Bread and circuses, football and democracy

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The can-do spirit of football fans can be animated to Appreciate Hong Kong – or be turned against China. While circus is nice, there needs to be a real reconciliation over divisions in society to move Hong Kong forward.

Photo: Hong Kong’s goalkeeper “Hero Fai” Yapp Hung-fai, protects the ball from a Chinese forward after he catches a cross. (葉鴻輝 HF YAPP facebook page)

Panem et circenses (bread and circuses).

Juvenal, circa AD100

It could not more intriguing that the 0-0 draw in the Hong Kong-China World Cup qualifier, described as a “goalless victory” for the Hong Kong team on Tuesday, comes one day after the Government kicked off the circus that is the “Appreciate Hong Kong” campaign.

Declaring the launching of the government-led city-wide campaign on Monday, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the five-month-long campaign is aimed at mending the rift in the society in the wake of the Occupy Central protests and the political reform fiasco. Many people lost hope, she said, adding it is time for everyone to appreciate the city and contribute to its development. One day after she spoke, Hong Kong people stood united inside and outside the Mong Kok Football Stadium, backing the SAR football team and celebrating the “goalless victory.” They chanted the slogans, “We are Hong Kong,” “Support Hong Kong” and “The power of Hong Kong.” Some also held  up  signs saying “This is not China.”


The proclamation of identity, pride and the “can-do” spirit of Hongkongers in the ongoing qualifier matches of the Hong Kong team is in sharp contrast with the prevailing mood of gloom, unease and futility among the populace over the state of the city

One obvious reason is that the Hong Kong team, though at a lowly 145th in world ranking, has done well in the group matches, trailing Qatar, but still leading China by three points. It has maintained this lead by fighting  to the last minute to hold the national team to goalless draws in both home and away matches. Set against the background of alleged increasing Chinese meddling in Hong Kong affairs, the dogged fight of Hong Kong at football pitch has political significance.

When Hong Kong held the China team to a draw in September, it was likened by some as another version of the vetoing of the political reform blueprint in June. Although Hong Kong failed to score (genuine universal suffrage), they could still build a great wall of flesh and blood and not concede a goal (fake universal suffrage). Hong Kongers are adamant they can stand on their own, like a David to China’s Goliath.

Not like us

The feeling of Hong Kong identity was provoked ahead of Hong Kong’s away match with the China team by a Chinese promotional poster, in which the Hong Kong team was described as “having different layers” with a picture of some footballers in different colours. The poster sparked an outcry in Hong Kong, with many accusing the mainland sports authorities of racial discrimination. A number of Hong Kong players, who came from different parts of the world such as Brazil and Nigeria, are naturalised Hong Kong residents. The poster was later withdrawn. If Hong Kong people reacted strongly to the poster, it is because of their long-held values that the city is a multi-cultural, open and rules-based society. True, a minority of people here may feel uncomfortable that the Hong Kong team is not fully represented by Hong Kong Chinese. However, they understand the reality of Hong Kong as a city characterised by diversity and inclusiveness

There is no denying sports is a powerful force for cohesiveness, holding the hearts of people in different societies together. Hong Kong is no exception. The case of the city’s football team case has been unique in view of the complex and sensitive issue of identity under the political framework of “one country, two systems.” The inherent conflict of keeping the Hong Kong systems and values separated from the mainland’s under “one country” after it became a SAR in 1997 have grown more acute in the past few years.

Appreciate Hong Kong

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his team cannot be faulted for pulling together community groups to hold a range of events aimed to lift up the mood of the populace. It cannot be wrong for leisure attractions such as Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park to entertain low-income families and under-privileged groups. Both the governing team and the central government, however, should face up squarely to the root causes of the growing divisiveness and feeling of gloom among the people and make concrete moves, not public relations activities, to change it.

Mrs Lam has singled out the Occupy protests and the political reform fiasco as causes of division in society. They are indeed the result of failures of the central and Hong Kong governments to tackle the deep-seated contradictions in society, as former Chinese leaders have alluded to. Among them are the protracted unresolved row over universal suffrage, grievances over housing policy, fears about Beijing interference and a breakdown of dialogue with the youth.

Those contradictions and misgivings have been the subject of news in the media on a day-to-day basis. On Tuesday, a group of pan-democratic legislators met with Mrs Lam to submit their opinions for the 2016 Policy Address. They refused to meet with Mr Leung, who will deliver the annual speech in January, insisting there is no room for dialogue between them. In their submission, they demanded the government should adopt a “Hong Kong interest-oriented” approach in the Policy Address. Also on Tuesday, there was no sight of top government officials showing up at the Mong Kok stadium to lend their support to their football team. A picture carried by Chinese official media shows Mr Leung greeting the arrival of President Xi Jinping on his arrival in the Philippines for a APEC meeting. Both Leung and his team-mates have been ridiculed for being shy from giving clear backing to their football in beating the national team, apparently for fear of wading into the sensitive zone of mainland-Hong Kong relations.

For Hongkongers, the slogan of “support Hong Kong” is simply a matter of course. The strength of people’s support comes from their shared belief in the city’s  values and unique systems. If Hong Kong stays true to those values and maintains its institutions, it will only be natural that people appreciate Hong Kong – no circuses required.