Addressing the events that make the movement relevant would be more effective than attacking its messengers.
Photo credit: Wing1990hk
Mao Zedong was nothing if not an astute politician. He composed his 1927 “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” to convince his co-revolutionaries that the peasantry, and not the proletariat, should be the revolution’s driving force. Mao claims he based his arguments on a 32-day tour of the province, during which he spoke to peasants and learned of their unease over corruption and the abuses of “local tyrants, the evil gentry and the lawless landlords”.
In reorienting his movement’s priorities, Mao did what none of his Marxist-Leninist contemporaries had dared – he departed from dogma to lay the foundation for a revolution with which the masses could identify.
In 21st century Hong Kong, this lesson seems lost on many mainland and pro-establishment voices. These days, the “threat” they claim to face is not their own slide into irrelevance but the increasing popularity of “localism”.
“There is a trend of localism on the rise in Hong Kong and they may give the impression of advocating ‘Hong Kong independence’. Hong Kong society should be alert against these dangerous trends,” Tam Yiu-chung, chairman of the territory’s largest pro-establishment political party told the Global Times in February 2015. His remark echoed concerns of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who, the month before, slammed a student magazine article that promotes self-determination.
Fan Peng, a member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies think tank expanded upon critics’ concerns in the final days of the year. In a huanqiu.com op-ed, he states that pan-democrat-allied media falsely portray the views of a minority of “cultural elites” as mainstream thought in order fabricate an atmosphere in which public opinion favors localism.
Each of these views overlooks the fact that audience members are not wayward sheep. As Mao understood, sustainable social movements must secure proactive “buy-in” from listeners. That buy-in occurs during a process of collective identity formation. This means that critics who attack the messengers without examining the reasons why listeners identify with localists are wasting their time.
Localism vs. Local Identity
While sociologists still debate the mechanisms of collective identity formation, most theories suggest that identity holders freely determine the limits of their participation in mutually recognized communities. For example, while no universal set of characteristics defines the term “Hongkonger”, these people align themselves with a selection of traits and experiences that they believe distinguish themselves from non-Hongkongers.
People may also take on identities linking them to community activities, as Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah understands well. In a 27 December blog post, he recounts his experience as an instructor of the La Salle College fencing team. Tsang correctly notes that identity creation through sports and that created through “local consciousness” are similar in their inspiration of “a strong passion and sense of pride for one’s identity, tradition and culture”.
Tsang hits on an important point. One of social movement theory’s guiding lights, Alberto Melucci, has suggested that mere perception among members of a common struggle can contribute to collective identity formation. And localism, after all, is a social movement.
Fan’s op-ed acknowledges this by targeting an influential book, Dr. Horace Chin Wan-kan’s Hong Kong as a City State. This 2011 text calls on locals to put Hong Kong first in discussions with Beijing, rejects a shared cross-border identity, and attacks the “hegemony of finance and property” that Chin suggests Beijing uses to control the territory. Chin’s book is a call for collective action.
Fan consoles himself with the thought that those who identify with this movement are still in the minority. But his preoccupation with “cultural elites” blinds him to the way forward. Indeed, a way to curb the spread of localism does exist.
The Rising Tide
Localism’s critics must start by looking for shifts in ethnic identity that would give Chin and his fellow activists a larger receptive audience. It is apparent that Chin’s messages will most appeal to those who take on a “Hongkonger” identity.
HKU data reveals some trends that should worry localism’s opponents. From 1997 to 2003, fewer and fewer residents self-identified as “Hongkonger” or “Hongkonger in China”. Following five years of little change, in 2008, a precipitous and sustained adoption of these identities began.
Critics should be more concerned with the sharp rise in the Hongkonger-only identity since 2008, after more than a decade of decline. The Chinese-only identity has followed a reverse trend, while “mixed” Hong Kong and Chinese identities became more popular starting in 2003.
These years are significant. July 2003 was not only the month of a mass protest against Article 23 national security legislation, but it was also the climax of a year of intense debate that began when Vice-Premier Qian Qichen called on Hong Kong to pass an anti-subversion law. Necessarily, that very public discussion would have forced individuals to make value judgments, contributing to personal identity formation. The protests were merely an outcome of the debate, one that Melucci’s theory suggests would inspire further solidarity among active participants.
Importantly, academics such as Peter TY Cheung, former head of HKU’s Department of Politics and Public Administration, have claimed that the protests marked the end of Beijing’s relatively “hands off” approach to administering Hong Kong.
As for 2008, this was the start of the Global Financial Crisis and much questioning over the rise of China’s economic star. The anemic and long recovery period has been fraught with instability, from the 2009 and 2010 high-speed rail protests, to those over national education in 2012, to those over parallel trading, to the 2014 Umbrella protests, to the 2015 storming of an HKU Council meeting.
Each of these events had its roots in a public debate over Hong Kong’s interests as they pertain to the mainland’s, with each resulting protest movement providing another platform for concerned individuals to experience solidarity with likeminded others. This is the atmosphere in which Hong Kong’s youth are coming of age. Copies of 2011’s Hong Kong as a City State sell because they have a larger receptive audience. They do not fabricate an audience.
The Chairman of Fan’s think tank, former Deputy Director of the State Council Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chen Zuoer, still believes national education can turn the tide. “It is clear that there are problems with education in Hong Kong…. Many people have a distinct lack of national democratic and civic awareness, life goals, and knowledge in geography, history and culture,” he said in January 2015.
Yet identity trends clearly favored Beijing for many years without a national education plan. This suggests the need for a different solution.
A Silver Lining
A return to a “hands-off” strategy by the central government would require a big leap of faith. Leaders such as Xi Jinping would have to acknowledge that greater control is not always the solution to social instability. With Beijing in the back seat, localism’s relevance in Hong Kong would gradually dissipate, buying central and local officials fewer headaches and more energy to focus on other policy priorities.
Critics of localism can take heart. The power to curb its growth is in their hands, provided they take a page out of the Great Helmsman’s book and acknowledge what makes social movements tick.