Hong Kong: Caught between the horns of nationalism and independence

April 28, 2013

By MINORU TSUKISHIMA/ Osaka City News Section

Moored in a cove in eastern Hong Kong, the fishing boat looks like any other--apart, that is, from the red writing scrawled across the large cloth attached to a railing.

“Get out Japan!”

On Aug. 15 last year, this vessel was used by Chinese activists to land on the Senkaku Islands. The five uninhabited islands are administered by Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture, and known to Chinese as Diaoyu.

At the end of February, I boarded the boat to speak to 57-year-old Zeng Jian-cheng, one of the founders of the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands. After landing on the islands, Zeng was arrested by the Okinawa prefectural police for illegal entry. He was subsequently deported back to China.

“We were encouraged by the sight of Chinese people protesting at Japanese embassies all over the world following our arrest,” says Zeng, a former member of the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s equivalent of a parliament).

The image of the Chinese flag being raised on the island was broadcast to a global audience. Newspapers in mainland China also praised their actions and called them “Chinese heroes.”

In Hong Kong, people say the Senkaku Islands problem is “beyond left, right or center.” In other words, it’s an issue that unites people of all political persuasions, from members of the Chinese Communist Party to ordinary citizens.

“I originally coined that phrase,” says Lew Mon-hung, 64. Lew acts as an adviser to the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands and has also served as the committee’s spokesperson in the past.

Originally from Guangdong province, he swam across to Hong Kong in 1973. He built up his fortune through trading and is now regarded as one of Hong Kong’s most successful businessmen. He is also said to have the ear of the Chinese government.

He has donated more than HK$4 million (around 48 million yen) to help fund the committee’s activities.

Some members admit their actions are regarded as somewhat “unorthodox, even within Hong Kong.” In fact, the group is having difficulty raising funds to repair the boat, which was damaged during the Senkaku landing.

When asked about the Senkaku issue, most Hong Kong residents will give a somewhat uniform reply. This includes people usually critical of the Chinese government. For example, Lee Chuek-yan, 56, is chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, a group that offers support to activists like the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

Though hardly a foaming nationalist, even Lee admits that “territorial issues can bring out the patriot in all of us.”

Hong Kong was occupied by Japan during World War II and many citizens regard the Senkaku problem as a “historical issue” that brooks no compromise.

However, this feeling does not extend to supporting the Chinese government’s call for a “great renaissance of the Chinese nation.”

Lew Mon-mung offers a cool-headed assessment of the situation. “The rise of nationalism is great for our committee, but the reason the Chinese government is appealing for national unity is because it faces problems at home and abroad.”

“Chinese hero” Zeng also has a few choice words to say about a system that eschews democracy and still forbids any discussion of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

“Japan never faced up to what it did during World War II, but the way the Chinese government is behaving is just the same,” Zeng says.

More than 15 years have passed since Britain handed back Hong Kong to China.

Economic relations with the mainland grow deeper by the day under the “one country, two systems” formula. When it comes to politics, though, opposition to the Chinese government remains strong.

For example, 18,000 people visited the Museum of the Tiananmen Incident last year during the three months after it opened. One-fifth of the visitors came from mainland China. According to organizers, 200,000 people attended the June 4 memorial gathering last year, a record turnout.

Last year was also marked by a series of “anti-brainwashing” demonstrations opposing the central government’s plan to introduce a “national education” system. The number of participants had swollen to 90,000 by July, according to organizer estimates. In the end, the government shelved the plan.

The “national education” teaching manual describes the Chinese Communist Party as a “progressive, selfless, and united ruling group.” The handbook also states that political stability is achieved by concentrating administrative, legislative and judicial powers under one party.

Lok Man Lai, 18, is a first-year student at a vocational school. He joined in the protests with his friends.

“I thought this was a lie and I had to do something,” he explains. Lok grew up in post-handover Hong Kong and went to a Christian school. He learned about freedom, democracy and the rule of law, “core values” often espoused by the territory’s pro-democracy movement.

“Hong Kong has two historical issues, one against Japan and one against the Chinese government,” says Toru Kurata, a Hong Kong expert and associate professor at Rikkyo University. “When it comes to grievances against Japan, Hong Kong can seem very close to the mainland. However, when it comes to issues declared off-bounds by the Chinese government, such as the Tiananmen Incident, there is a deep schism with the mainland, too.”


Mong Kok is one of liveliest downtown areas in Hong Kong. A direct train connects it to the mainland and hordes of shoppers flock over each day. They come lugging large cases and leave laden with the spoils of a good day’s shopping.

One of the most popular purchases is powdered milk. This voracious demand, spurred on by concerns about the safety of products on the mainland, has led to shortages in Hong Kong, so much so that regulations have been introduced. Each visitor can now only take 2 cans home each day.

Meanwhile, the dream of owning a home in Hong Kong is fading due to real estate speculation by wealthy Chinese. The territory is also facing a shortage of obstetricians due to a rapid increase in Chinese women coming over to give birth. The mainlanders bring strange habits too, such as spitting on the street.

“Thanks to growth on the mainland, Hong Kong remains successful and unemployment remains low,” says Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, 65, president of the Legislative Council and member of the council’s pro-China faction. “However, some people cannot easily see these benefits; to them the situation is clearly causing a lot of stress.”

As contact with the mainland increases, perhaps Hong Kong residents are growing more aware of how “different” they are from their mainland counterparts. There are indeed figures to back up this claim.

According to a poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong last year, when asked to choose between whether they felt like a “Hong Kong citizen” or a “Chinese citizen,” 60 percent chose the former and less than 40 percent chose the latter.

This poll has been conducted on several occasions since the handover in 1997. In the late 2000s, more people said they felt like a “Chinese citizen” than a “Hong Kong citizen.” This was partly due to Chinese support, such as the lifting of the ban on individual travelers, all of which helped Hong Kong stave off an economic crisis following the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) shock in 2003.

Other factors included the growth of nationalist sentiments following the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

This trend has reversed in recent years, though. When other University of Hong Kong polls are added to the equation, a more complex picture emerges of how Hong Kong residents view themselves.

Robert Ting-yui Chung, 55, is director of the Public Opinion Program at the university. He shows me a graph outlining the collected results of a survey asking individuals how strongly they identified with a particular ethnicity or label. “Hong Kong citizens” topped the poll at 81.7 percent, followed by “members of the Chinese race” (75.6 percent). Next up were “Asians” (72.7 percent), “Chinese citizens” (72.4 percent) and “global citizens” (67.4 percent). Only 62.4 percent identified with being “citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China.” The results also suggest that people feel less Chinese the younger they are.

Another survey conducted last May asked respondents to choose between the promotion of democracy or economic development. 35 percent chose the former and 29 percent the latter. This was the first time democracy had trumped the economy since polling began 20 years ago.

According to Lau Siu-kai, 65, emeritus professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland is “very pragmatic.” Lau, a former adviser to the chief executive of Hong Kong, believes Hong Kong residents would not want to lose out economically through over-zealous pursuit of freedom and democracy.

“Both sides will continue to pay due consideration to the balance between economic growth and political freedom,” he says.

By MINORU TSUKISHIMA/ Osaka City News Section
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The boat used by Chinese activists to illegally land on the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture. It lies unrepaired in a Hong Kong harbor. (Photo: Minoru Tsukishima)

The boat used by Chinese activists to illegally land on the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture. It lies unrepaired in a Hong Kong harbor. (Photo: Minoru Tsukishima)

  • The boat used by Chinese activists to illegally land on the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture. It lies unrepaired in a Hong Kong harbor. (Photo: Minoru Tsukishima)
  • Lew Mon-hung, businessman (Photo: Minoru Tsukishima)
  • Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, president of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Photo: Minoru Tsukishima)
  • Hong Kong as seen from the sea (Photo: Minoru Tsukishima)

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