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By Dr. Thomas Gold, Professor, University of California
Review by David T. Jones

Dr. Thomas Gold is professor of sociology at the University of California and Executive Director of the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies, a consortium of 14 U.S. universities which administers an advanced Chinese language program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Dr. Gold addressed the Asia Studies Group of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in October.

Essentially, he compared the largely unknown “Sunflower Movement” in Taipei and the much more media prominent “Umbrella Movement” in Hong Kong to argue that both represent “push back” by elements of the larger Chinese cultural/economic community against Beijing pressures.

Gold provides thumbnail sketch historical reviews of Taiwan (with a history of little direct association with mainland China and its current independence) and Hong Kong which has never been independent.  He argues that the Taiwanese “Sunflower Movement” stems from fears by local citizens that senior officials are taking steps that would tie their economy (and ultimately their politics) more closely to Beijing. Without specific illustration, Gold suggests that “people in Taiwan take the imagined response of the PRC government or people from the mainland into consideration when they make decisions about schooling, residence (including moving off the island), business, vacation, political activity, careers, military service, intellectual inquiry, publications, media and even the name used to refer to the country of their citizenship.”

For Hong Kong the circumstances are even more fraught with danger. The protestors “fear that the local elite, in cahoots with Beijing, was negotiating away too much autonomy.” But even more important is the concern that “closer integration with China has brought about an overall decline in the quality of life and standard of living among the majority of Hong Kong’s population,” particularly driven by the influx of mainlanders who absorb social services.

Gold tends to view these protests in the context of canaries in the coal mine. He notes efforts in dynastic China by scholars, students, and intellectuals to bring societal problems and weaknesses to Imperial attention—to no avail but invidious results for the protestors. In the same context, he suggests that the Sunflower and Umbrella movements indicate greater problems for the PRC’s communist leadership in addressing the challenges of a massive population with increasing economic, political, and social requirements.

In short, Gold views Beijing’s actions as an expression of the regime’s deep concerns over “the risk of widespread popular unrest and its own tenuous legitimacy.” He believes the PRC needs to develop “safety valves” to allow popular frustrations to be expressed and considered.  Nevertheless, he wryly admits that as a “Western sociologist and not a Chinese communist,” this approach is “perhaps not terribly likely to appeal to China’s rulers.”

One can appreciate the cogency of Dr. Gold’s analysis without accepting his projection of increasing problems for PRC leadership. Observers have seen comparable predictions since the 1989 Tiananmen events, but such have not come to pass.

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