Hong Kong Pride

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protest isn’t only about freedom. It’s also about identity.

Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images
Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

The protests currently engulfing Hong Kong are led by a student movement that sprang up in 2012 in reaction to a new patriotism curriculum proposed by the Chinese government. Beijing dropped that plan, but the decision last month to limit elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive to a list of candidates screened by Beijing brought the students back onto the streets.

The demonstrators in Hong Kong aren’t just demanding democracy. They’re also asserting their own identity in the face of increased efforts by Beijing to impose greater homogeneity on its far-flung territories — a trend exemplified by the sentencing last week of Uighur academic Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment.

At the same time Beijing finds itself maneuvering to adapt to the rise of an assertive new brand of nationalism on the mainland. Sometimes this upsurge of national pride coincides with the wishes of the Communist Party, which aims to benefit from the growth of "patriotic" sentiment. But staying ahead of the trend is likely to prove a delicate balancing act in the years to come. In recent years Beijing’s assertion of Chinese sovereignty over disputed islands in the East and South China seas has been supported by widespread popular demonstrations — demonstrations that could easily take unexpected turns.

Why is China experiencing this upsurge in nationalism? The answer lies in the past — Europe’s past.

In China, as in 19th century Europe, rapid industrialization and a boom in international trade have led not to peace and understanding, but to increased military spending and the rise of populist nationalism. This is being encouraged by ruling elites to bolster their legitimacy in the face of social unrest.

Britain, the pioneer of the industrial revolution, was the first country to become predominantly urban, with more than half the population living in towns by 1850. Subsequent decades saw a surge in popular patriotism, with words like "chauvinism" and "jingoism" entering English political discourse (in 1851 and 1878, respectively). 

A similar process is now under way in China, which only recently crossed the 50 percent urbanization threshold, in 2012. In the past three decades over 300 million Chinese have left the countryside for city life, experiencing the same "shock of the new" documented in Charles Dickens’ novels of Victorian England. In scale, the Chinese rural-urban migration dwarfs that of Europe, where some 40 million peasants made the trek from village to town over the course of the 19th century.

Why does urbanization cause nationalism? The answer was provided by the late Ernest Gellner in his 1983 book Nations and Nationalism. In 19th century Europe, millions of peasants left behind their familiar rural communities, rooted in family, church and local traditions, to live in the anonymous, teeming townships that grew up around the mines and factories of the industrial revolution. Some of these domestic migrants turned to socialism to defend their rights and to make sense of their new world, while others joined religious revival movements. Likewise, contemporary China is witnessing a resurgence both of Maoism and religion.

Rulers in Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere used the school system to educate the urban masses in the virtues of patriotism, and this theme was picked up by the rapidly expanding mass media — from newspapers to novels to musical hall songs.

A similar dynamic is playing out in China today, confirming Gellner’s hypothesis. In a forthcoming article Jeremy Wallace (Ohio State) and Jessica Chen Weiss (Yale) analyze the pattern of anti-Japanese protests that swept China in the summer of 2012. They ask why demonstrations took place in 208 of China’s 287 prefectural cities, but not in the others. They find a strong correlation between the number of students and rural migrants in a given city and the likelihood of a nationalist protest.

Their findings are consistent with the work of Professor Wenfang Tang of the University of Iowa, who argues that China has entered a phase of "populist authoritarianism." Based on survey research, he finds that Chinese urbanites remain loyal to the Beijing government — even while they are protesting environmental conditions in their town, or the actions of corrupt local officials.

The situation in Hong Kong differs, of course, in significant ways from that on the mainland. Yet the growing prominence of identity politics is one thing that both sides share. Hong Kong’s impressive economic achievements have inspired great pride among the city’s residents — pride in a local identity increasingly defined in contrast to that of the mainland Chinese.

Since Hong Kong joined the People’s Republic 17 years ago, young people have been taught Mandarin in school (in contrast to the Cantonese spoken by most residents of Hong Kong) and have had much more direct exposure to Mainlanders, who travel to Hong Kong as tourists in huge numbers. This experience seems to be reinforcing the sense that Hong Kong citizens have a distinct identity and not just a different political system. In recent years polling data have shown a steady rise among those who see themselves first and foremost as "Hong Kong citizens" rather than as Chinese. As one demonstrator, Ashley Au, recently told a journalist: "We don’t feel like we’re a part of China, and I don’t feel Chinese." This fact is now colliding with frustration over Beijing’s efforts to tamp down the space for political participation.

For the growing middle class on the mainland, engagement with the nationalist cause is now the primary means of compensating for the lack of broader outlets for political expression. Growing dissatisfaction with corruption or the rise of a super-rich elite could undermine the legitimacy of the central government, but so far nationalist fervor has offered a handy way of neutralizing this discontent.

Unfortunately, nationalism is infectious: its rise in China is stimulating similar movements in neighboring countries. A recent Genron/China Daily poll found that 53 per cent of Chinese — and 29 per cent of the Japanese surveyed — expect their two nations to go to war.

It was pervasive and competing nationalism that led the outbreak of the First World War: a conflict that now seems to be both unnecessary and yet somehow inevitable. One hundred years later, it is troubling to see some of the same dynamics unfolding in East Asia. No one wants to see that history repeat itself. China should note that the Great War led to the destruction of the three states most responsible for starting it: Germany, Russia, and Austria. 

If nationalism is a response to the pressures of rapid urbanization, then its causes are essentially domestic, and a change of behavior by Japan or other foreign countries is unlikely to solve the problem. It doesn’t really matter whether Japanese ministers visit the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo that commemorates the dead of World War Two, or if Vietnamese fishermen try to sail through the Paracel Islands, claimed by China as sovereign territory.

Nationalism is a form of political autism, reacting in an excessive and unpredictable fashion to outside stimuli. Only patient diplomacy, mutual understanding, and the study of history can steer East Asia to a peaceful future.

But the current rise of nationalist sentiment in Beijing has troubling implications for the fate of the democracy movement in Hong Kong. There is a danger that the Chinese leadership may see the protests not just as a dispute over local governance arrangements, but as a challenge to the coherence and identity of the Chinese state. In that case, the students could be grouped with the Tibetans and Uighurs as "splittists" and subject to harsh repression.

Peter Rutland is professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown Connecticut and editor-in-chief of Nationalities Papers. He blogs about nationalism at