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No, Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement Is Not Anti-Mainland

In a November 29 essay, “The Anti-Mainland Bigotry of Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement,” published in Foreign Policy, Taisu Zhang tries to make the case that Beijing’s hardline attitude toward Hong Kong is traceable to what he calls the “bigotry of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.” While I believe there is room for reasonable disagreement on many other issues related to Beijing-Hong Kong relations, this piece is not well informed. The following comments are an attempt to point out what needs to be rethought to allow fruitful discussion:

Drawing a comparison between recent populist votes in Europe (Brexit) and the U.S. (Trump), Zhang suggests that the Chinese government is constrained in its response to events in Hong Kong by popular nationalism in China. Arguing that Western observers and Hong Kong politicians do not pay sufficient attention to this phenomenon, Zhang writes that:

[Xenophobia and bigotry] were again on prominent display during the recent oath-swearing controversy, when two elected Hong Kong legislators were denied their seats for refusing to swear allegiance to the People’s Republic of China. They displayed “Hong Kong is not China” banners and, when pressed, referred to the People’s Republic of China as the “people’s re-fucking of Chee-na.”

This is incorrect. The two legislators did not “refuse” to swear allegiance, nor were they “pressed” to do so. They took their oaths as required, but studded them with expletives and other gimmicks, relying on a precedent by which legislators in the past who had modified the wording of their oath had been allowed to retake it.

Mainland netizens swiftly drew comparisons between the oath-swearing incident and the inflammatory rhetoric employed by some Occupy Central protesters in 2014, which compared mainland migrants and tourists to “locusts” eating away at the social and economic foundations of Hong Kong.

While mainland netizens may draw many connections, fueled by the lack of free reporting on Hong Kong in the mainland, it would be very difficult to find an actual connection between Occupy Central protesters and anti-parallel trader rallies directed against mainland tourists. During the Umbrella Movement, one anti-mainlander political group, Civic Passion, founded in 2012 after a split within another radical group, was indeed present in Mongkok, one of three sites occupied during the movement. But it is misleading to suggest that a movement that was overwhelmingly devoted to democratic procedure is connected to anti-mainland xenophobia. Rather, the rise of nativism was a consequence of the perceived failure of the Umbrella movement, and dissatisfaction with the pro-democracy activists’ preoccupation with democracy on the mainland.

The continued entanglement of the Hong Kong democracy movement with anti-mainland bigotry may make some amount of political sense; it allows the movement to draw support from sectors of the local population that would not otherwise be sufficiently interested.

There is no factual basis for the idea of an entanglement between the democracy movement and anti-mainland xenophobia (“bigotry” also seems a rather strangely moralizing word to use in this context). The emergence of a small group of “nativists” over the last few years has taken place on the fringes of (if not fully outside) the democracy movement.

Groups like Civic Passion, Hong Kong Indigenous (a pro-independence group which rose to fame through its involvement in a riot in Mongkok over Chinese New Year 2016), followers of academic and localist guru Chin Wan, and, most recently, Youngspiration, which was founded by Umbrella Movement participants who were critical of the non-violent and loyalist mainstream of the movement, have taken ambiguous stances on democracy. Chin Wan opposes democracy as well as independence. Youngspiration legislators Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and Yau Wai-ching are even rumored to be funded by pro-Beijing groups because no one has seen them take part in the Umbrella Movement.

Conversely, the pro-democracy camp, ever since its inception in the 1980s, was historically associated with a self-professed “patriotism” expressed in the agenda to democratize China. To an extent, the whole pro-democracy movement grew out of the aftermath of the June Fourth movement. In recent years, up to 200,000 people, many of them in their teens and twenties, have joined Hong Kong’s annual June Fourth vigils. Even the recent pro-self-determination groups (sometimes known as left-wing localists) are also at pains to express their sympathy and solidarity with the Chinese people and victims of the Chinese government. See, for example, activist Chu Hoi-dick’s “Letter to Hong Kong.” Of course, the mainland media cannot report on this definition of “patriotism.” These constraints are well recognized by many mainland liberals in Hong Kong, including journalist Zhang Jieping, who writes “Badmouthing Hong Kong on mainland social platforms is now a safe political game to show your patriotism and your post may be shared hundreds of times. But if you try to defend Hong Kong and correct some common misunderstandings, you’ll soon be muted by the forum administrator.”

What does this all mean for Hong Kong’s democracy movement? If it truly wants real institutional change, then at the very least, it needs to detach itself from the uglier parts of Hong Kong localism and reject anti-mainland xenophobia in clear terms.

All pro-democracy politicians, with the exception of the nativist splinter groups mentioned above, have drawn this line. They have made clear that they defend the disqualified legislators’ right to freedom of expression and the respect due to elected officials, not to the anti-Chinese slurs they have used.

Ideally, [Hong Kong’s democracy movement] would want large portions of the mainland population on its side, perhaps by appealing to common frustrations over free speech, or even political representation. This would be a very tough sell, given current animosity between the two sides, but probably not an impossible one.

The productive argument to be made here is that Hong Kong democrats should do a better job at reaching out to public opinion in China. It should, however, be acknowledged how difficult this is. Hong Kong and international media are cut off by the great firewall, as are the social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter) most widely used in Hong Kong. Many pro-democracy politicians use WeChat accounts precisely to reach out to the mainland, but of course they are also subject to censorship. Hong Kong democracy has become a severely censored topic in China since the Umbrella Movement, with hundreds of supporters on the mainland arrested for the most tenuous of reasons: Activists in Guangzhou who supported the Umbrella Movement were sentenced to prison time. Mainland writer Kou Yanding visited Umbrella Movement sites on a visit to Hong Kong during the demonstrations. When she returned to the mainland she spent 128 days in detention, without a trial.