Anti-government protesters being taken by paramedics to ambulances from the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the Hung Hom district on Wednesday. AFP PIC

THE Hong Kong protests may be about to reach a fiery climax. They have disgusted many not just in the city, but also on the mainland — particularly over the troubling violence — but also entrenched others in the city (the silent majority?) to the larger cause of it retaining meaningful autonomy.

The protests have divided opinions in Taiwan and among the Chinese diaspora, especially in Southeast Asia. Perhaps Taiwan has more of a stake in how the unrest in Hong Kong develops or evolves and more of the people there will, therefore, tend to be sympathetic towards the protesters.

Not so among the Chinese diaspora, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by. This writer is struck from discussing randomly with people I know how closely their views about Hong Kong align with the narrative emanating from the mainland.

These are strongly held views by mostly professional types, albeit from the older generation, and, therefore, not likely to be unduly susceptible to the long arm of China’s burgeoning influence.

The views being bandied about invariably go thus: Hong Kong protesters are a foolish lot if they thought they could win against mighty China; are acting against their long-term interests and are, at any rate, being paid off — presumably by foreign pro-democracy operatives.

Stubborn youthful idealism and anti-China sentiments hardened by persistent assaults by way of some of Beijing’s moves are offered as plausible explanations for the unrest, but hardly stand any chance given such hardline views.

It will not come as a surprise if such views are largely identical to ones held by sophisticated urbanites in China fed a daily staple of official Chinese propaganda, but able to discern and decide for themselves on any issue from exposure to outside information and influence as a result of frequent foreign travels.

Such views fly in the face of conventional Western-originated wisdom that as citizens in any given country grow more affluent, so grows a clamour for greater political freedoms and/or democracy.

Chinese citizens as well as those among the Chinese diaspora may well have independently concluded that a modern and progressive China need not necessarily be a democratic China and largely bought into the argument that the only way a China of 1.4 billion people can stay united will be by way of a strong, authoritarian central government.

These views will be strongly influenced by the fact of a lumbering, chaotic and still largely poor but democratic India — the only real peer to China. They are not helped by the political dysfunction now experienced by almost all the major advanced democracies.

If anything, political developments in the largest democracy (India) and the most powerful one (America) tend towards the belief that democracies are no less susceptible to troubling nationalism or worse.

Perhaps Beijing can justifiably rest easy that as the nation advances economically, and as its single party-state political system adjusts and responds nimbly to common, everyday public concerns and succeeds in keeping corruption in check, the current dispensation can sustain itself indefinitely, confounding — as always — predictions by Western analysts about any imminent “collapse”.

This seems the most plausible conclusion to the revealing but otherwise puzzling contradiction that those in the regional Chinese diaspora, who are among the stoutest vanguards of democracy in their respective nations, hold such cynical views about Hong Kong’s cries for democracy.

A rather more sophisticated discourse and appreciation of what really animates the political debate in this region must inform the vital interactions between the West and the East where the centre of economic gravity has largely shifted, if there is to be any soft landing for the world arising from China’s rise.

These are truly troubling and unsettling times with geopolitical risks growing in tandem. An erroneous misreading of fast-moving global political trends forged by cultural misunderstandings or, worse, wishful thinking on the part of powerful Western constituencies may conceivably plunge us all over the abyss.

In an earlier era of Western strategic and ideological rivalry with the former Soviet Union and the then Eastern bloc, major powers learnt to peacefully co-exist because of the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction.

Rivalry between China and the United States is militarily less fraught but has grown equally intense. Given that the competition today is mostly in the economic sphere, there is in fact greater scope for constructive co-existence if only cooler heads prevail all around.

The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak