Patriotism and its Discontents

by Sebastian Veg

The number of participants in the Hong Kong vigil has skyrocketed since 2009 — the twentieth anniversary of the 4 June 1989 Beijing massacre — including growing numbers of young students. But the controversy that erupted this year around the slogan proposed by the organisers is significant of a tide change in Hong Kong and, perhaps to an extent, in China. The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic Patriotic Movements of China (Zhilianhui 支聯會), which has organised the vigils ever since their inception, put forward the catchword ‘Love the Country, Love the People; the Hong Kong Spirit’ (Ai guo ai min, Xianggang jingshen 愛國愛民 香港精神). This initiative was most probably a reaction to recent debates in Hong Kong on ‘patriotism’: in the current debate on whether Hong Kong’s next chief executive is finally to be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, Beijing has set down ‘patriotism’ as a vetting criterion for candidates. (The idea, voiced by National People’s Congress official Qiao Xiaoyang, is ultimately derived from Deng Xiaoping’s formula ‘Love the Country, Love Hong Kong’ ai guo ai gang 愛國愛港). The wording chosen by the Alliance was supposed to highlight, as many ‘patriotic’ Hong Kongers have done over the years, that opposing the Party and commemorating the dead students, workers and Beijing citizens of 1989 is just as patriotic, or is more so than, the official denial (of wrongdoing) that the Party still clings to.

Horace Chin Wan-Kan, cultural commentator and academic. Photo: Maria Caetano

Horace Chin Wan-Kan, cultural commentator and academic.
Photo: Maria Caetano

In 2013, however, for the first time, the very idea of patriotism was publicly disputed by increasingly vocal ‘nativist’ or ‘localist’ groups usually referred to as bentupai 本土派 (‘own soil faction’). Their most vocal proponent, the pro-autonomy cultural commentator and academic who goes by the penname Chan Wan (Horace Chin Wan-kan), berated the organisers for their blind patriotism. Calls for a separate vigil in Kowloon were heard. The Alliance sought support for their slogan from Ding Zilin (the septuagenarian mother of one of the first students killed on 4 June 1989 and the head of a group called Tiananmen Mothers who stand for justice for all the victims of the massacre). She chastised the ‘autonomists’ but refused to endorse the word ‘patriotism’, pointing out that the Tiananmen Mothers had never used it; she criticised the Alliance for misunderstanding the situation in China. Persuaded, the Alliance rapidly dropped the slogan and apologised to Ding (a member had — somewhat bewilderingly — accused her of having succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome).

In the end, the effect on the turnout was minimal; a slight fall in participants was most probably due to a violent rainstorm, as various local groups like Scholarism (Xuemin sichao 學民思潮, which says it is ‘The Alliance Against Moral and National Education’) publicly opposed Chan Wan and called on residents to attend the vigil. The separate event in Kowloon was only attended by a few hundred people. Ding’s reply, however, raises a particularly interesting issue with regard to the status of patriotism, or the identification with the Chinese nation-state, in current political controversies both in Hong Kong and in mainland China.

Anti-National Education protesters. Photo: Ansel Ma

Anti-National Education protesters.
Photo: Ansel Ma

Protesters supporting ‘Scholarism’ 學民思潮, 29 July 2012. Photo: Kaiadamkai

Protesters supporting ‘Scholarism’ 學民思潮, 29 July 2012.
Photo: Kaiadamkai











One obvious reason why the Alliance’s slogan, designed to inflect patriotism towards the ‘people’ and away from the state, proved controversial this year, is the anti-National Education (guoqing jiaoyu 國情教育) protests that took place in Hong Kong in the summer of 2012.

Anti-Mainland populist rhetoric had spread in Hong Kong throughout the spring of 2012, focussing on the ‘invasion’ of unruly mainland tourists on shopping sprees and pregnant mothers unlawfully giving birth in Hong Kong to obtain residency, squeezing local residents out of limited hospital beds. These frustrations were amusingly captured in the viral clip ‘Who’s Stolen Our Dreams?’ (a spoof of the government-sponsored video ‘Believe in Our Dreams’).

Protests escalated after the foundation of Scholarism, a non-partisan group led by high-school students (notably the highly articulate Joshua Wong) and their parents, who organised a widely attended protest march on 29 July 2012 opposing ‘brainwashing’. This in turn prompted particularly unfortunate comments on the personal blog of Central Liaison Office (CLO) official Hao Tiechuan, to the effect that brains, like dirty laundry, sometimes needed washing, and that such ‘brainwashing’ was widely practiced in other countries.

Social movement to call for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung, to step down, 30 December 2012. Photo: Napcoffee

Social movement to call for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung, to step down, 30 December 2012.
Photo: Napcoffee

The CLO represents the Beijing government in Hong Kong but is not supposed to intervene in local politics; Hao’s remarks were therefore seen as a renewed breach of this institutional separation guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law (its mini-constitution). The ‘National Education’ project was unconditionally withdrawn by the government in September on the eve of Hong Kong’s legislative elections, in which pro-Beijing forces scored a limited success.

The anti-National Education movement should be understood as the culmination of deeper shifts in Hong Kong society. Contrary to the hopes Beijing placed in the post-colonial generation, the post-2003 stepping-up of patriotic rhetoric produced a backlash among the ‘post-80s’ and ‘post-90s’ (cohorts born in the 1980s and 1990s), who are increasingly critical of or even hostile to mainland China. While the ‘nativist’ faction has been gaining traction over the last five years (the notion gained theoretical momentum with the launching of the Journal of Local Discourse in 2008), its political branch, the Hong Kong City-State Autonomy Movement (with its Petition for the Independence of Hong Kong), appeared in the wake of the anti-National Education movement. Chan Wan — originally an obscure academic specialising in Cantonese folklore — emerged in 2012 as the cultural guru of these ‘autonomists’. Describing themselves as the ‘right wing’ of the localist movement, they use strong anti-mainland rhetoric targeted at Chinese tourists and the use of simplified characters (the writing system promulgated by the Communists from 1949 that simplifies the traditional written form of the Chinese language), and wave an adapted version of Hong Kong’s colonial flag (without the Union Jack background). While one should not overestimate the political impact of this splinter group, their existence and the sympathy they arouse, especially among post-1980s and post-1990s youth, are changing the political landscape in Hong Kong. There are parallels with the evolution of Taiwan politics and the rise of an ‘own soil faction’ on the island in the 1980s in conjunction with the anti-Nationalist Party democracy movement. In Taiwan, too, the push for democratisation after Chiang Kai-shek’s death came together with a strong critique of the ‘central Chinese culture’ imposed by the Nationalist government when it retreated to the island after 1949.