Some Thoughts on Hong Kong and Nationalism

There is a common complaint among some of my friends on the Mainland that Hong Kong people are arrogant, that they consider themselves different from their comrades on the Mainland, and that they are letting down their nation. It is a complaint that I am always careful to hear out, but also to address.

I begin by asking whether they think Hong Kong people are, in their arrogance and attitude towards their nation, different from people in China? The answer is always yes. At which point I ask them to define a nation. By this point most people see where my questions are leading, and the complaint is usually dropped. Sometimes, to highlight the folly in what is not only flawed understanding of nationhood but a shameful and positively 19th century attitude towards race, I asked them whether they consider me Hong Kong Chinese? It is not polite courtesy that ends the conversation there, but often embarrassment in their position.

A nation is defined by it’s people. It’s justification in being is not historic, or as is commonly mistake a shared core culture and way of life. If this were so much of Europe, with it’s common Christian identity, and shared cultural influences and, for much of the middle ages, a shared language among the ruling elite, could arguably claim to be one historic nation. The other reason the cultural argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny is that culture is itself is neither static in it’s definition nor in it’s existence. Culture, our understanding of it, and our relationship to it is forever changing. It is not so much that culture is something we are born into but that we identify with and indeed shape as we live. As such, to my mind, it is this identification that defines our culture and identity, and thus our identification with a nation.

The concept of the nation is relatively new, a result of Western history, and defined less by the elites than by the rising influence and power of the common man.

England was arguable the first proto-nation – a Norman kingdom that evolved to embrace the local language, culture and traditions of the Anglo-saxons; a vassal-state forced by the Hundred Years War with France to define itself from within, and rejecting the imposed culture of it’s overlord class. It was a period when a people identified began to identify less with the three lions of the monarch, as the country adopted a new symbol representative of this newly evolving status: the Cross of Saint George. In the arts sprang the distinct style of English Perpendicular-gothic and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, with a wit and bawdiness, and a sense of self-deprecation that is still characteristic the English today. In politics a new relationship with power would evolve, from Magna Carta through the Peasant Revolt – a relationship unthinkable in the divinely ordained courts of Europe.

It was a relationship that would later lead to English and then British soldiers, as Linda Colley points out in her excellent study of those men who fought the first truly global conflicts of 18th Century, fighting not for their King but for each other, and for a country defined not by the government of William Pitt but for local or immediate loyalties and for their faith in a relationship with power that they believed, given the time, best represented them.

Whilst some historian have traced the idea of nationhood to advances in map-making during the Renaissance – in effect arguing that maps made us more conscious of the state and to re-interpret our relationship with it – it was not until the establishment of the United States, a nation of and for the people, enshrining the evolving concepts of individual and human rights (Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man), had the nation in it’s modern sense arrived. It was in Britain’s most populace, prosperous and most sophisticated colonies that a merging of ideas of power, governance and individual rights would come together to create the first nation-state.

Imperial China was not a nation. It became one to unite against foreign colonialism. Nationalism was the rallying cry of Sun Yat Sen not as a hark back to past glories but as a way forward, as a means to modernize China, to allow the country to match those national ties that the fathers of the republic believed underpinned the strength of foreign powers.

The strength of a nation is that authority is not imposed but accepted; that it is the people who not only identify with state power but also define it. A nation doesn’t fear it’s people but is defined by them. It does not lay claim to the past but to the present.

Defined by it’s people, a nation changes with them. Nations do not collapse upon division, as they are not redefined by expansion. People identify with a national government, and choose to join, stay of go. Nations die not when they lose land or people, but when they no longer relate to their people – when they no longer represent them.

A hundred year ago Britain was torn between being both a nation at home and an empire abroad. It was a contradiction that tore at the roots of the British intellectual and moral conscience, for a people who cherished rights to deny this most basic of rights to others. It was an empire not by design, nor by state, but by trade, and it was this that explains this divide. Trade and expedience made claim, not a nation, and these claims evolved outside of the national remit.

Today, whilst Britain continues to be administer overseas territories, it has shed it’s imperial coat. In every territory it administers it’s government is defined by and identifies with the people. There is no attempt in the Falkland Islands or in Gibraltar to impose a culture and a language or to provide national education. The people choose to identify with Britain.

The upcoming Scottish referendum is far from a sign of weakness, but a sign of the relevance of Britain as a nation. Scotland, with it’s fiercely proud and independent people, are not being asked to decide on an independent Scotland, but on whether they still identify with Britain as a nation. Whether the Scots vote for or against independence the nation is stronger.

I was once told, by an admittedly extremely right-leaning Englishman, that “the Scots shouldn’t be the only ones to vote in the referendum, but the British people as a whole.” He was convinced that the majority of British people would vote the Scots out of Britain. The argument is very similar to that posed by the Mainland elite today (though admittedly without the sensitive issue of a referendum): that the wishes of the nation as a whole is paramount. What this position seems to fail to consider is that a nation is not a state. In a nation a claim is never made, only recognized; it may grant entry to those who identify with it, but it can never make claim to those who do not. In the case of the Scots, it is not whether the British want Scotland to be part of a union, but whether the Scots still identify with being part of the nation that is Britain. To view a nation merely as a union, and to hold the position that such national wishes are paramount, especially in a country as diverse as China, is the equivalent of arguing that the return of Britain’s former colonies should have been decided not on account of local wishes but of the wishes of the commonwealth as a whole.

China has a proud history, as a civilization and as an empire, and whilst we should acknowledge our past we must live, govern and rule the realities of the present. The age of the imperial state has passed, representing a reality, a set of values and an understanding that no longer exists. Whilst the lines between nation and empire may be blurred, the clock can not be turned back.

So to my Mainland friends, it is not for you to tell the people of Hong Kong that they share your identity, your culture and your values, and that Hong Kong is part of your nation. It is for the people of Hong Kong to decide. If China is a nation, it is for China to representative of its people, for it’s people to define it’s culture, and what it means to be Chinese. It should not see division as a threat but as a means to move forward, to allow the nation to be relevant and continue to be relevant as China and it’s people themselves change. Embrace differences rather than fear them. To be part of your nation is a choice to be made by people today and not an imposition of the past. China is stronger as a nation, but it must also start respecting the underlying principles of nationhood should it wish to be one.

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