Torch carried on wave of patriotism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am


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This time 19 years ago, Hong Kong was gripped by growing anxiety about events unfolding in Beijing, after students there mourned the death of Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang in the spring of 1989.

As calls by the students for an open, free and democratic China went unheeded, Hongkongers, driven by patriotism and hope for progress in their motherland, took to the streets en masse.

Traditional pro-Beijing leaders such as Tam Yiu-chung, now of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, stood shoulder to shoulder with pro-democracy activists such as Szeto Wah at a rally to condemn the Beijing authorities' handling of the protests.

When tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square early on June 4, Hongkongers were shocked and awed. Those feelings quickly gave way to disillusion, despair and a sense of loss as their patriotic fervour was chilled by the harsh reality of the day's tragic events and those that followed.

The scene in Hong Kong was vastly different on Friday as more than 100,000 people, many dressed in red, waved national flags to cheer the runners of the Olympic torch relay and to show a sense of nationhood.

Teachers took their students to watch. Others watched live television broadcasts of the relay at their desks, getting a real-life lesson in Chinese history.

The Olympic flame has fuelled patriotism - and nationalism - in Hong Kong. With media coverage of the nationwide relay and the lead-up to the Olympic Games increasing, a wave of nationalism is set to engulf the city.

Most Hongkongers support the Games and wish them to be a success. On top of that, the tensions between China and some western countries over the recent Tibetan unrest has stoked the nationalistic feeling. The biased reporting of some western media about the unrest in Lhasa and the chaos caused by protests during the torch relays in London, Paris and San Francisco have brought the Chinese people together to counter what they see as a campaign of China-bashing in the west.

The way the mainland authorities have handled the unrest in Lhasa, such as banning Hong Kong and overseas journalists from Tibetan-populated areas, has left much to be desired. But most people who have watched television footage of the Tibetan riots seem to have given the benefit of doubt to the mainland authorities over their use of force to restore order.

It is understandable that Chinese people feel indignant about the enormous foreign political pressure over Tibet. Obsessed as some have become with the threat of an American-funded 'colour revolution' there, patriotism has turned into xenophobia.

The supermarket chain Carrefour has become a convenient target for protests against the French government's stance over Tibet and the human rights situation on the mainland. In Seoul, mainland students clashed violently with South Koreans during the Olympic torch relay.

In Hong Kong, the voices of activists calling for better human rights protection on the mainland and an independent Tibet were drowned out by the cheers of the crowd during Friday's relay; though there were minor scuffles, the relay passed off without violence.

The event was peaceful, orderly and passionate, and provided a timely show of patriotism - and nationalism - with Hong Kong characteristics.

It could have been even better if immigration authorities had been less paranoid about the entry of some allegedly pro-Tibet independence activists and the Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot.

Difficult and delicate as it is, striking a balance between patriotism, nationalism and the right to express dissenting views about the country's development is not only possible, but good for Hong Kong and the nation in the long run.