The war of symbols and ideology in Hong Kong

Asia Politics World

Author: A Chong, Singapore

The Hong Kong protests manifest an ideological war played out in the era of social media. The protesters have made their position clear: ‘one country, two systems’ is not a happy modus vivendi if one system asserts itself as the domineering one. 

Riot police detain a woman as anti-government protesters gather at Sha Tin Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station in Hong Kong, China, 25 September 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu/File Photo).

Although the text of the Sino-British Joint Declaration did not specify what exactly would happen after 2047 when the 50 years of transition from the end of British rule to full Chinese control runs out, it left open the technical possibility that Hong Kong could still be treated differently from the mainland. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) was named to rationalise this transition in governance between two sovereign states with very different ideologies — one a democratic, capitalist colonial power and the other styling itself ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

As many historians have pointed out, Britain openly wished that China would appreciate the preservation of confidence in Hong Kong’s free enterprise economy through the retention of socio-political freedoms in the transition. Whether this was fully understood — let alone embraced in Beijing — remains a matter of political interpretation.

Certain constitutional scholars espoused the view throughout the 1990s that Beijing had clarified that foreign affairs and defence remain under Beijing’s ‘sovereign control’, while domestic housing, education and legal matters were to be the preserve of Hong Kong’s government. But even this limited form of autonomy was countered by phrases in the Basic Law suggesting that it was a common aspiration of all Chinese people — presumably including Hongkongers — that Hong Kong and all alienated Chinese territories would eventually unite with the cultural motherland to uphold its ‘territorial integrity’.

Many Hongkongers viewed the recently scuttled Extradition Bill as a dramatic illustration of Beijing’s ideological excess. The Chinese mainland has come to represent a model of techno-totalitarianism where an army of censors operate both online and offline. Efficient consumer-friendly apps serve the hidden purpose of social control by the Communist Party of China (CCP). This authoritarianism is bent on scrubbing the national and diasporic Chinese narratives of all traces of disunity.

Dissent is countered through influence operations amongst students, businesses and civil society. It is widely known that Chinese policy encourages students to report teachers and professors critical of CCP orthodoxy. On the basis of these reports, punitive measures are meted out to the errant persons in question. Such is the perceived interpretation of China’s comprehensive sovereignty by Beijing. Unsurprisingly, Hongkongers are keenly aware of these tactics.

In Hong Kong protest has become a fine political art. It appears to be a spontaneous manifestation of vox populi, from sit-ins and the wielding of yellow umbrellas to the singing of a grassroots, de facto national anthem, ‘Glory to Hong Kong’.

Beijing must be worried when high school students, shopkeepers, civil servants, accountants and bankers ‘moonlight’ as protesters in day and night shifts. Airline staff at Cathay Pacific have been laid off for sympathising with the protesters based on evidence from their social media accounts.

These protests are an expression of disgruntlement with creeping totalitarianism, abetted by certain business elites accommodating Beijing’s controllers. Yet, this has become a Catch-22 situation for Hong Kong tycoons heavily invested in the economies of both Hong Kong and the mainland: satiate Beijing or the groundswell of Hongkongers’ unhappiness.

While accusations of the wilful destruction of public property, bodily attacks on rival protesters, pro-Beijing legislators and police, illegal occupation of MTR trains and train stations and Hong Kong International Airport undermine the protesters’ image, there is a propaganda logic behind it. Hongkongers’ political unhappiness needs to be heard above the din of business as usual.

Disruption to daily commuting shakes the apathy of the silent majority where it still exists and shatters the blindness of bystanders. The cycle of pushbacks and arrests by the Hong Kong police and retaliation by protesters determined to wear masks and dress in black to continue protests speak to deeply unresolved issues in Hong Kong’s body politic.

The protesters’ actions and demands question the existence of even an elementary social contract between the Hong Kong government and its people. The deep-seated reasons for anger within Hong Kong should be sincerely appraised. But some mainland commentators have criticised Hongkongers for worshipping the ideals of their former colonial masters, pointing to memes and images of protesters waving the Union Jack. These commentators argue that Hong Kong is part of the new Chinese narrative overturning the century of humiliation by the West.

But it is hard to ignore the fact that the people of Hong Kong are saying something to China and the world when high school students feel hopeless about their futures, family members take opposite sides about the protests and Legislative Council members openly uphold the protesters’ collective agenda of resistance. Protests on the campuses of Hong Kong’s leading universities must surely make Beijing contemplate the historical implications of youthful revolutionary activity not only in China and Russia, but worldwide.

A. Chong is a foreign affairs and political commentator based in Singapore. 

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