Do you ever feel like you’re an ant? I often do. Especially at airports. “A soldier knows that the life of an individual ant doesn’t matter — what matters is the colony,” declares one of the soldier ants in the animated feature film Antz. “I’m supposed to do everything for the colony,” complains the depressed worker ant Z (voiced by Woody Allen, back when we were still allowed to find him funny). “And what about my needs? What about me? The whole system makes me feel insignificant.”
I was thinking a lot about ants last week because I was in China. Now, I used to avoid thinking about ants in China, because in the 20th century comparing east Asians to ants was a common western slur. During the Second World War, General William Slim — the hero of the war in Burma — was surely not the only allied commander who likened Japanese soldiers to ants.
The Chinese, too, were not infrequently referred to in this way during the Cold War. As recently as 1996, the American satirical magazine The Onion could publish the spoof headline “Chinese, ants announce alliance” (“After 8,000 years of strained relations, the people of China and the world ant community signed a treaty Monday that will establish close relations between the two civilisations”).
Imagine my surprise to discover that it has long been perfectly acceptable for the Chinese to call themselves ants. In 2014, when Jack Ma decided to rename the payments wing of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, which he had co-founded, he came up with Ant Financial. The inspiration, Ma explained, was a revolutionary slogan and popular song of 1943, Unity Is Strength. In the propaganda of the Mao Tse-tung era, ants were admirable creatures, precisely because they subordinated the individual to the collective. Back to Antz: “It’s this whole gung ho, superorganism thing.”
Yet ants can also have a negative connotation in China. Ten years ago a postdoctoral researcher at Peking University, Lian Si, coined the term “ant tribe” (yizu in Mandarin) for the large and growing population of recent university graduates eking out a miserable existence on lousy wages in overcrowded accommodation.
“They have every similarity to ants,” he wrote. “They live in colonies in cramped areas. They’re intelligent and hardworking, yet anonymous and underpaid.”
I’ve written before about the oversupply of university-educated young people. Fifty years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, almost no one of school-leaving age went to university in China: 0.13% of the relevant age group. In 2009, when Lian coined the term ant tribe, it was 22%. Today it’s 51%. In Hong Kong it’s 74%.
I spent part of last week in Hong Kong, trying to work out what had triggered the student protests that in recent weeks have set its university campuses ablaze. There have been demonstrations for months, ever since the Hong Kong government introduced a bill that would have provided for extradition to the mainland. But only in the past few weeks has the violence dramatically escalated during the protests, with masked students fighting pitched battles with police.
The protesters have repeatedly made five demands:
1) the withdrawal of the extradition bill (which the government has belatedly done)
2) an independent inquiry into police conduct
3) a retraction of the government’s characterisation of the protests as riots
4) the release of arrested protesters
5) the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and the introduction of universal suffrage.
Yet almost no one I spoke to takes these demands at face value. Some blame rising inequality and exorbitant housing costs. Another explanation is the threat of an increasingly authoritarian government in Beijing. I heard that there is also an ethnic undercurrent, with some protesters harassing mainlanders for speaking Mandarin rather than the local Cantonese, or telling residents of western heritage: “This is not your fight.”
Conspiracy theories abound, with locals pointing fingers at forces as diverse as the CIA, the Taiwanese governing party, one or other of Hong Kong’s property tycoons and the enemies of China’s president, Xi Jinping, within the Chinese Communist Party.
I thought I had a theory, which was simply underpolicing. In previous waves of protest in south China — for example, the Red Guard riots and bombings in 1967 — the British colonial government was quick to restore order. You might think there were more police in Hong Kong 52 years ago than now. However, that is not so. The ratio of police to population in 1967 was about 1 to 355. Today, counting civilian staff and auxiliaries, it is 1 to 280. (Admittedly, in 1967 the governor also had the Gurkhas and the Royal Navy.)
I was groping for a better explanation when I came across the theory of the ant tribe. In mainland China, where the surveillance state is ubiquitous and unblinking, the ants have no choice but to toil away. But in relatively liberal Hong Kong they were in a position — like Allen’s Z in Antz — to risk open revolt.
Theirs is a revolution of disappointed expectations. In Hong Kong as elsewhere, it turns out, a university education is not a ticket to a secure and respectable job. Many recent graduates have ended up working for one of the territory’s meal-delivery companies — if they can get a job at all. Rents are among the highest in the world. Working hours follow the 996 rule: 9am to 9pm, six days a week. It’s a monotonous, dispiriting grind.
“There is something quite frightening about the Chinese sort of mass politics and the regimentation of the ordinary being,” said Sir Roger Scruton in an interview in April that temporarily lost him a government appointment. “We invent robots, and they are in a sense creating robots out of their own people, by so constraining what can be done that each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one — and that’s a very frightening thing. And the concentration camps have come back, largely there to ‘re-educate’ the Muslims.”
Graffiti on the polytechnic campus last week echoed Scruton’s view, which the New Statesman had — as it later acknowledged — misrepresented as racist. “Dear world, CCP [Chinese Communist Party] will infiltrate your government. Chinese enterprises interferes [sic] your political stance. China will harvest your home like Xinjiang [home of the Muslim Uighurs]. Be aware or be next!”
The revolt of the ant tribe appears to be over in the former colony — at least for now. But the ants of Hong Kong have spoken. It remains to be seen who on the mainland is listening. To judge by last weekend’s leak to The New York Times of 403 pages of top-secret party documents about the Xinjiang internments, at least one highly placed individual feels like an ant, too.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford