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,” declares one of the soldier ants in the animated feature film “Antz." “What matters is the colony.”
”I’m supposed to do everything for the colony," complains the depressed worker ant Z (voiced by Woody Allen). “And what about my needs? What about me?”
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. As recently as 1996, the American satirical magazine The Onion could publish the spoof headline “Chinese, Ants Announce Alliance.”
Imagine my surprise to discover that it has long been perfectly acceptable for the Chinese to call themselves ants. Back in 2014, when Jack Ma decided to rename the payments wing of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, he came up with “Ant Financial.” The inspiration, Ma explained, was the revolutionary slogan and popular song of 1943, “Unity is strength.” In the propaganda of the Mao era, ants were admirable creatures, precisely because they subordinated the individual to the collective. Back to “Antz”: “It’s this whole gung ho, super organism thing.”
Yet ants can also have a negative connotation in China. Ten years ago, a postgraduate at Peking University, Lian Si, coined the term “Ant Tribe” (yizu) for the large and growing population of recent university graduates eking out a miserable existence on lousy wages in overcrowded accommodations. “They share every similarity with 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 percent of the relevant age group. In 2009, when Lian Si coined the phrase Ant Tribe, it was 22 percent. Today it’s 51 percent. In Hong Kong, it’s 74 percent.
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 the city’s 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 have the protests turned violent, with masked and armored students fighting pitched battles with the police.
Almost no one I spoke with takes the protesters’ demands — which include the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and the introduction of universal suffrage — at face value. Some blame rising inequality and exorbitant housing costs. Another explanation is the threat of an increasingly authoritarian government in Beijing. I also heard that there is an ethnic undercurrent, with some protesters harassing mainlanders for speaking Mandarin rather than the local Cantonese.
Conspiracy theories abound, with locals pointing fingers at forces as diverse as the CIA, the Taiwanese governing party, one or another of Hong Kong’s real estate tycoons, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s enemies within the Chinese Communist Party.
I thought I had a theory, which was simply under-policing. 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 that there were more police in Hong Kong 50 years ago than now. However, that is not so. The ratio of police to population in 1967 was around 1:355. Today, counting civilian staff and auxiliaries, it is 1:280. (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 Woody Allen 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 bachelors of arts end up working for one of the city’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: from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 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 2019 that temporarily lost him a UK 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 Sir Roger’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 looks to be over in the former colony — at least for now. But the ants of Hong Kong have spoken (and on Sunday they voted overwhelmingly for pro-democracy candidates in elections for district councils). It remains to be seen who on the mainland is listening. To judge by last week’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 University.