Heartfelt pride

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2008, 12:00am

How Chinese do Hongkongers really feel? Polls show more and more now identify themselves as Chinese first and Hongkongers second. But does that mean they will wake up tomorrow morning and consider it their duty to remind themselves it is National Day? Or will they treat tomorrow as just another of the many public holidays Hong Kong has?

The last time Hongkongers woke up and wondered who they really were was 11 years ago on the morning of July 1, 1997, when they had to deal with the strange sensation of suddenly living under Chinese rule. Patriotism was not part of their vocabulary then. Apprehension was. How could anyone have foreseen at the time that, 11 years down the road, a great surge in patriotism would sweep the city?

But it's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride since the patriotic high fuelled by the Beijing Olympics. The exhilarating giddiness of seeing Chinese sports heroes dominate the world stage quickly turned to disgust as the depth of the mainland tainted-milk scandal became horrifyingly clear. How could the country that bewitched the world with Olympic wizardry nauseate it just weeks later with dead children, killed by commercial greed?

Now the patriotism roller coaster is soaring high again as proud Hongkongers worship the motherland's first spacewalker, Zhai Zhigang . His scripted waving of the national flag in outer space produced the live photo opportunity intended to stoke pride in a nation. It worked, of course, both on the mainland and here.

After generations of being bullied by outsiders, Chinese everywhere are over-eager to be proud of their country. And the country's leaders have learned how to tap into this impatience. It's a useful tool that strengthens their hand. Having the three space heroes return, mission accomplished, two days before National Day is impeccable timing.

But, while conditioning of minds at an early age has made it easier to stoke patriotism on the mainland, free-thinking Hong Kong presents a different ball game altogether. Mainland leaders are obviously anxious about Hong Kong's patriotic sentiments. They have been since the handover. Winning back sovereign territory from the British was only the first step.

The bigger battle involves winning hearts and minds. After more than 11 years, the effort is still continuing. Why else do you think mainland leaders chose Hong Kong as the first stop on Chinese soil for the Olympic torch relay, and for the post-Games national victory lap of the gold medallists? Maybe Beijing will even despatch its three newest space heroes to Hong Kong to keep the patriotic momentum going. This might take minds temporarily off the poisoned milk scandal.

Yet, the fact that patriotism here gushes mostly when China is enjoying a proud moment in history suggests it is not well grounded. It can also be hot-headedly impulsive, like on the mainland. Irate patriots were quick to demand an apology when CNN commentator Jack Cafferty labelled Chinese products as junk.

They have not found the maturity to admit he was right after all, at least in the case of the tainted milk products.

Beijing, of course, prefers blind patriotism to the questioning kind. Like US President George W. Bush, who tarred as unpatriotic all those who questioned his Iraq invasion, mainland leaders mock as traitors Hong Kong's democrats who say love of country motivates them to direct foreign pressure on China to improve human rights.

Unlike the Americans, who take their Fourth of July independence day very seriously, Hongkongers are not in the habit of parading their patriotism. They don't run around waving flags on July 1, for example, to celebrate having kicked out the British.

If tomorrow does see a spike in patriotic pride, it will be for the space heroes, not for the founding of Mao Zedong's communist China.

The new-found pride among Hongkongers is rooted in China's present-day accomplishments. That makes them patriots more than nationalists.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster. mickchug@gmail.com