“With Britain’s mouth watering over Beijing’s investment cheques and the rest of the West dizzy from its own civil wars among political correctness, Muslims and Donald Trump, Western governments, media and liberals see the world with blurred vision. ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer,’ a brave pro-independence Irish poet warned 100 years ago. Things fall apart. Hong Kong is gradually fading away.”

Chip Tsao – Hong Kong 20/20

They say Hong Kong is a city at the crossroads of East and West. Maybe. I’m not sure. But I do believe it is at the crossroads of empire.

Rising and falling empires.

(Click on PDF icon, upper right, if you prefer to read this as black print on a white background)

It is a time of great art for Hong Kong. As Beijing tightens its grip, as Hongkongers struggle to retain autonomy and the rights they cherish: such times bring great essays, and poems, cinema and stories. They are flourishing right now, while they still have the chance.

As is a Hong Kongese identity. The greater the political pressure on its people, the more they are discovering their place, the kind of people they wish to be.

A place, a people, that will soon be gone. This was the view of many at the Hong Kong literary festival, which I was privileged to be able to attend just a few weeks ago.

But let’s back up a little. To 1997, when the former colonial power, Britain, handed Hong Kong back to China. The Handover was a troubling, stressful time for its citizens. Memories of Tiananmen Square, in 1989, were still fresh. Numerous Mainland Chinese fled to Hong Kong after the massacre, bringing with them stories of the bloody crackdown and its paranoid and oppressive aftermath.

The memorial for Tiananmen – or the ‘June 4th Incident’, as Beijing calls it – still attracts huge crowds in Hong Kong to this day.

Many left Hong Kong leading up to the Handover, many more – usually the wealthy, of course – got a second passport. Film at the time went noirish: Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997), and 2046 (2004) – all from director Wong Kar-Wai. And numerous others, like Bullet in the Head (1990), Hollywood, Hong Kong (2001), City on Fire (1987), Infernal Affairs (2002), Hard-Boiled (1992), directly and indirectly expressing anxieties about the coming change. Stress inspired art, two decades back.

Then, it seemed, all returned to normal. China promised ‘one country, two systems’ and a ‘high degree of autonomy’ for fifty years, until 2047. In the beginning, it looked like this might happen. The years following the Handover were even a cause for optimism for some. The Chinese economy boomed, which meant the economy of Hong Kong did likewise.

Yes, there was an abortive attempt by Beijing to introduce (via its puppets in the Legislative Council) draconian anti-subversion laws in 2003. There were massive protests against the proposed laws, with half a million people filling the streets. Beijing backed down, and the Chief Executive at the time Tung Chee-Hwa resigned. A blip, corrected by people power.

A blip, followed by several more in the years that followed; the occasional willingness of Beijing to meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs, especially as the city state became less important as a financial hub. The Hong Kong economy steadily diminished in relation to the Chinese – it was 1/5th of the entire economy in 1997, today it is about the same as a big city like Shenzhen.

Blips, but nothing that seemed irreversible.

No, the irreversible came in the shape of Pooh Bear, when Xi Jinping was elevated as the new president of the People’s Republic of China in 2012.

Banned in China

Xi Jinping subsequently presided over a harsh crackdown on even the slightest of online criticisms in the Mainland. China now censors images of Winnie the Pooh, for example, because citizens had a habit of comparing Xi Jinping to the cartoon character. Recently, a man was sentenced to 22 months in jail for calling the president a baozi (steamed bun). Xi also waged war on civil society. To the point where China watchers classify the current period as the most oppressive since Tiananmen Square. Human rights lawyers, bloggers, artists, and activists have been harassed, shut down, and locked up.

Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who won the award for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China, was imprisoned, denied treatment for cancer, and died in prison.

Hong Kong, too, began to feel the political pressure so prevalent in the Mainland.

First there were mass protests in 2012, when an attempt was made to introduce ‘patriotic’ schooling into the Hong Kong curriculum. Many locals saw this as a transparent attempt by Beijing to brainwash school children. These protests, again, were successful.

So when the Umbrella protests began in 2014, there was a belief that these, too, would succeed. The protests were so-named after iconic images shot around the world of Hong Kongers using umbrellas to deflect police pepper spray.

The catalyst for the movement was a decision by Beijing to ‘pre-screen’ candidates for Chief Executive of Hong Kong, where previously there had been a promise to allow direct election via universal suffrage. The protests lasted three months, shutting down key roads and locations in the city. The Umbrella Movement showed persistence, discipline, and courage.

Yet Beijing remained intransigent. Eventually the movement dissipated. None of its goals achieved.

The response to the Umbrella protests were one of two key events that epitomised China’s increasing willingness to talk loudly and carry a big stick. The second was the case of Causeway Books.

Causeway sold scandalous biographies that made a variety of claims against the Beijing leaders – affairs, corruption, the usual. The owner, Gui Minhai, was said to be working on a personal history of Xi Jinping called ‘Xi and His Six Women’. These books were, apparently, very popular with Mainland tourists, who would seek out the store and buy up these gossipy stories of their leadership.

In 2015, five staff members of Causeway Books were kidnapped. Two were taken from Hong Kong, one from Thailand. It soon became apparent Beijing had ordered the kidnappings. This, in violation of the principle of one country-two systems, had a chilling effect on civil society.

These events are why, at the Hong Kong literary festival, many of the participants felt the city was at a tipping point of historical importance. They discussed their future, sometimes with anger. When the question was asked: what can anyone do about it? What country can help us? The only answer was the United States.

Yet as Chip Tsao says, above, no-one gives a shit and the only country still able to do something for Hong Kong, the US, won’t do a goddamn thing. Because the Chinese market is too big, because Chinese audiences will soon be worth more to Hollywood than US audiences. Because the progressive side of politics is too busy gazing, self-righteously, at its own navel, while democracy retreats worldwide. Because the end of freedoms in a nation far away can’t compete with the minutia in one’s backyard.

Australia is no better: it’s a long time since I heard an Australian official talk about Tibet, or human rights abuses in China. Elected officials on both sides of politics – the ones who aren’t already directly in the pocket of Chinese interests – are fearful of hurting the economic relationship with our biggest trading partner.

So it was with some resignation that the panellists told their stories, read poems, and essays. As they spoke of fundamental question of identity in the face of a seemingly inevitable subsumption into the Chinese state. Some anger, too, and a desire to fight back, despite this feeling of inevitability.

This growing sense of a specific Hong Kong identity was a common theme at the festival. Ben Bland, a journalist currently working in Hong Kong, has just released a new book that argues the case for this blossoming sense of nationhood:

“…identities are formed through exclusion, where a person can define oneself against the other. For many young people today, being a Kong Konger means not being a Mainlander. Surveys show that fewer and fewer young Hong Kongers see themselves as ‘Chinese’. A long-running poll by the respected public opinion programme at the University of Hong Kong shows that the proportion of residents who describe themselves as simply Chinese fell from a high of 39 per cent in 2008 to just 16 per cent by the end of 2016. Over the same period, the proportion who see themselves as a ‘Hong Konger’ or ‘Hong Konger in China’ grew from 47 per cent to 64 per cent.” Another poll found forty per cent of those aged between 15 and 24 wanted independence from the Mainland.

Benedict Anderson, in his seminal text on nationalism, Imagined Communities, put forward a compelling thesis on the way in which national identity is formed. His concept of the nation as an ‘Imagined Community’ was not pejorative – he was not speaking of a collective delusion. In general, Anderson does not subscribe to the undergraduate view that nationalism is inherently bad. Rather, as a sentiment so powerful people are willing to die for, it can be a force for either good or for evil.

George Orwell made an important distinction between patriotism and nationalism:

“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

What I am talking about here is, via Orwell, is emergent Hong Kong patriotism.

Benedict Anderson’s argument is that an individual can have a sense of belonging to a community: a place where one feels a kinship, common values, shared understandings with fellow citizens, even though the individual will never meet more than the small fraction of this community:

“the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”

In this way, Hong Kong is simply the latest of many nations that have been imagined into existence. It is a way for Hong Kongers to draw closer to each other in solidarity and empathy in the face of a truly existential threat. It is a sense of shared values – freedom of speech, of expression, of judicial integrity – being eroded, blown away by the winds of empire.

So it was through many panels. Right through to one of the last I attended at the festival, where a series of speakers imagined fearful futures, where they spoke movingly of a desire to hold on to an eternal present, where the things they believed in still existed, could exist.

Then the last speaker of the panel rose. Young man, casual yet fashionable clothes. Studying at Harvard, been in the US for a decade. The pedigree of wealth evident in the way he carried himself, his perfect accent and enunciation.

This young man made some vague noises about being Chinese, but said he would perhaps come back to Hong Kong, one day, if he could find the courage. He finished his introduction by saying: “but I’d like to talk about microaggressions.” And did so. A whole poem about them. Microaggressions.

There you have it: Hong Kong’s future. Documenting microaggressions while a country’s independence is snuffed out. As Chip Tsao says: the West, dizzy with self-indulgence, vision blurred, cannot see beyond its own shores.

Hong Kong’s long goodbye is nearly complete. It’s a shame no one is listening.

Categories: Politics

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