What Hong Kong needs, to feel like it belongs in the Chinese nation

Alice Wu says a sense of belonging cannot be created with top-down lessons, and hardliners only make the difficult process impossible. If Beijing and Hong Kong really want to address the issues dividing society, they need to start talking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 9:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 5:25pm

As we celebrate National Day, and watch curiously the leader of the free world’s obsession with professional sportsmen kneeling in protest when the US national anthem is played, it seems like a good time to think about our notions of and feelings about national identity.

Taking a knee certainly isn’t that offensive a gesture. Some of us in Hong Kong, who can’t bear the thought of being grouped with our mainland compatriots as a people, would never ever kneel before the Chinese flag. But it’s clear that if US President Donald Trump had not gone on the offensive and said any protesting player was a “son of a b*tch” who should be fired, the movement wouldn’t have kicked off.

Love of one’s country can also drive one to point out and protest against its injustices. In this case, it’s the systematic discrimination against people of colour. Trump and his supporters don’t see or won’t understand it. They are, of course, not alone. We see plenty of that on our side of the Pacific: love and pride leaving no room for criticism.

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In Hong Kong, being a patriot is generally looked on as a negative attribute, except when it comes to political high office, when it is a prerequisite for Beijing’s approval. Identifying as a patriot in Hong Kong would mean being abused with political epithets, like being called a “bandit”, as seen on posters put up to “congratulate” Education Undersecretary Christine Choi Yuk-lin, hours after her son committed suicide.

National education is a hot-button topic, as are national security legislation (Article 23) and the national anthem law. Political careers and parties have been founded on opposing these. So, for Hong Kong, anything “national” is guaranteed to be contentious, an emotional trigger for decades of frustration and discontent. The pro-independence “movement” is an extension of this. It is a fatalist, rejectionist and simplistic way of addressing the complexities of what it means to be members of Hong Kong, China.

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As Beijing becomes increasingly aggressive in its response, the “movement” has grown, just as Trump inadvertently became the fuel that fed the kneeling protest.

The heart of Hong Kong’s anti-Beijing sentiment has grown on uneasiness, suspicion and distrust. But it is not just a matter of the heart. Throw into the mix the fact that Hongkongers are classified in the mainland as “people from abroad”, along with expatriates and Macau residents, and understanding where we fit in the Chinese nation can get confusing.

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Hongkongers have grown very comfortable with living without a strong national identity; this comes from our colonial past. We do not feel a strong propensity to belong.

Our identity has been built on our ability to survive and capitalise, from the margins. That is something Beijing is obviously, and increasingly visibly, uncomfortable with and intolerant of.

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Beijing and Hong Kong could continue to go down the path Trump is leading in the US, where the act of taking a knee can become so blown up as a political issue that it obscures the reasons behind these acts of protest. Or, if we really want to address the issues that divide us, we could start those necessary and important, but uneasy, conversations.

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A sense of belonging cannot be taught, or be dictated by officials here in Hong Kong or from a distance in Beijing. A very wide berth – in time and space – needs to be given to Hongkongers as we search for our identity.

There will be confrontations and conflicting narratives, but hardliners who insist there is only one way to belong make that tough process impossible. Dialogue is the only way forward, the only way to foster understanding and respect.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA