With celebrations underway to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the October 1 festivities are set to culminate in a massive, chest-thumping military parade down Beijing’s main ceremonial thoroughfare. Nile Bowie specially for the Asia Times.
Some 1,200 miles away in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory in the throes of a historic struggle against the perceived erosion of its autonomy by Beijing, the occasion will more likely be marked by pitched street battles than patriotic pomp.
The former British colony faces its biggest political and constitutional crisis since returning to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” principle, which in theory allows the city to have its own governmental system largely independent of Beijing.
But as China celebrates its emergence as a global power, the widening gulf of identity and ideology between those two systems looks more and more difficult to bridge, causing many Hongkongers to increasingly view their home as a place apart.
Black-clad demonstrators, who in recent days have ramped up violence in their nearly four-month-old protest movement, are expected to leverage the national holiday to pile even more pressure on the government to meet their demands.
Those include intensifying rally cries for universal suffrage, political reform and adherence to Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and core values as enshrined in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. Few analysts, however, expect Beijing to budge.
Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says the root of the problem is Hong Kong people’s distrust in Beijing to honor its “one country, two systems” pledges.
“Unfortunately, these misgivings and forebodings have been proven right, particularly after [President] Xi Jinping took over as [Communist] party chief in 2012,” said Lam. “For the past six to seven years, Beijing has been squeezing Hong Kong further, using one country to suppress two systems, as it were,” he told Asia Times.
A central thread running through Hong Kong’s past and present protests, according to Lam, is Hongkongers’ desire to maintain core values such as media freedom, judicial independence and rule of law, and to not be assimilated into China’s authoritarian system.
There are clear signs that Beijing’s tightening grip has provoked local resentment and in turn a hardening of Hong Kong identity, seen in rising xenophobic sentiment and rhetoric towards mainland Chinese and the desecration of Chinese national symbols.
Recent opinion polls show that the percentage of Hongkongers identifying as “Chinese” is currently at its lowest point since 1997.
A recent University of Hong Kong (HKU) survey showed that 53% of respondents identify as “Hongkongers”, while just 11% identified as “Chinese.” When respondents were asked if they are proud of being citizens of China, 71% said “no.” Among the 18 to 29 age group, a resounding 90% answered “no.”
Tom Fowdy, an Oxford-educated British political and international relations analyst, sees the current political crisis “in light of a conflict of identity between the notion of Hong Kong as a separate political space and its obviously present existence as an increasingly associated part of the People’s Republic of China.”
Rising tensions in the territory “are all part of a similar sentiment and that has been growing. What we see now is the apex of those tensions,” said Fowdy, who believes Hongkongers view their collective civic identity and culture as being distinct and superior to the mainland’s.
“These protests are quantitated by Hong Kong identity, which truly does believe in its exceptionality, born from the memory of Hong Kong as a separate and exclusive political space,” Fowdy suggests. “On every level, on the political and social level, they believe they are better people than mainland China, and that identity is what drives them.”
Such sentiment is typified by popular slogans such as “Hong Kong is not China”, Fowdy said.
“When I speak to mainland Chinese about this, they say Hongkongers have this kind of pride, which makes them think that they are bigger and better than the broader connotation of China itself. I find a lot of mainland Chinese thoroughly dislike this sentiment.”
Lam counters that “few people would be willing to go so far as to boast that the Hong Kong way is ‘superior,’” he said, noting instead, however, that protesters and activists frequently say that Hong Kong “is different.”
“They resist what I call the ‘mainlandization’ of Hong Kong, the subsuming of Hong Kong under mainland Chinese values and efforts by Beijing to sinicize, to ‘mainlandize’ Hong Kong, just as Beijing has tried to sinicize Tibet and Xinjiang,” he said.
Young people in particular “see a real danger” of Hong Kong being subsumed by China before 2047, Lam added, in reference to the year when the territory will officially cease to be a special administrative region.
Perceptions of Hong Kong as fundamentally different from the mainland have intensified as China moves “full speed ahead towards a police state with tight party-state control over ideology, over the media, over the internet, and even over business to some extent,” said Lam.
But while some in the protest camp wish to cut loose from the mainland, only a small percentage of Hongkongers advocate independence for the territory or “the sense of breaking out of China and becoming a separate political entity, the way Taiwan is now,” Lam added. “Very few people advocate this because they see it as an impossibility.”
Fowdy, for one, is not necessarily convinced that rising autocracy in China is to blame for fueling anxieties in Hong Kong, sentiments that he attributes instead to the Asian powerhouse rising on its own terms.
“China has been a one-party state for decades. So, it’s not so much what China is transforming into [under] the present connotations of Xi Jinping,” he said.
“It’s a long-established entrenched view as to what China is,” Fowdy added, which for many relates to the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, an event he credits with playing a “very strong role in the protesters’ construction of identity.”
“The recent shift in the Western paradigm has been this acknowledgement that China is not becoming ‘like us,’ not becoming as we envisioned it would be. And for Hongkongers, it’s dealing with these realities [that have exacerbated] their long-held fears,” he added.
Those fears, it seems, have come to a head in this year’s unprecedented fight for Hong Kong’s future. What has set this year’s protests apart from previous ones, analysts say, is a more pronounced acceptance of violent tactics to achieve political ends.
While the majority have demonstrated peacefully, academic Lam notes that fewer protesters than in the past are opposed to the violent tactics being employed by the movement’s radical fringe.
“Now, even the most peaceful-oriented protester agrees with some of the arguments of the radical fringe. Since 2003, the protesters – the people who want change – have been using only peaceful, legal means. And these methods have gotten them nowhere.
“Whereas so far, since the beginning of June, the sometimes violent methods used by the radical fringe have achieved some results, such as [Chief Executive] Carrie Lam and Beijing backtracking on the extradition bill, and so forth,” Lam told Asia Times.
In his 2017 book, A System Apart: Hong Kong’s Political Economy from 1997 Until Now, British author Simon Cartledge linked the electoral success of localist and radical candidates from the Umbrella Movement at the city’s 2016 legislative council elections with the rise of nationalist populism in the US and Europe.
Declining social mobility, fewer economic opportunities and rising inequality in the territory have given rise to certain right-wing sentiments, including a hardening of nativist attitudes and perceptions that outsiders are to blame. As in the West, these views have culminated in a rejection of politics as usual.
Calls by some segments of the protest movement for US President Donald Trump to “liberate” Hong Kong could be seen as a poignant symbol of this rupture. As in Western societies, where the hollowing-out of economies has stoked nostalgia for the industrial prosperity of a bygone era, so too it would seem in “Asia’s World City.”
“We want the British government to come back and rule us,” said protester Li Hing-ning, a 51-year-old property manager, during an interview Asia Times as he waved aloft Hong Kong’s colonial-era flag, a gesture which observers interpret both as a representation of identity and an act intended to shame the territory’s current sovereign, China.
“Trump clearly would not be a friend of these people,” author Cartledge told Asia Times. “[Appeals to Washington] seem to me to be sort of slightly misplaced. But it would be nice to have strong support from liberal regimes in the West who say please adhere to the promises made in the Joint Declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law.”
Against the backdrop of the US-China trade war, protesters’ appeals for overseas support have aimed at the Western liberal conscience and made overt references to Cold War anti-communism, which some see as setting the 2019 protests apart from their predecessor movements.
“These protesters know that they are in the minority. Every bit of international moral support they can gather, every bit helps,” said Lam. “But of course, one cannot rule out that there is also a, shall we say, an opportunistic effort to exploit the Cold War situation, the trade war situation between the US and China.”
Economic factors, housing issues and Hong Kong’s status as one of the world’s most unequal cities clearly infuse many of the grievances voiced by activists, though few have taken the city’s government to task for protecting elite economic interests that exclude and marginalize the majority.
While China seems poised to rise higher and higher as a world power on the people’s republic’s 70th anniversary, its falling out with a generation of Hongkongers will likely ripple for commemorations to come.
“I think, in the end, it’s up to people in Hong Kong to make their claim for what they want and struggle for,” said Cartledge. “And I think they do that very well.”