Beijing Is Weaponizing Nationalism Against Hong Kongers

Hong Kong’s unique identity threatens Xi Jinping’s rhetoric of greatness.

Protesters are enveloped by tear gas during a demonstration in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan district on July 28.
Protesters are enveloped by tear gas during a demonstration in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan district on July 28. Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

The report Monday about a mainland Chinese man pushing a female Hong Kong overseas student to the ground at the University of Auckland in New Zealand may seem inconspicuous on its own. But it’s a worrying sign of how Beijing has turned Hong Kong’s protests into an intraethnic conflict—one that could flare into far worse violence.

Hong Kong has become ungovernable. The city is now well into its eighth week of unprecedented mass rallies, direct actions, and increasingly provocative acts of civil disobedience, with no sign of the protests ending. There is now an almost complete breakdown of trust between citizens and the police, who are widely seen as a tool of political oppression.

Instead of tackling the five demands of the protesters head on, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has retreated into a political bunker. Her public appearances have become increasingly sparse and often consist of tense press conferences or, more recently, a visit to a youth summer camp of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Since the beginning of the demonstrations, protesters and pundits alike have asked whether the Chinese Communist Party will eventually order the PLA to quash Hong Kong’s pro-democracy popular uprising. Monday’s press conference by the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office provided little evidence that such an intervention is imminent. Instead, the spokesperson declared, according to Quartz, “resolute support for the city’s government and its police force, strong condemnations of what it deemed violent and radical protesters, and a reaffirmation of ‘one country, two systems.’”

The threat of economic sanctions and global pariah status will probably prevent a second Tiananmen. But a far more sinister escalation is already under way. There is mounting evidence that Hong Kong’s popular uprising has prompted the Chinese Communist Party to unleash the demons of ethnonationalist violence. Hong Kongers are increasingly seen by the center as just another restive minority—and thus potentially subject to the hard-line policy deployed in Xinjiang and Tibet.

When on July 21 Hong Kong protesters hurled black paint at the Chinese national emblem, it was a very provocative and highly symbolic act of civil disobedience. On the political level, it could be interpreted as a reaffirmation of Hong Kong’s quest for self-determination. On the psychological level, activists hereby told the central government that Hong Kong citizens would not be bullied into submission. The symbolism of this iconoclasm was not lost on Xi Jinping.

Xi occupies the three roles of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, president of the People’s Republic of China, and chairman of the Central Military Commission. He has amassed considerable power and is willing to use it. When Xi talks about China’s national rejuvenation, the underlying tenets are a radical revisionist and expansionist domestic and foreign policy. For his aspirations to succeed, Xi needs to pacify the periphery. He is willing to pay almost any price to achieve this objective.

By putting a heavy emphasis on the discolored national emblem through state-controlled media, the Chinese government is deliberately whipping up nationalist fervor among mainland Chinese citizens and is granting license for people to act against imagined enemies of China. This form of political and psychological warfare has the potential to lead to even greater tragedy than a conventional military crackdown, as it could poison the relationship between Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese citizens for generations to come. Xi’s reckless move could easily spiral out of control, just as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution did in 1966.

A first taste of Xi’s bitter medicine came from China’s consul general in Brisbane, Australia, who praised physical assaults by mainland Chinese overseas students on peaceful protesters at a pro-Hong Kong rally at University of Queensland. When an elderly man from mainland China assaulted local protesters at the arrival hall of Hong Kong International Airport last weekend, this incident was reported rather differently through Chinese state media: The traveler was portrayed as a victim of bullying by Hong Kongers.

Ethnonationalist sentiments have already escalated cataclysmically on China’s western periphery. It was a fight between Han Chinese and Uighurs in a factory in Guangdong province in June 2009—the Shaoguan incident—that subsequently triggered the ethnic violence in Urumqi, which killed more than 140 people just a month later. Following the 2009 unrest in Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party decided to embark in a process of forced ethnic, cultural, and religious assimilation. Both Tibetans and Uighurs have been victims of such forced assimilation.

The Chinese Communist Party’s crimes against humanity are now globally known: More than 1.5 million Uighurs and other Central Asian minorities are being held against their will in internment camps, which were first denied by party-state authorities and later euphemistically labeled as “vocational training centers.”

Given the Chinese Communist Party’s willingness to sacrifice its soft power and global reputation with the internment camps in Xinjiang, similarly harsh measures against Hong Kongers’ identity in the future are equally conceivable. Yet there is a big difference between the situation in Hong Kong now and the flaring up of interethnic violence in Guangdong in 2009.

Due to the territory’s global importance as a financial hub in East Asia, Hong Kong citizens have a far greater international presence than Uighurs. Many young Hong Kongers study or work abroad. By granting mainland Chinese citizens license to pick an argument or fight with pro-democracy-minded Hong Kongers, Xi is unleashing an intraethnic conflict, which will not be locally confined but which soon will spread to all corners of the world with Chinese diaspora members.

If this scenario is correct, it would mean that even very small local intraethnic altercations, whether in Hong Kong, mainland China, or anywhere else in the world, could trigger major violence, not unlike the Urumqi riots in July 2009. That scenario should worry everyone.

Andreas Fulda is a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute and the author of The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong: Sharp Power and Its Discontents.