Misplaced patriotism?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 May, 2006, 12:00am

You may by now be fed up with the controversy surrounding last month's service at St John's Cathedral to mark Queen Elizabeth's birthday, but it throws some interesting light on Hong Kong's angst over its own patriotism.

You will recall how, in what appeared to be a gratuitous act of anti-Britishness, the cathedral authorities marginalised the singing of the British national anthem, and required the clergy to boycott it.

Among those in charge of the cathedral, there may be some staunch Chinese patriots. That is admirable. But they are surely mistaken if they believe that such patriotism among Hongkongers will be strengthened by suppressing a lawful, peaceful and Christian expression of loyalty and respect to the queen by citizens of Commonwealth countries and other well-wishers.

Nationhood requires that you respect the nationhood of others. And if any of the clergy really are so uncomfortable with manifestations of Britishness, they should surely reconsider their positions at our Anglican cathedral.

Stepping back a bit, the nations of the world have been moulded over many centuries by conquests and human migrations. Migration continues today, at an accelerated pace. Nations' residents worry about the allegiances of immigrants and their impact on the national identity.

Efforts are made - not always very successfully - to educate new citizens in the law, language, culture and ethics of their adopted home. Witness the position of hispanic migrants in the United States, Africans in France, Turks in Germany, Bangladeshis in Britain, and so on.

But, in those cases, the migrants have chosen voluntarily to go and live in the new place. This implies at least a measure of acceptance of its sovereignty, even though allegiance in the football stadium is sure to remain firmly with their native country.

Hong Kong is different. The migrants who came here over the past century - and who form the basis of the population today - came to escape Chinese sovereignty and to seek refuge under British rule. But then, without having any say in the matter, they were delivered back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. So it is not surprising that the authorities have been anxious about patriotism.

In fact, Hong Kong people appear to have accepted the change and developed an allegiance to the motherland much more readily than might have been expected. Outside observers are often struck by the way that Hong Kong has, in less than 10 years, come to be at ease with its new status.

If that is correct, then the mainland authorities need not fret so much and wag their fingers at Hong Kong over the patriotism issue.

The cathedral authorities probably thought they were acting in a way that would please Beijing. But it's more likely that they caused embarrassment there.

Despite China's thirst for gold at the 2008 Olympics, somewhere in the mainland there is probably a band rehearsing other nations' anthems, including God Save the Queen.

When a foreign anthem has to be played at a medal ceremony, I don't suppose that the Chinese officials will stomp off in a huff.

So why did the clergy?

Tony Latter is a senior research fellow of the Hong Kong Institute of Economics and Business Strategy