Written by: Paula Rabiega & Adriana Ibale Barajas/Edited by: Manfredi Pozzoli
The intricacy of Hong Kong’s autonomy is a prevalent matter of discussion. China’s behaviour towards Hong Kong has been one of enforcing the homogeneity of the state’s identity on the region and hence, a product of nationalism. This article will cover how in response to Beijing’s perceived encroachment and the imposition of Chinese nationalism, Hong Kong’s economy, culture and politics have been put under threat. This fear has been demonstrated by Hong Kong citizens in the recent protests.
History of conflict
To put the situation in context, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984 and ratified by both countries in 1985. The handover period was agreed to start in 1997 and was supposed to be finalised in 2047. This agreement was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy through the “One Country, Two Systems” framework and eventually, return the territory to the Chinese nation after over a century of British rule. For a while, it worked the way it was intended to. This has remained true until the 2010s, when gradual Chinese encroachment caused the 2014 Umbrella Movement and more recently, the 2019-2020 protests.
The starting point of the social unrest in the city was the 2019 Extradition Bill, which would allow for case-by-case political extraditions to mainland China. The first sit-in protest against it happened on 15 March 2019, followed by other peaceful demonstrations. What worsened the situation was the use of excessive police force against protesters surrounding the Legislative Council complex during the second reading of the bill. The legislation was suspended but not fully withdrawn on 15 June which led to 2 million people marching the day after.
Violent clashes and further protests continued in August, until 4 September when the Extradition Bill was finally withdrawn. This satisfied one of the protesters’ Five Demands but the other four remained: retraction of the “riot” characterisation, release and exoneration of arrested protesters, legally holding the police force accountable, and the resignation of Carrie Lam as a result of implementing universal electoral suffrage. These demands led to increased student involvement and consequently, the protest activities shifted towards university campuses. The police response and subsequent sieges of universities ultimately resulted in severe damage to the city.
In May 2020, the Hong Kong national security law was introduced and acting upon it, arrests were made in July and August 2020 to prominent activists and business owners. Considering how important Hong Kong is as an economic hub, major Western actors have strengthened their response after these developments, for instance the introduction of special visas for Hong Kong citizens.
Interestingly enough, the economic sanctions put in place wound up harming the city as a whole – big tech companies like Facebook or Google, have moved their HQs from Hong Kong to other Asian capitals. Additionally, some Chinese cities have started to function as more important trading ports. To put it simply, Chinese nationalism caused an international response that was harmful to every actor but China.
Thus far, we have discussed the socio-economic aspects of the Chinese threat to Hong Kong. As for the cultural side, there are major differences between the two national identities. Even the linguistics differ – Hong Kong’s official language is Cantonese, while China’s is Mandarin. It is quite a clear manifestation of distinct identities between the two, as well as an expression of the sentiment held in the city towards the mainland.
In a sense, it has become mutually exclusive to be both Chinese and Hong Kongese. In each of these aspects – economic, political, cultural – Chinese influence over Hong Kong has caused the city to shift its perspective on China and its nationalist tendencies.
China as a threat
As mentioned above, only mainland China seemed to emerge as the winner here. The economic situation in the HKSAR has been getting worse over the years and currently has just exacerbated the situation. The increasing wealth gap and other issues present in a now threatened Hong Kong are in stark contrast with the entrepôt it used to be in the past.
Evidently, Chinese nationalism is a threat to the freedoms guaranteed by the Sino-British Declaration. An example of this is how the Hong Kong court granted an interim injunction to stop online users from posting material that could potentially be deemed to either promote or incite violence. Except what this actually meant, was the institutional suppression of basic rights and limiting the means of communication. That is because anything could be viewed as a security threat – even spreading information about the protests outside of mainstream media (for example on telegram channels) could be perceived as a potentially violent action.
Furthermore, there have been known instances of targeting press members at protests despite this being illegal, both internationally and locally. They have been arrested even though they were wearing clear identification. Similarly, they have had tear gas and rubber bullets directed precisely towards them with no protesters in the area. The two specific examples that could be shown are the arrest of press photographer May James and the partial blinding of an Indonesian reporter Veby Mega Indah whilst each of them were covering the protests.
In this way, the disregard for freedom of speech and freedom of press, alongside the new national security law and arrests of prominent figures of Hong Kong, Chinese nationalism has established itself as a prominent force, slowly dismantling Hong Kong rights that could have proven to be a danger to Beijing later on.
Use of force
The last notion that should be explored is that there is also a violent aspect to Chinese nationalism which, in turn, creates an even more tangible threat towards Hong Kong. Without a doubt, powerful Chinese figures are advancing their nationalist goals in the region and surprisingly enough, are sometimes supported by independent militia-like groups on the societal level. This strengthens the Hong Kong identity, thus leading to a further contrast between the two nationalisms and subsequently, to an even bigger threat.
The most tangible way of assessing this point are the actions taken by local police. That is because there seems to be a mutual reinforcement between the three actors – the Hong Kong police, the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government, which is worrisome considering the principles of the Joint Declaration. The almost complete convergence of interests of police officers in HKSAR and the Chinese regime representatives is shown through covering police officer serial numbers and Chinese flags being put on uniforms. This is especially concerning in the context of how every citizen action that could be tied to the protests was deemed a security threat and was dealt with accordingly. The lack of accountability of Chinese-backed police therefore creates a direct and substantial threat towards the citizens of Hong Kong.
For instance, the questionable nature of their acts can be seen in the use of tear gas during the protests. The chemical weapon was employed excessively in the city, to the point where air and water were becoming poisoned. Many sources also pointed to the use of Chinese-imported, expired and unusually dangerous exploding tear gas, which has been known to hurt even first aiders. It could even be argued that the Hong Kong police force has become a domestic terrorist organisation with Chinese endorsement, unnecessarily endangering the lives of many Hong Kong citizens.
Even more visibly, the Chinese military stationed in Hong Kong illegally left the barracks, when cleaning up the streets after protests. While it may seem as a relatively innocent act, the implications of it could be gravely serious. If the Chinese military can voluntarily walk through the streets of Hong Kong, what does it mean for the autonomy of the city? They faced no consequences from the Hong Kong government, even though there was no mutual agreement between the Hong Kong and Chinese officials on this matter, which is necessary for them to leave the military depot. Their presence is threatening in itself but it is a smart move for Chinese nationalists to impose fear, influence and authority in the area. It is a direct, physical reminder of power relations violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Lastly, the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government are interconnected. There has to be direct support for the Chief Executive candidate from Beijing. This became evident when questions about replacing Carrie Lam arose. Ultimately, she was supported by Xi Jinping hence it showed how prevalent Chinese power and influence are in the region. This point shows that Chinese support is necessary to even be considered for a public official position. This can be seen as a direct infringement on the rights and freedom of Hong Kong by China.
All in all, every aspect of Hong Kong national identity is under threat by Chinese nationalism. As discussed, the region’s complex situation, arising economic issues and distinct identities have fostered an environment in which the current social unrest became a response to Beijing’s threat.