The Coming Storm of Hong Kong Nationalism

Writing on the Walls

Let me string together two different events. The first was most recent. I live in an upper middle class neighborhood with virtually no vandalism. This week I discovered “香港建國” graffiti around my neighborhood. The only graffiti in my part of Hong Kong is nationalist graffiti saying, “build a Hong Kong state.” This was not part of the repertoire of the Umbrella Movement. I counted only two overt signs of nationalism in those seventy-plus days. The first was a post-it note in Causeway Bay that said “Hong Kong must be independence.” The second was a sticker that said “Hong Kong is NOT a part of China.” Wherever the sticker went up, the “NOT” would be torn out within a day or two. Aside from this, there was the more more powerful if ambiguous call (and response) of ‘Hong Kong People!” Just the characters 香港人 seemed to carry a powerful message.

Oct 26: Admiralty

Since the closure of the ‘HK Wonderland”,  “香港建國” graffiti has been springing up all over the city. It is unclear if this is the work of a handful of dedicated people or whether it’s a ‘viral’ meme moving through the city. As a matter of historical note, I would point out I have not seen this at either HKIED or HKU. This is complicated by the fact that CY Leung has chosen to highlight an otherwise obscure HKU student magazine that made the theoretical case for independence. Beijing wants us talking about Hong Kong nationalism.


Nonetheless, this is an important shift. A rallying cry is morphing from “I want real universal suffrage” to “build a Hong Kong state.” We have gone from having the Hong Kong nation in the shadows to Hong Kong national identity taking center stage, regardless of how ready the idea is. This has been a long-delayed essay, and I will make the case here that Hong Kong nationalism is a natural outgrowth to the failure of the Umbrella Movement to achieve a reversal of the 8/31 Decision. It is carried by an irresistible logic.

The short version is this: Hong Kong is already a nation. People who feel that they are part of a nation want, as Gellner words it, a ‘political roof’ over their heads. There are only three scenarios for a nascent nationalism: it is suppressed, it is granted independence as a nation-state, or is given enough autonomy to quell political tides – an umbrella, if you will. One Country, Two Systems nominally guaranteed enough autonomy to satisfy that demand and keep nationalism at bay. Umbrella Movement was a last stand to preserve One Country, Two Systems. It lost and One Country, Two Systems as we understood it is at risk of extinction. With the loss of the autonomy option all that remains is independence or submission. This is not a healthy situation.

Banal Nationalism

Sept 30: Central

The second event was by coincidence.  I was tutoring a class dealing with the topic of Hong Kong identity during the same week that HKFS held their ‘debate’ with Hong Kong government officials. Over the course of twenty minutes I asked two different questions. The first was how many of about fifteen students there thought that HKFS ‘represented’ them. About one third held their hands up. This was a unique feature of the Umbrella Movement – it was student-led, but even student leaders didn’t have the full backing of students who went to the streets. While every student in the class supported, in principle, the ideals of democracy, there was a sense that HKFS and Joshua Wong were ‘too radical.’

Around fifteen minutes later, I asked a question more related to the course content: what is your nationality? Even after having defined what the term meant, more than half the students raised their hands to affirm that they were Hong Kongers. Not Chinese, not Hong Kong Chinese, not Chinese Hong Kongers. Just Hong Kongers. I probed further and was told by my students that they didn’t think they could ‘fit in’ if they were asked to work in a Beijing office. The issue wasn’t just language – most of them speak Putonghua well – but rather that Hong Kong and Beijing offices work with entirely different logics. Gellner’s approach to nationalism is that it is a requisite cultural homogeneity for economic efficiency. We see here that a wider Chinese nationalism fails that test for Hong Kongers. Hong Kong and China are culturally heterogenous enough that the ability to effortlessly share a common workspace is put to question. 

What struck me at the time was both how ‘natural’ this national identity was expressing itself and how much my students failed to recognize just how more subversive and ‘extremist’ this thinking was. It is an ‘everyday’ nationalism, quite the way Gillig describes of ‘banal nationalism‘. They weren’t infected by some foreign idea, they were expressing a truth that’s recognizable to most people who’ve spent time in both ‘systems’: China and Hong Kong having been moving in very different directions.

We see this in HKU POP opinion polls. Since they began asking the question in 1997, a slight majority of Hong Kong people have identified themselves more strongly as “Hongkonger’ than “Chinese.” The truth is actually quite a bit more complex, the choices aren’t binary but rather a ranking. What is exceptionally striking, though, is that the already small share of people who identity first as “citizens of the People’s Republic of China” is plummeting.

Screenshot 2015-02-01 18.27.42

There is a demographic edge to this: young people see themselves as far more as Hong Konger more than ‘Chinese’ in the way Beijing would see it. Hong Kong, for many different reasons, is culturally and socially heterogeneous with the mainland. Hong Kongers, especially younger ones, see difference everywhere: in politics, in education, in language, in taste, in humor. In many ways, the British project to make Hong Kong more ‘Chinese’ was, in fact, to create a peculiarly stamped Hong Kong nation.

In the crude form, Hong Kongers look down on Mainlanders. In the more sophisticated form, Hong Kong has simply developed along a different social, cultural, and linguistic path that has grown wider. What’s changed is who has been expected to change. When I arrived in China in 2006, the implicit assumption was that China would be ‘catching up’ slowly with Hong Kong. That Hong Kong, more or less, had struck the right balance of growth, political stability, and was the sort of ‘international city’ that Beijing and Shanghai aspired to. In the first half of my time in this region, Hong Kong police would go to Guangdong to try to de-corrupt and train police there. There was talk, now abandoned, of even bringing Hong Kong law to Shenzhen’s Qianhai. Trends are now moving in the reverse direction.

For those who have spent time in Hong Kong, one senses that Hong Kong doesn’t quite need China. Our bureaucracy functions best with distance from the People’s Republic. Nor is our economy any more dependent on China than are other sovereign economies. Hong Kong and China even have to work on free trade agreements. The situation is actually the opposite in that China needs Hong Kong, mostly for its own nationalist myth-making. The lone exception is minor help made during the SARS crisis, which could have just as easily come from the IMF or another lender. 

Forget the Nativists

Oct 1: Causeway Bay

This background logic has been sort of an open secret. Hong Kongers know how to read the political winds and they do not blow favorably for independence. It is idea unworthy of discussion when a People’s Liberation Army barrack stands between Central and LegCo. Further, a nation does not a nation-state make. To get the nation-state, you need to politically activate the national identity into state-formation through nationalism. Gellner defines this as a principle  as a “striving to make culture and polity congruent, to endow a culture with its own political roof, and not more than one roof at that.” Gellner writes that:

To put it in the simplest possible terms: there is a very large number of potential nations on earth. Our planet also contains room for a certain number of independent or autonomous political units. On any reasonable calculation, the former number (of potential nations) is probably much, much larger than that of possible viable states. If this argument or calculation is correct, not all nationalisms can be satisfied, at any rate at the same time. The satisfaction of some spells the frustration of others.

Hong Kong national identity has been a background socio-cultural process. It has not, until very recently, become much of a political process – as nationalism. Even the Undergrad writers spoke of nationalism at a “what if” distance. With rare exception, basically the only people to air political views about a Hong Kong nationalist agenda are what we call ‘nativist’ here – those who occupy the boundary of outright racism towards mainland Chinese (and often cross it). I am arguing very explicitly that these people aren’t thought leaders in Hong Kong nationalism. They are irrelevant. They are badly mannered political entrepreneurs feeding off something much, much larger.

The Future

Dec 11: Admirality

There are four points to note moving forward. The first is that there are virtually no prospects for an independent Hong Kong anytime in the near or short-term future. The world has had quite enough of new states. There is an inexhaustible supply of borders that could use fixing. The message of South Sudan is that South Sudan’s should be avoided. The world wants people to work with the boundaries they have through improved democratization and good governance. 

There is very little reason to suspect that the world would recognize Hong Kong as an independent state even if the PLA were somehow pushed out of Hong Kong. New states today are only born with the blessing of its officially recognized capital. This is say, point blank, Hong Kong will not be a nation-state anytime in the foreseeable future. Tilly makes a few points here about the likelihood of ‘revolutionary outcomes’ like a theoretical Hong Kong independence movement:

Except for decolonization, great powers and their agent, the United Nations, have resisted alterations of state boundaries with unprecedented tenacity and effectiveness. As a consequence, secessionist and irredentist movements have seen their chances of success plummet, but a revolutionary coalition that established military superiority within an existing state’s territory faced increasing prospects of external recognition, financial aid, and international help with postwar reconstruction. How the great powers reacted to bids for revolutionary power shifted significantly from decolonization to the Cold War to the postsocialist period. After the Cold War ended, great powers including the United States became increasingly reluctant to intervene in revolutionary situations unless the conflict threatened to expand into adjacent regimes or hinder access to precious resources such as oil.

Second, the ‘national’ gap will only get worse in the short and medium-term. To convince roughly 95% of a population that they are mistaken in their identity is no small task (see this and this). I sense the harder they try to push this in the schools and propaganda the more difficult their task will be. This might change in the long-run as a generational project. However, as I have already noted, the demographic trends are running in the opposite direction. The first generation in Hong Kong to be taught Putonghua are those most likely to reject the culture. It was a fifteen year old who launched a social movement to put the brakes on ‘national education.’

Oct 1: Causeway Bay

Third, CY Leung brought nationalism into the conversation because Beijing wants to change the narrative of the Umbrella Movement. “I want real universal suffrage” was a demand for Beijing to honor commitments in the Basic Law. Occupiers were demanding that they have a choice in picking the executive who would swear allegiance to the People’s Republic at inauguration. The Umbrella Movement, as I have argued, should be seen as a last stand for One Country, Two Systems. It was a call for an improved ‘political roof’ over Hong Kong that was always patchy but had not yet completely blown away. As recently as 2012, the SAR government was backing down when public opinion was steeply against them. Today I know of no other international city that feels as remotely governed as Hong Kong. With CY Leung, there is no roof. China’s interest come first and their list of interests are ever-expanding. 

Beijing is doing this because they want to transform the Umbrella Movement into national security concern. As they have done with the Dalai Lama and Tiananmen students, they must transform reasonable calls for autonomy and reform into outright sedition. As the world’s premiere historical revisionists, they wish to paint the Umbrella Movement as a ‘splittist’ movement. The knives can come out when they have successfully peddled and sold this lie. There is some conspiratorial thinking that groups like Civic Passion and nationalist writers are actually government sock puppets (as are the political vandals in my neighborhood). It would be wise to stay on guard for these possibilities.

Sept 30: Causeway Bay

Finally, I reiterate my basic model: submission, autonomy, or independence. Those are the outcomes for a nascent national identity under duress from a (perceived or real) foreign occupier. Beijing has sent a very clear message that autonomy is no longer an option. For those who have been politically ignited, the choice is either than to continue pushing a moderate idea that seems untenable now (autonomy), leaving Hong Kong, submitting to Beijing, or taking the fight to the next level – independence to build a permanent ‘political roof’ over Hong Kong’s head.

This is a terrible set of options, to put it mildly. Were the democratic movement in Hong Kong to begin morphing into an nationalist movement we should expect more violent confrontations and less overall support. You will not see Caucasian faces like mine in a nationalist-independence movement. The stakes would rise for everybody involved. I suspect that’s exactly what Beijing wants.

Dec 11: Admiralty


  1. Shawn said:

    If One Country Two Systems fail, your bets are safer with just One Country.

    May 14, 2015
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