The Anti-Mainland Bigotry of Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement
by Taisu Zhang / November 29, 2016 / ForeignPolicy
Given the political earthquake that occurred on November 8, the recent political and constitutional crisis in Hong Kong now seems comparatively diminished in significance. At the time, however, it was widely seen as—and continues to be—a major challenge for both the Chinese Party-State and the Hong Kong local government. If anything, the magnitude of that challenge has increased since the U.S. election, given the turmoil a Trump presidency could generate abroad.
There are, in fact, a number of common themes among the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the unyielding stance Beijing has taken towards Hong Kong political activism over the past few years: all three are largely products of rising nationalism. While the role nationalism and anti-globalization sentiment have played in recent U.S. and British politics has been covered ad nauseam, analysts have often overlooked the ways in which Chinese nationalism—popular nationalism, as opposed to government-sponsored patriotism—shapes and, in many ways, constrains the ruling Communist Party leadership’s political tactics. The failure to understand and account for mainland nationalism is perhaps most evident in the political strategies pursued by the Hong Kong democracy movement, many of which have been self-defeating for precisely this reason.
Ever since it first became an object of international attention during the Occupy Central protests in late 2014, where mass demonstrations decried the lack of true democracy in the former British colony, Hong Kong’s democracy movement has been fueled by a volatile combination of genuine pro-democracy sentiment, grievances against economic inequality, occasionally shapeless youth idealism, pro-independence separatism, and various forms of xenophobia and bigotry against mainlanders. The latter two elements were again on prominent display during the recent oath-swearing controversy, when two elected Hong Kong legislators were denied their seats for refusing to swear allegiance to the People’s Republic of China. They displayed “Hong Kong is not China” banners and, when pressed, referred to the People’s Republic of China as the “people’s re-fucking of Chee-na.” (Chee-na, as most Chinese students learn in middle school, is a Japanese name for China broadly used during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and it now carries strong derogatory—and often racist—undertones.)
The episode reinforced the common belief among mainlanders, and outside observers, that Hong Kong activists are at least partly motivated by anti-mainland bigotry. Mainland netizens swiftly drew comparisons between the oath-swearing incident and the inflammatory rhetoric employed by some Occupy Central protesters in 2014, which compared mainland migrants and tourists to “locusts” eating away at the social and economic foundations of Hong Kong. When China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress responded on November 7 with an aggressive interpretation of the city’s governing Basic Law that essentially barred all Hong Kong legislators from taking office if they failed to properly swear allegiance, WeChat and Weibo, the Chinese equivalents of WhatsApp and Twitter, exploded with approval.
The continued entanglement of the Hong Kong democracy movement with anti-mainland bigotry may make some amount of political sense; it allows the movement to draw support from sectors of the local population that would not otherwise be sufficiently interested. Raw xenophobia, as recent developments in Western politics demonstrate all too clearly, can be an extremely powerful motivator, especially for populist movements that lack elite sponsorship and ideological coherence. It may very well be true that, but for its appeal to the uglier side of Hong Kong localism, the city’s democracy movement would never have gotten off the ground in the first place.
But if the movement’s goal is to win any real institutional victories, and not just vent frustrations and galvanize youth, then an anti-mainland angle is ultimately self-defeating. What many activists and Western commentators do not seem to understand is that Beijing cares far more about sociopolitical stability on the mainland than in Hong Kong, which is, after all, only China’s 18th most populous city and its third largest urban economy. Especially under the “one country, two systems” superstructure, which officially allows Hong Kong a separate political and economic system until 2047 and requires those passing between Hong Kong and the mainland to present their passport, the Party’s rule is almost completely unaffected by the degree of its support there.
Obviously, the opposite is true for Party popularity on the mainland. The more Hong Kong democracy activists employ anti-mainland rhetoric, rather than anti-oppression or anti-autocracy rhetoric, the more they provoke nationalist fury among the mainland population, and the more Party leadership is able to reap political gains from a hardline stance. If the cost of shoring up popular support on the mainland is merely a period of heightened political tension in Hong Kong—which, after all, has no realistic path towards democracy without Beijing’s consent, and zero chance of independence—then that is a bargain Party leaders are likely quite willing to make.
One could argue that Party leaders are—or should be—wary of damaging Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center. But if the relatively muted financial reaction to Occupy Central is any indication, Hong Kong’s attractiveness as a financial hub does not necessarily depend on warm relations between Chinese policymakers and the local population. Financial markets rely more on institutional predictability than on government popularity; the two are sometimes correlated, but not necessarily so. In fact, a consistently hardline position by mainland policymakers in a secure position of political dominance may actually offer more institutional predictability and stability than a more accommodating but potentially ambiguous position. That calculus could change if Beijing begins to actively interfere with the operation of Hong Kong’s financial institutions, but at present, there is no discernible danger of that.
Mainland Chinese nationalism can be a fickle thing, but if there is anything predictable about it, it is the consistency with which it lashes out at perceived disrespect by foreigners or outsiders. Western media often mocks the frequency at which the Chinese government accuses foreign entities of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” but there is, at least in recent years, an element of truth to the claim. As nationalist sentiments gain traction among younger generations, there is a stronger likelihood that perceived disrespect by foreigners—or, even worse, by residents of Hong Kong or Taiwan—will in fact “hurt the feelings” of large portions of the mainland population. Read more…