As a younger generation rises to Hong Kong’s political stage, local nationalism has gained in prominence like never before. Only time will tell whether the acrimony surrounding this year’s 4 June commemorative events will endure.
*This article is with the contribution of Alex Fok.
Hong Kong’s 4 June candlelight vigil for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen incident used to be a time of unity for the territory. It was a time when generations could come together to call for an official Chinese reassessment of the events of that fateful day, when so many lives were lost.
This year, that unity began to fray, picked apart by many members of a younger generation, who strongly reject the long-standing pan-Chinese patriotic positioning of the organiser, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China (the Alliance).
Facing what they view as on-going economic, social and political interference from Beijing, these young activists see a different lesson in Tiananmen than their elders do. Hong Kong’s interests, they claim, would be best served, by walking a different path entirely. Though controversial, their message displays a rational logic. Why strive to be a “patriot” under an authoritarian regime instead of a master of one’s own destiny?
Such talk, long taboo in this largely autonomous “Special Administrative Region” of China, has burst forth louder than any might have anticipated merely one year ago.
This year, convinced that their path was the right one, student activists took their ball elsewhere – 1,600 held a local-themed commemorative forum at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and 1,000 others did the same at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).
“Why pan-democrats still opted for “democratic return” in 1989?” asks Lewis Loud, a localist writer born in 1990.
Patriotism under assault
To understand the split of this year’s 4 June memorial, one must be familiar with several recent events that have strengthened localist sentiment.
Among them, the 2011 publication of “philosopher-king” Horace Chin’s (陳雲根) pro-localist tome, Hong Kong As a City-State, was a major milestone, but its subsequent popularity owes much to careless words and actions of those north of the border.
The words of Peking University professor Kong Qingdong are one defining example. In January 2012, he memorably defined Hongkongers as “bastards”, “thieves”, and “dogs of British imperialists”. If localist sympathisers had a collective voice, they might have used it to ape Queen Victoria’s oft cited but never verified statement: “We are not amused.”
Then there is the litany of other “insults”, from pregnant mainland mothers who exploit immigration technicalities to give birth to new residents in Hong Kong, to parallel traders who buy baby formula for mainland Chinese customers, to the deluge of mainland Chinese tourists, which has slackened somewhat as of late.
Young activist leaders, such as Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), formerly of student group Scholarism, have come to the fore in this toxic air. Wong himself is a veteran of the 2012 “patriotic education” controversy, through which a popular protest movement defeated curriculum changes that were deemed pro-China brainwashing by opponents.
Following this sequence of events, students ask what Hong Kong’s traditional pan-democracy camp has done. Precious little, they feel. Is it any wonder that the past year has seen a rise in youth angst?
No pan-Chinese idealism allowed!
Pan-democrat forebears led the charge to establish the Alliance many years ago; its founder was powerful pan-democratic leader and hardline pan-Chinese patriot Szeto Wah (司徒華).
In 2013, this iconic organisation announced a slogan: “Ai guo ai min, Xianggang jingshen” (愛國愛民，香港精神), which literally means “Be a Patriot and Love the People, the Spirit of Hong Kong”). The wording drew fierce criticism from young localists, who argued that being a patriot could also imply loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Ultimately, the Alliance dropped the wording, but the damage was done. The separate 4 June youth seminars are the proof.
Althea Suen (孫曉嵐) and Ernie Chow (周竪峰), the two localist-minded student union leaders of HKU and CUHK, have both revealed to the media that they agree with the meaning of the 4 June commemoration but not the embedded pan-Chinese identity in the vigil.
In this light, the rejection of a pan-Chinese identity might have been expected. But localist concerns dive even deeper than that. Notably, young localists point to the failed progress of China’s transition to democracy, that vain hope of Hong Kong’s “patriotic” pan-democratic camp members, whose formative years were of the pre-1989 vintage.
“The reformist discourse is dead, and Hong Kong is going to have a dramatic change, ” Brian Fong Chi-hang says days before the NPC’s decision in August 2014.
What “democratic return”?
Those who chose not to go to Victoria Park, the venue of annual vigil, are mainly unsatisfied with the ossified symbolism of the memorial, and one of the Alliance’s five operational goals – to build a democratic China.
In 2016, a Chinese turn toward democracy seems a distant dream, but, in the relatively more liberal age, symbolised by 1980s senior mainland leaders Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), pan-democrat icons such as Martin Lee Chu-ming (李柱銘), Albert Ho Chun-yan (何俊仁) and Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人), not to mention Szeto Wah, had every reason to be hopeful.
In some ways, the handover itself was facilitated by expectations of China’s political liberalisation. The once minority political discourse of “democratic return” (民主回歸論), meaning that Hong Kong would be returned to China but would ultimately be granted democracy, dominated local politics for years thereafter.
China’s democratic transition suffered a clean break on 4 June 1989. One year later, the National People’s Congress (NPC) adopted the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution”. Early pan-democrats could feel somewhat placated by language that promised ultimate democracy, even with the wounds of Tiananmen still fresh.
Of course, history did not proceed the way they expected. The August 2014 NPC decision to rule out genuine democracy in Hong Kong in 2016-17 was seen as a blow. The late-2014 Umbrella Revolution was almost a foregone conclusion at that point.
A few days before the NPC decision, Brian Fong Chi-hang (方志恆), a young scholar favouring “democratic return” and specialising in the Hong Kong political system, announced on his Facebook page that “the reformist discourse is dead, and Hong Kong is going to have a dramatic change”.
In contrast, localist writer Lewis Loud (盧斯達), speaking at this year’s “Joint School 4 June Seminar”, asked why pan-democrats still opted for “democratic return” in 1989. With no pan-democrats in attendance, no response was forthcoming.
A nation wakes at CUHK
Eleven student unions of tertiary institutions attended the CUHK-led seminar, the larger of the two. The main topic of discussion was the relationship between 4 June and Hong Kong against the backdrop of Beijing’s authoritarian rule.
Craig Calhoun: The rhetoric of nation is also important (to form a nation).
Most guests were in their 20s and 30s. They included Loud as well as Chan Ya-ming (陳雅明), former editor of HKU student magazine Undergrad; online game developer Cheng Lap (鄭立); former leader of the CUHK student union Tommy Cheung Sau-yin (張秀賢); political science scholar Brian Fong Chi-hang; Hong Kong National Party Convenor Andy Chan Ho-tin (陳浩天); Hong Kong Indigenous Convenor Ray Wong Toi-yeung (黃台仰); and Youngspiration Convenor Baggio Leung Chung-hang (梁頌恆). Also in attendance was writer and political commentator Chip Tsao (陶傑), 57, a slightly older face.
Taking a break from his usual sarcastic commentary, Tsao pinpointed the perceived drawbacks of the Alliance’s event in a serious tone.
“Three or four years ago, I called the Alliance’s leadership rigid and said they should talk to young people. Despite the differences of opinion between the Alliance and localists, I still believe they have a common background – the pursuit of freedom.”
When asked whether Hong Kong people should bear the responsibility, Tsao, Loud and Cheng said they shouldn’t.
Fong, along with other activists, said Hong Kong people would need to build up strength to prepare for the coming combat against Beijing. For their part, Chan and Wong explained their reasons for pursuing Hong Kong independence.
“If we do nothing, then people will suffer more,” Chan argued.
Five generations at HKU
The HKU seminar was no less weighty in rhetoric. Hosted by the HKU students’ union and entitled “Five generations of Hongkongers: Issues regarding our future”, the event featured political commentators Lee Yee (李怡), 80, and Johnny Lau Yui-siu (劉銳紹), 62. Law academic Max Wong Wai-lun (王慧麟), 46, as well as activists Eddie Chu Hoi-dick (朱凱迪), 39, and Edward Leung Tin-kei (梁天琦), 25 rounded out the line-up.
The HKU discussion centred around local approaches to the Tiananmen incident and its commemoration events, and the implications for Hong Kong’s democratic development. The speakers generally agreed that many wish to take Hong Kong’s future into their own hands as Hongkongers instead of Hong Kong Chinese.
“The Victoria Park vigil has become the twin brother of patriotism,” Althea Suen, stated in her opening speech. “There is absolutely no reason to put “constructing a democratic China” on Hong Kong’s political agenda, and we should put an end to commemorating [4 June] based on patriotic feelings,” she said.
Nationalism as discursive formation
US sociologist Craig Calhoun argues in Nationalism (1997) that social solidarity is not enough to earn the recognition of being a nation. The rhetoric of nation is also important. The “aspiration to sovereignty” and a sense of popularly based legitimacy are among the distinguishing features he highlights.
Although localists and pro-independence activists are slowly fashioning a nationalistic discourse, nobody can tell whether a Hong Kong “nation” will ultimately be formed. In any case, Beijing is not in a giving mood. Whether it will be in a position to temper the aspirations of young Hong Kong activists, short of intimidation and violence, is another matter. When a genie leaves a bottle, sometimes not even wishing can put him back.