands of a digitally connected generation while buttressing the Communist Party’s long-held argument that it alone can hold firm the ground beneath the feet of the Chinese nation, even if that means employing increasingly severe methods of social control.
Among young mainland Chinese exposed to the protests, the violence that has erupted has only served to validate that dogma.
At The Chinese University of Hong Kong, a student-run survey assessed views among 268 mainland young people in the city. Those surveyed chose rule of law as their most important value, followed by stability and prosperity. Democracy was dead last. Freedom was second-last.
Support for the protests varied considerably, with those who have spent the most time in the city showing the most sympathy, according to the survey, which found a subtlety of views. Only 12 per cent, for example, opposed an independent investigation into police conduct, one of the key demands of protesters, and fewer than 20 per cent opposed withdrawal of a proposed extradition bill that initially sparked the protest movement.
But as a group, they showed a clear difference in priorities from those on the protest lines.
“It’s quite typical Chinese thinking,” said Daisy, the student who organized the survey. The Globe and Mail is identifying her by her English first name alone because she supports the protests and fears reprisal over her views.
In general, people in China “have a different understanding of freedom. They think freedom of expression should be restrained to help the government maintain social stability,” she said. For youth, the message in their childhood homes and in patriotic instruction at school is that while private expression of views is acceptable, “you cannot challenge the system,” she said.
For Hong Kong’s own youth, protests have been sustained by fear of losing freedoms to an encroaching authoritarian state some see as so tyrannical they call it “Chinazi.”
Mr. Chang could hardly be more different. He has no problem with the idea of peaceful protest, although he fiercely opposes violent tactics. But, he said of the protesters, “I feel sad for them. I think they might be brainwashed.” Because “the enemy they are fighting against doesn’t even exist,” he said. “China is more and more open, and more and more free. They must have some misunderstanding of us.”
It’s true that mainland youth “don’t have the freedom to use foreign websites, like Google and Twitter,” he said – although he uses circumvention tools to post photos to Instagram and Twitter. “But we have the freedom to go out at night alone and don’t have to worry about being robbed. So it depends on how you define freedom.”
The violence in Hong Kong has only served to emphasize that feeling, particularly as it has increased in explosiveness. In recent days, Hong Kong police said someone had remotely detonated a home-made bomb in what Superintendent Suryanto Chin-chiu of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Bureau called an act “with only one motive, which is to kill and maim officers in the field.” A protester also attacked an officer in the neck with a knife. President Xi Jinping on Monday vowed that “anyone who attempts to split any region from China will be crushed with shattered body and bones.”
The protests in Hong Kong have frequently been dubbed one of the greatest challenges Mr. Xi has faced as ruler of China. But violent scenes in the city may instead help to secure the supremacy he and the Party enjoy.
“They’ve always made the argument that democracy equals chaos,” said David Zweig, a Canadian social scientist in Hong Kong who has studied China’s transnational relations and issues relating to its overseas students. “The protesters are feeding perfectly into this vision.” Chinese state media, too, have ignored peaceful protests and amplified scenes of conflict, “feeding the people the idea that there’s nothing going on here except chaos and violence,” said Mr. Zweig, who is now director of Transnational China Consulting Limited.
At the same time, the dim view among mainland youth of Hong Kong protesters and the values they represent also points to the success of the Chinese Communist Party, which has ruled China for 70 years but has still secured broad support among new generations radically different from those in 1949.
People in the West might think of the party as a dictatorship, said Du Ze, a friend of Mr. Chang’s who travelled together with him to take pictures in Hong Kong. But an average person in China who could only afford to buy a sack of rice seven decades ago can now afford 60. “Very few countries around the world can achieve something like that,” he said.
“No matter how the Western world describes China, or what the Communist Party looks like, it’s a fact that the party is leading its people to a better life.”
As for Mr. Chang, he knows a person of his age and skill has options. He could study and live in China, Hong Kong or, if he chose, somewhere in the West.
“But I still think mainland China is the best choice,” he said. He cited China’s continued prospects for economic growth and the degree to which its leadership has improved life in other ways, in part by clearing the way for a technological flourishing. Most days, he walks to a campus shop to buy groceries, authorizing payment with nothing more than his face. Such systems have raised pointed concerns about privacy and the increasing reach of China’s industrial-government complex.
But other places in the world “are not as convenient as we are,” Mr. Chang said. Staking his future on China "is a rational choice.”