Masked protesters walk through Admiralty on the 5th anniversary of the start of the Umbrella Movement, 28 September 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan

Hong Kong and the poison pill of identity

It is no coincidence that identity-driven politics often descend into violence.

Originally published at Ragazine. Republished with permission. Read this article in Chinese.

Identity is a contradictory notion. We use it to signify the objective—the externally verifiable distinguishing character of an individual—as well as the subjective—the sense of belonging that links an individual to a group. Identity evokes individuality, but also sameness. It is a curiously malleable concept, and one that is particularly compelling in a lonely, individualistic world. Framing issues using the lens of identity can elicit nuance and shed light on diverse lived experiences. It can also reduce complex realities into false dichotomies and zero-sum tribalism.

How a city looks and what it represents depends on where you stand, and such is the case with Hong Kong. From the perspective of many Westerners, Hong Kong is a gateway to the Orient: a jumping-off point for travellers to Southeast Asia, with a glittering airport replete with European luxury goods, where exquisite cuisine gives way to a raucous nightlife. It is a free-market capitalist’s paradise where English is a common language, there is rule of law and sufficient institutional stability for investment.

From a Chinese historical perspective, Hong Kong is a reminder of the Qing Dynasty’s humiliating defeat at the hand of Western powers. When imperialist forces within the British Empire became increasingly dissatisfied with the terms of trade imposed by the Chinese Emperor, they worked to flood China with opium, with devastating results on the population. When the Chinese attempted to suppress the opium trade, the British attacked, defeating the Qing Dynasty and submitting it to a number of unequal treaties, wherein Hong Kong played the role of booty. This marked the end of China’s sovereign control over trade, and assigned Hong Kong a new role, that of a back door, allowing the Western plunder of the riches of China. Hong Kong was then to serve the politically isolated Chinese as a door to the West once the Communists took power.

A protester directs other protesters in Admiralty, 18 August 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan

For those who have taken to the streets since June, Hong Kong is home. Though the city is ostensibly wealthy, with a higher GDP per capita than the European Union, the level of inequality is stark by any economic measure. According to a report by Oxfam, over 1.3 million of its 7.4 million residents live in poverty. It is a city of a quarter of a million bankers, a wealthy real estate-holding class, and foreign financial interests with direct political authority. Since the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, it has seen an influx of wealthy Chinese investors from the Mainland whose real estate acquisitions since the 2008 economic turndown have pushed up local property prices. It is also home to just under a million working poor, and three hundred ninety thousand foreign domestic workers, predominantly from the Philippines and Indonesia, who work for less than the minimum wage under conditions that could easily become oppressive.

For a few decades, Hong Kongers have benefitted from freedoms and protections that their Mainland Chinese compatriots do not. Since the 1997 handover, residents of the Special Administrative Region have lived in the grip of anxiety for their future.

Hong Kong has never enjoyed full democracy. For a century, British colonial authorities effectively denied self-rule, suppressing grassroots movements and working in tandem with foreign commercial interests to oppose reform. The post-WWII global re-ordering and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party incited the British to finally propose some tepid democratic reforms in the 1950s, but no major changes were implemented until the mid-1980s, following discussions between China and the UK on the impending 1997 handover. Representatives of Hong Kong were notably absent from these discussions, and the first directly elected members of the legislature did not appear until 1991. Today, the population can elect half of the representatives in the Legislative Council, but half of the seats belong to industry and corporate interests (so-called “functional” seats, a holdover from the colonial period).

In 2014, the Beijing National People’s Congress Standing Committee delivered a paper that was to flesh out the modalities of how universal suffrage, as promised in Article 45 of the Basic Law, would be implemented. It recommended that candidates for the post of Hong Kong Chief Executive were to be effectively selected by Beijing. This led to mass protests of unprecedented magnitude. When asked about the continuity between that period of unrest and the current movement, Toronto-based adjunct professor and researcher Vincent Wong explained that it would be more helpful to consider the events in terms of their differences. In order to do so, we’d have to examine the post-handover history of resistance in Hong Kong.

Mainstream Western press coverage has been monolithic, often reading like a hangover from the Cold War.

Wong set out the salient developments: 2003 saw the first mass post-handover protest against the attempted implementation of Article 23 of the Basic Law—the tabling of a spate of national security laws, covering crimes like treason and terrorism. Half a million people rallied in the streets, resulting in the shelving of the bill. In 2012, the National Education Plan protests led by middle school students resulted in the withdrawal of that plan. “So there were precedents for success—the government would respond to peaceful mass demonstrations,” Wong explained, “but in 2014, everything changed.”

That year, in the lead up to the announcement of the Beijing Standing Committee’s paper, the organization Occupy Hong Kong with Love and Peace organized a civil referendum. Over 800,000 people responded, overwhelmingly against the proposed nomination procedure. After the paper was released, the city erupted in peaceful demonstrations of unprecedented magnitude. “But then,” Wong continued, “nothing happened. The Umbrella Movement was a long and drawn out 79-day occupation that achieved essentially no concessions from the government. Instead, there was a crackdown on protestors; riot police used tear gas and pepper spray on peaceful crowds. It politicized an entire generation of young Hong Kongers.“

A bill proposed by the Hong Kong government permitting extradition to Mainland China triggered the current unrest. The core motive has remained unchanged, Wong explained: even more so than universal suffrage, Hong Kongers seek self-determination, and the current demonstrations show an evolution in tactics. First, they show a shared recognition that static occupation is ineffectual; it transforms protestors into sitting ducks, vulnerable to attack. Protestors now remain constantly dynamic, in order to outmaneuver the police. Second, the demonstrations are now leaderless. The 2014 demonstrations were fraught with divisions; leaders of different factions fought over strategies as well as power. This time around, during press conferences, any organizers interviewed have made explicit statements of limitation, and the arrest of any perceived leaders has not impacted the momentum of the demonstrations. Third, the factions that turned on each other in 2014 have reconciled. Groups have proven unwilling to denounce the tactics used by others, including more radical acts, including general strikes (not seen since 1967), a shutdown of transportation infrastructure (e.g., the MTR subway, roads, airport), boycotts, cutting down of “smart” lampposts, and occasionally violence.

Behind this seeming solidarity lies stark differences in ideology—from anarchists to Christian groups—comprising a movement as contradictory and complex as Hong Kong itself. The organizers of Occupy Central with Love and Peace were middle-aged academics, who intended to follow their civil referendum with a non-violent occupation of Central district in Hong Kong. They found themselves being pushed towards an earlier occupation than originally planned by student groups who rapidly escalated to direct action. This younger generation of protestors, now five years older and hardened from their experience with the riot police, appears to be the driving force behind the current unrest.

A crowd gathers around a statue of a protester in Admiralty, 28 September 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan

Many amongst their ranks identify as localists, Hong Kongers united in a desire for autonomy, free from Mainland Chinese interference. Within the localist movement, anti-Mainland Chinese sentiment can thrive, manifesting itself in slogans (“I’m a Hong Konger, not Chinese!”), the burning of the Chinese flag, or violence. During the protests, there has been no visible inclusion of minority groups or their interests, and the five demands that the protestors have agreed upon are silent on issues of economic disparity or labour rights.

It is no coincidence that identity-driven politics often descend into violence. In order to create a sense of belonging, it follows that the “other” must be refuted or negated. Narratives then become constructed around whether we fall on one side or another of a given conflict, blinding us from shared interests that could lead to alliances. A devolution into camps based on identity dampens critical thought and reflection; if it only matters what side you are on, the correctness of acts in furtherance of that side’s position becomes irrelevant. Whilst the most obvious line defining Hong Konger’s identity is the physical border with China, the ongoing struggle is one that traverses that century-old divide. It is unclear how, absent solidarity with the Mainland Chinese and minority groups within Hong Kong, a legitimately emancipatory politic can be pursued. And in the absence of that, any fight ultimately disintegrates into a struggle for power.

Certain protestors have lobbied Western states, including Germany and the US, for assistance. In the US, Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Chris Smith introduced the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Whilst the stated intention of the law is to protect Hong Kongers from extradition to China and to support democracy, the letter of the law provides inroads for the US collection of data on Hong Kongers, and heightened powers for the US to unilaterally adjust terms of trade with Hong Kong based on its own interests. These kinds of appeals not only deny history and place Hong Kongers at risk; they also serve to further alienate the Mainland Chinese and risk any possible alliance. They are the equivalent of building high walls, at a time when the need for relationships of trust has never been more urgent.

It is unclear how, absent solidarity with the Mainland Chinese and minority groups within Hong Kong, a legitimately emancipatory politic can be pursued.

In the face of this diverse resistance, mainstream Western press coverage has been monolithic, often reading like a hangover from the Cold War. Content to highlight localist frustration and appeals to Western powers, and to cast Beijing as the villain, the press has eagerly printed instances when the British colonial Hong Kong flag has been flown, Wong pointed out, but has been less interested when other protestors have taken it down. The simplification of the situation in Hong Kong does not do justice to its inhabitants and everything they have at stake.

The injuries of colonialism are legion. Some are apparent, like the siphoning off of wealth. Others are latent and insidious, like cultural alienation or colonial mentality—an internalized type of oppression that leads a colonized people to perceive its own culture as inferior to that of the coloniser—or the division of a people with the intent to rule. Since 1842, Hong Kong and its people have served as the intermediary between two worlds, a pawn in a game between imperial powers. Hong Kong has been a chip in the hand of the British, struggling to hold onto their empire; its people have violently rebelled against colonial authorities in 1967 and have demonstrated in solidarity with pro-democracy movements in China in 1989, and now, they resist Beijing’s authority. Throughout these struggles, Hong Kong has been the subject of a historical narrative of economic injustice and inequality that has been ruthlessly perpetuated into today—a history that is shared with the vast majority of Mainland Chinese, a disparate group that must be distinguished from the leadership in Beijing. At the same time, Wong pointed out, China has undertaken aggressive settler colonial policies in Tibet, and recently in Xinjiang. “These policies are no doubt in the hearts and minds of many Hong Kong protestors, hence the slogan ‘Xinjiang today, Hong Kong tomorrow’.” These complexities must not be erased during the race to draw enemy lines. 

Hong Kongers’ struggle for self-governance is also a fight for the city’s soul. Western democracy is in crisis; it has never been clearer that two parties and universal suffrage are, on their own, no guarantee of a just society. Any struggle that weaponizes the rhetoric of rights, in the absence of universality, is a fight for privilege; any argument in favour of the use of violence can be used by the authorities to equal—if not more damaging—effect. Whether or not democracy or self-determination is obtained in Hong Kong, whatever society emerges will depend on how the fight is defined, whether solidarity is extended, and whether Hong Kongers want a society and future that is emancipated or one that is exclusionary and violent.