Question of national pride

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 November, 2003, 12:00am

With the visit to Hong Kong of China's first astronaut being declared 'a boost for patriotism', two dangerous and hitherto unmentioned assumptions are made: that Hong Kong people understand what patriotism is, and that patriotism is a good thing.

The Oxford dictionary defines a patriot as 'a person who is devoted to and ready to support or defend his or her country'. Wonderfully void in attributing either positive or negative connotations.

Least we forget, 'patriotism' has been the root of many of histories' evils, both within and between states. It has been used by imperialists and fascists, tyrants and despots, to counter our human instincts and rational thought.

Mao Zedong murdered more Chinese than any person in history, more than all 'foreign aggressions' - but for those who carried out his orders not doing so would have been 'unpatriotic'.

But this is not to say that patriotism is always the 'refuge of a scoundrel'.

Let's put this 'support' of one's 'country' into perspective. A country is a bordered community with institutions, including (but not only) a government that facilitates the livelihood of the people; and a rational person will only support something he or she understands and agrees with.

Thus, patriotism is an identification with one's homeland, and a sense of allegiance derived from a genuine respect for institutions one understands through long-term familiarity and agrees with in principle.

We all identify with what is familiar and has earned our respect. If China wants to promote a sense of patriotism among people in Hong Kong, it will have to earn our respect.

Americans are proud of the Apollo space missions, as the British and French are of the Concorde - but their sense of patriotism is not defined by it. It is the principles (however abused) of what their governments stand for: equality, justice, liberty and freedom.