How does Hong Kong love China? It’s better not to be forced to count the ways
Alice Wu says it's a good thing that the days of the central government wooing Hong Kong are over. Like any good relationship, Hong Kong and Beijing need honest communication, not romantic platitudes
The annual lianghui (Two Sessions) in Beijing has become a tradition for ordinary Hongkongers to hone our eavesdropping skills. Every spring, we are talked about in our absence and we have grown quite comfortable with being politically sidelined, as we watch on the news the city’s deputies to the National People’s Congress and delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference take part, their faces lost in the sea of humanity inside the Great Hall of the People.
It might have been amusing to watch our country’s leaders “politick” this way. Many have called it reading tea leaves, since there is inherent intrigue in the need to decipher words spoken, to mine for hidden messages and to anticipate what our leaders want us to hear. It is one of the most striking outward expressions of “one country, two systems”. The success of having two very different systems coexisting under one country cannot be clearer than during the Two Sessions.
But as Beijing and Hong Kong relations have soured, there has been a lot of angst during these spring meetings. Some have become too concerned with how many times Hong Kong is mentioned in speeches, meetings and on the sidelines, and have correlated the central government’s support for Hong Kong with the number of mentions and by the importance of those who made them. Unless relations are so bad that there is no other way to communicate, this is an unhealthy way of understanding our city’s place on the national level.
For better or worse, we don’t need to do much second-guessing now when it comes to what the central government’s priorities are for Hong Kong. The country’s leaders have been very vocal about what they want for Hong Kong, and the days of sugar-coating are long gone, ever since the Occupy movement. The VIPs have spoken: the country’s propaganda tsar and fifth-ranking member in the Politburo Standing Committee Wang Huning, and the anti-corruption chief and sixth-ranking official Zhao Leji, have strongly echoed the loss of patience over any doubt, challenge or question about Beijing’s supreme authority and its readiness to exercise its comprehensive jurisdiction over the SAR. Hong Kong’s CPPCC delegates and NPC deputies have to be firm and actively fight “harmful ideas”. Hongkongers are told very straightforwardly to develop a stronger sense of national identity and understand that the nation’s fate cannot be separated from the city’s.
Today’s top leaders in Beijing are not interested in engaging us the way their predecessors did. There’s no more wining and dining or wooing. And, in a sense, we should be relieved. There is incredible pressure when others constantly consider how they love us, and count the ways, measuring the depth, breadth and height of that love. “Love” between a city and country really shouldn’t resemble a sonnet. There is not a lot of affection in Zhao’s comment that “[Hong Kong] needs to manage the relationship between country and two systems well”, but it’s more manageable than having to return a love that requires breath, smiles and tears.
However, the dream of a top-down sort of patriotism remains impossible. People’s notions of and feelings about national identity cannot be dictated, especially when it’s from the propaganda head. Beijing’s growing intolerance of Hongkongers is unfortunate. It would be helpful if Hong Kong’s representatives up in Beijing would explain why it is part of our colonial past that we do not have a strong propensity to belong. Hongkongers survived on not living with a strong national identity; we have thrived in the margins since our colonial days.
The question isn’t how a stronger sense of national identity can be entrenched among Hongkongers. That is something which cannot be taught. What it will take is honest and open engagement, and difficult conversations – not romantic nonsense.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA