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California Literary Review






David Y. F. Ho

What is happening in tiny Hong Kong, dwarfed by two superpowers, may be better understood in terms of the escalating antagonism instigated by the U.S. (superpower number one) towards China (superpower number two)—reflecting the underlying anxiety within Trump’s administration that America is losing its supremacy. Closer to the truth is that the man who has been peddling “Make America Great Again” is making America last.

To obtain a fuller picture, readers will be enlightened by the late celebrated author William Blum on the destructive consequences of America’s intervention in other sovereign nations all over the world, such as those documented in his 2013 book entitled America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy—The Truth About U.S. Foreign Policy and Everything Else. The book throws light on how the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-governmental organization that receives public funding, may have played a role in Hong Kong’s affairs.


Another question has to be addressed: The violent protests in Hong Kong have their roots in the intense, long-term animosity between Hongkongers and mainlanders, which baffles many Westerners.

Violence in Hong Kong versus violence in the U.S.

The minority of protesters who engage in endless violence (sometimes brutal, even lethal), senseless disruption of normal life and commerce in Hong Kong (e.g., vandalism, occupying the best airport in the world) are doing a great disservice to the cause of democracy. Prolonging such violence plays into the hands of the Chinese Central government to impose the national security law on Hong Kong. This point has not been acknowledged in the Western media. We need strategy, balance, and rationality no less than courage and determination against political oppression.

Hong Kong is usually not a violent place. I have seen with my own eyes that the Hong Kong Police Force has shown consideration constraint in dealing with protesters. In dramatic contrast to the militarized police suppression of protests inflamed by Trump over the brutal murder of George Floyd, the Hong Kong policeman looks more like the bunny cop in the Disney movie Zootopia. In the U.S., “nonlethal weapons” (rubber bullets, flash-bangs, and beanbag rounds) regularly used by law enforcement officials can cause serious, even fatal, injuries. One analysis found that 15 percent of people injured by rubber bullets and similar objects were left with permanent disabilities. Also, research suggests that tear gas could amplify the spread of the coronavirus. Recently, violent hard-core protesters in Hong Kong have shot arrows and hurled petrol bombs at the police. I fear that such violence will lead to more violence.

It is bizarre to see some anti-government protesters in Hong Kong waving American flags and holding up a placard with a picture of Trump and the words “PRESIDENT TRUMP PLEASE LIBERATE HONG KONG.” This is what biased reporters in the U.S. would love to exploit. But what woeful message does the placard actually tell us? These protesters have no idea of what it means to ask a person like Trump to “liberate Hong Kong.” To them, naive and pathetic are kind judgments to be applied. Are they aware that Trump has bankrupted the moral high ground for telling the rest of the world what to do? Or are they desperate enough “to drink venom for quenching thirst,” as put in a Chinese saying? When will they grow up and stop making themselves the laughing stock in Hong Kong and abroad?

But there is an alternative view: These protesters are shills (or clandestine “running dogs”) of backstage machinations by the U.S. Specifically, the NED has been accused of interfering with the affairs of Hong Kong by activating the protesters.

Founded in 1983, the NED has launched programs that resemble aids given by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to bolster pro-American groups in past decades. However, as NED President Carl Gershman told the New York Times: “It would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the CIA.” So, we have a change in name, but not in basic substance, in how America conducts itself in relation to other countries.

On the animosity between Hongkongers and mainlanders

In January 2012, a spat between Chinese mainlanders and Hongkongers went viral online about a mainland girl being rebuked by locals angry that she was flouting regulations about eating abroad on the subway trains. Then, Professor Kong Qingdong, a professor of Chinese Studies at the prestigious Peking University, poured fuel on the fire. Kong said, “Many Hong Kong people don’t think that they are Chinese. They claim that ‘we are Hongkongers, ‘you are Chinese. They are bastards. Those kinds of people used to be running dogs for the British colonialists…. You aren’t human.” Ironically, infamous for his use of profanities, Kong says he is a descendent of the philosopher Confucius. No stranger to controversy, he was reportedly involved in a shadowy “Confucius Peace Prize” awarded to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin the year before.

Subsequently, some Hongkongers retaliated with an “anti-locust campaign”: Mainlanders are locusts because they exploit healthcare and other resources normally reserved for locals. Specifically, the retaliators employ the derogatory term “double illegitimacy” to refer to children born to both parents of illegal status in Hong Kong. Note that this time the term locust is applied by one group of Chinese to another group of Chinese—not by a Westerner, such as M. P. Shiels in his influential potboiler The yellow danger in the 19th century in which expressions like “a plague of locusts” and “a human worm” apply to all Chinese as a race.

The narration of the acrimony between Hongkongers and mainlanders above serves to shed light on not only the prolonged protests in Hong Kong against the central government but also the larger question of why different groups of Chinese can relate with one another so badly.

“We are Hongkongers!”

The Western media have represented the Hong Kong protests primarily in political terms, as a fight for freedom and democracy, without paying sufficient attention to their underlying emotional, historical, and cultural dimensions. Research conducted by myself and my colleagues confirms that political choice or behavior depends on not only ideological positions (preferences) but also the emotional intensity with which they are held.

The data we gathered some 2 years before its transfer from British to Chinese control in 1997 showed that Hong Kong people had medium to strong levels of identification with Hong Kong. They appeared to be quite proud of themselves as members of Hong Kong society. The majority identified themselves solely or primarily as Hongkongers rather than as Chinese.

The respondents perceived Hong Kong as weak politically, though very strong economically, in relation to China. They did not trust mainlanders and preferred to maintain a marked distinction between themselves and mainlanders. However, the respondents had a strong sense of pride in being both Hongkongers and Chinese, and especially of responsibility towards both Hong Kong and China. Taken together, the data suggest that, despite their contemporaneous antipathy towards mainlanders, Hongkongers remain anchored in their historical and cultural Chinese roots.

Later surveys conducted by the Public Opinion Programme (POP) at the University of Hong Kong have also found, quite consistently, that only a small minority of Hongkongers identify themselves as Chinese. Founded in 1991, POP regularly published polls on sensitive political issues that are deemed as unfavorable to the “One Country, Two Systems” status. Not surprisingly, it has been under pressure from pro-Beijing critics. On 30 June 2019, POP ceased to be a part of the University, to continue operating as an independent body. This outcome raises deep concerns about academic freedom in Hong Kong.

Why is the mutual animosity so entrenched and intense?

The clash of political cultures is certainly one of the factors contributing to the animosity between Hongkongers and mainlanders (see my 2019 book Rewriting Cultural Psychology: Transcend Your Ethnic Roots and Redefine Your Identity Significant divergences in political culture have arisen from their different historical experiences in a century, concerning the role of government, legal institutions, freedom of the press, and so forth. Many Hong Kong residents are refugees who have fled from starvation or political oppression in the mainland and are naturally ill-disposed to the central government.

Mainlanders are jealous of the greater political, financial, and economic freedoms that Hongkongers enjoy under the policy “One Country, Two Systems.” And the central government has reasons to be vigilant against “spiritual pollution” and “liberalization” spreading from Hong Kong to the mainland, especially the southern provinces close to Hong Kong.

Economic disparity, especially during the last century, is a much stronger factor. Many Hongkongers think of China as backward and treat mainlanders with disdain. In return, mainlanders resent the arrogance of their Hong Kong compatriots. In a visit to the mainland, I saw Hongkongers flaunting their wealth in a restaurant; no sooner than they had left, a waitress spoke to her fellow workers, loud enough that I as an easily identified Hongkonger could hear, “I hate these Hong Kong people! They feel so superior because they have money.” Adding to such mutual repulsion were the widespread practices of Hong Kong men owning a “second wife” on the mainland and of mainland women earning a living as prostitutes in Hong Kong. Economic disparity, in short, debased the intergroup relations between Hongkongers and mainlanders. Sadly, the Chinese may be worse treated by their own kind than by foreigners.

Now that the economic disparity has shrunk in size, mainlanders are probably harboring a sense of satisfaction that their government is in a stronger position to discipline Hongkongers into submission.

Concluding thoughts

Violence begets more violence: This adage describes the tragic situation of Hong Kong. Violence at two levels: one between two groups of Chinese, Hongkongers, and mainlanders; the other between two superpowers (China and the U.S.) that engulf helpless, tiny Hong Kong. When will we learn from the lessons of history to move toward peace and cooperation, rather than to self-destruction?

Author Biography
David Y. F. Ho, the pioneering psychologist who introduced clinical psychology into Hong Kong, has held professorial appointments in psychology and humanities in Asia and North America. He was the first Asian to have served as President of the International Council of Psychologists.

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