What can Hong Kong help us remember?

Op-eds Opinions

Without blaming specific sides, we must remember the dangers of nationalism or risk repeating our mistakes

A sit-in in the Hong Kong International Airport on July 21, 2019. Photo by Michael John Lo, Contributing Writer

Disclaimer: On October 23, 2019, the extradition bill was officially withdrawn. The ideas below were written while a close friend who has been intimately involved in the demonstrations was in the throes of protest. 

For four months and counting (at the time of writing), the people of Hong Kong have been fighting to restore some autonomy and justice in what is now a de facto police state. Knowing that local authorities cannot be trusted to protect the well-being of civilians, protesters one after another continue to jump willingly into the line of fire. Especially with all the hype over the recent Canadian elections, our attention has not been with global affairs, but those more closely connected to the danger in Hong Kong surely feel the burn. As we admire the brazen creativity of protesters on the ground, we cannot help but fear for the safety of our loved ones who throw themselves into the heart of the battlefield. 

The anti-extradition protests that have gripped the country are complex and cannot be spoken about in bounded terms. Sensationalized by the media, it is easy to view them in terms of hostile nationalisms competing against one another. But with so many activists each expressing their own political viewpoints, there surely are demonstrators who promote a sense of community beyond a defensive territorial attachment. Personally, I know a good number of activists on the ground who are struggling quietly to reframe the movement’s direction away from simple “anti-Chinese” sentiment. Although their efforts are overshadowed by populist momentum, these quiet warriors express a deeper sense of historical awareness around Hong Kong’s sovereignty, or any other kind of struggle for the right to control the nation-state for that matter, which can teach us important historical lessons about forgotten political legacies. Why does “national sovereignty” have to be the factor that unites and divides?

To be clear, this is not a moral evaluation of the ethics of protest or of the fact that the movement is asserting the right to a type of political entity that was imposed by the British Empire. Whether or not to use the nation-state as a category for mobilization is in all likelihood no longer a matter of choice, for we have already lost that battle. Nonetheless, pan-Asian movements in the 17th century saw indigenous and migrant networks aspire toward a sense of community that stretched beyond the boundaries of “nation”. Inter-Asian migration corralled around perennial legacies of sojourning, or circular migration, that did not see the question of settlement as a problem to be managed. It really was not until Europeans expressed anxieties over the “unnatural” movement of Asian people that border delineation was considered necessary. 

What we know as our “border” is not an invented product of European ingenuity, but a haphazard colonial response toward what was perceived as an unruly mobility of labourers of colour. Of course, this devastated the viability of indigenous communication networks and tore apart native social fabric. The same Chinese ultra-nationalism that is our bone of contention had once organized itself in the form of rural cooperative communes, before leaders were forced to respond to the Imperial demand that China live up to the mandate of international (interstate) relations. It would be of no surprise to learn that claiming ownership of “overseas Chinese” people is considered as a way to consolidate the Middle Kingdom’s hegemony, and an attractive populist stance amongst mainland sentiments. This was an unfortunate deviation from the time when people could disagree among themselves about the meaning of being ‘Chinese’, yet had much less difficulty with coexisting peacefully.  

Let us not forget that the island of Hong Kong was circulated as a pawn in the political rivalry between China and the British Empire. By the late 17th century, the British East India Company had been paying for Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain with silver. To alleviate worries that too much silver was being drained out of England, British traders smuggled opium illegally from their trading centers along the Eastern and Western Coasts of India into China. Even after their company’s trade monopoly lost effect in the 1830s, European private traders never ceased with their ruthless marketing efforts. Out of sheer desperation, China threatened to resort to armed force; the British, committed to defending “free trade” at all costs, responded by launching the infamous Opium Wars. Upon suffering a humiliating defeat, China ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British under the Nanjing Treaty. It would not be until the 1997 handover with the Treaty’s expiration that China would incorporate Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” policy. To many in Hong Kong, this promise has never been fulfilled because the island is still not allowed to independently elect its chief executive. Dissatisfaction with a condition of negated autonomy has its roots much earlier than the latest wave of protests, albeit the past four months have witnessed an unparalleled level of violence. 

If you are still with me, all this is by way of saying that nationalism is a sorry state of affairs that tells us a society has failed in the education of their young. We know that national identity as mobilized by colonial expansion under the guise of liberal discourse had to conflate nationality with race without naming the latter. The form of ultra-nationalism being contested by our courageous demonstrators belongs to a kind of philosophical justification of cosmic ordering that need not anchor itself in visible properties. To clarify again, this is not an ethical judgement about British or Chinese assertions of nationhood, or the reactions of protesters toward that. As an ideology translated into armed force, nationalism — no matter the form — will kill. But if we allow historical amnesia to take over, we forget that the British invited our perennial legacy of intercommunal rivalry by insisting on expanding a lucrative drug trade in another society who was losing chunks of its population to addiction. Who lost the precious ability of moral reasoning first? Fighting fire with fire was the route of action taken in a terrain without leeway. 

Protesters on the ground are an immensely diverse group, not all of whom believe wholeheartedly in acting around national identity. Many view it as a double-edged sword and perhaps more so, a category of practice that seems to be the only available option. Fighting for their island’s sovereignty does not automatically entail an acceptance of nationhood as a benign force, and most of all it does not mean choosing sides between British and Chinese imperialism. Within moments of stampede there are brave clusters who contend not just police brutality, but fellow demonstrators who deny their own history. Those who try to stay loyal to the anti-imperial struggle find themselves stuck in some form of negotiation between colonialism and nationalism. The crises over Hong Kong’s sovereignty can offer us valuable memories from a collective past when we could relate to others on the basis of our shared vulnerability rather than the criterion of birth. Many activists on the frontlines are clinging on to that romantic optimism in the face of adversity as they put up show after show of remarkable resilience. 

The battle in public may have been won, but battles in private continue. To that beloved friend who asked that I “write something”, thank you for the late-night conversations. I hope I have done a satisfactory job of putting down in words the ideas that our repertoire of action has lost the ability to express. All I ask is for you to remain in one piece.