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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 come in 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.


Paradoxically, another book, published in 2018, that throws light on the plight of Hong Kong is not about Hong Kong at all but about America’s history as a tale of contradictions: “These Truths: A History of the United States,” by Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor. It is a classic tale of a unique country’s spectacular rise and just-as-inevitable fall. Both the rise and the impending fall are of particular relevance to the present article: The rise is associated with American’s expansion and world dominance since the end of World War II; the fall motivates America to reassert itself and in doing so pushes the world closer to armed confrontation between the two superpowers (visit

The anti-government protests in Hong Kong have sometimes taken violent forms rooted in the intense, long-term animosity between quite a number of Hongkongers and mainlanders, which baffles many Westerners (visit This raises another question that has to be addressed: What does it mean to be Chinese? The difficulty in answering this question relates to how identity is defined, as I have explained in my 2019 book “Rewriting Cultural Psychology: Transcend Your Ethnic Roots and Redefine Your Identity” (visit

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. Not long ago, violent hard-core protesters in Hong Kong shot arrows and hurled petrol bombs at the police. I fear that such violence will lead to more violence. This point has not been acknowledged in the Western media.

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.

Lepore’s history of the United States substantiates my contention that police brutality is only one of its many violent manifestations, deeply rooted in the ideology of White supremacy originating from the beginnings: “Between 1500 and 1800, roughly two and a half million Europeans moved to the Americas; they carried 12 million Africans there by force; and as many as 50 million Native Americans died, chiefly of disease. … Taking possession of the Americas gave Europeans a surplus of land; it ended famine and led to four centuries of economic growth.” In other words, America’s economic growth exacted a terrible price on Native Americans, Afro-Americans, and other minority groups (e.g., Chinese who served as laborers during the 19th century and then settled in the U.S.). In large measure, a history of America is a history of violence (e.g., mass shootings, strife between racial groups, civil war).

Liberating Hong Kong: From whom?

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. Hong Kong has long been dubbed “Asia’s spy hub.” According to Edward Snowden, a former contractor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) later turned whistleblower, “We’ve got a CIA station just up the road and the consulate here in Hong Kong.”

Naturally, the Chinese government is annoyed. 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 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.

What does it mean to be Chinese?

The term Chinese does not connote a monolithic collectivity based on ethnicity, political orientation, geographical location, nationality, or any other criterion. Take the case of a smaller collectivity: The term Chinese-Americans includes the native-born as well as Chinese originating from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or elsewhere. Cultural and linguistic differences exist between these groupings, making it well-nigh impossible for them to cohere into a collectivity with a uniform identity.

The difficulty in stating what it means to be Chinese relates to the question of how identity is defined, as I have explained in “Rewriting Cultural Psychology: Transcend Your Ethnic Roots and Redefine Your Identity.” A person’s identity may be defined in multiple ways: Legally (“What is your nationality?”), historically (“What is your lineage or who were your ancestors?”), geographically (“Where and for how long have you been located, in a rural or urban setting?”), linguistically (“What is your mother tongue?”), and psychologically (“What is the group to which you feel you belong, or toward which you owe loyalty and allegiance?”).

Obviously, these different definitions may yield highly divergent results. In my own case, my mother tongue is Cantonese, but I consider myself a bilingual-bicultural person; at one time, I held three passports, one British, one American, and one issued by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (which renders me legally a Chinese citizen). So it is difficult to say who I am. Actually, I reject all designations of identity, except that of a world citizen.

Viewed in this light, it is not difficult to see why the legal definition of identity imposed by the central government on various Chinese groups has met with strong opposition: in Tibet, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Taiwan, and even tiny Hong Kong. How can legal definitions guarantee loyalty or obedience?

One happy family of Chinese nationalities?

Since ancient times, Chinese leaders have upheld the doctrine of Grand Unification: China is a unified, indivisible nation with a central government ordained to govern all subjects within its domain; fragmentation leads to chaos and threatens the legitimacy of the leadership. Indeed, for past emperors and present leaders alike, it is a sacred duty to keep the nation united and to protect its territorial integrity. Grand Unification thus provides an underlying justification for political leaders to maintain their stranglehold on power.

Officially, China is comprised of 56 ethnic groups or nationalities, of which the Han has an overwhelming majority of 92% of the population. All ethnic groups are supposed to live happily within the Chinese family under the leadership of the central government. The policies of the central government are often biased in favor of minority groups. For instance, minority students are given preferential treatment in admission to institutions of tertiary education; some minority groups were exempt from the one-child policy (now changed to two-child)—affirmative action, Chinese style. Large-scale programs of poverty eradication, especially among minority groups, have an impressive record: Worldwide, the percentage of people living below the poverty line has fallen, due largely to the success of Chinese programs.

Han ethnocentrism and prejudice against non-Han minorities were not grounded in racism (or biological superiority) but in culture centrism: a conviction in the pliable endurance and superiority of Han culture as well as the tendency to apply Han values in judging minority groups. The Han view of a happy family is based on maintaining harmonious relations with minority groups, coupled with perhaps partial or eventual assimilation with the Han. More recently, progressive views that favor the preservation of minority cultural distinctiveness have gained ground. All these contrasts with the view of White supremacy based on racial superiority in the U.S., from which inequality and segregation between Euro-Americans and minor groups (especially Afro-Americans) follow.

Historically, the centrally located Han people view themselves as being surrounded by the “barbarians on all four sides.” Take me as an illustration. I am Cantonese (also a member of the Han majority). This means that I am a nanman (“southern barbarian”) vis-à-vis the civilized Mandarin-speaking peoples of the north. Do I feel insulted? No, otherwise I wouldn’t joke about it with my Mandarin friends. The term simply reflects historical reality.

The founder of the Republic of China, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, was also a “southern barbarian,” born in a Cantonese village not far from Hong Kong. So, a “southern barbarian” was revered as the “National Father” during the days of the Republic. And the Hong Kong Cantonese are “barbarians” not only in name but in substance. They make a lot of noise to make known their demands persistently to the governing body in Hong Kong, during colonial days as well as after the transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997. Take note that “barbarians” are not easy to govern.

Having lived and traveled in China extensively, I can testify that I have not found evidence pointing to discrimination against minority groups based on racial grounds. By the large, the Han majority gets along with their minority compatriots; interethnic marriages are common. But do these make a happy family?

Of course not, at least not yet! Historically, the Han majority has engaged minority groups in countless battles, intermingled with periods of calm. Today, the central government’s approach to achieving a happy family of all Chinese nationalities by decree or heavy-handed measures has resulted in more discord than unity. It does not measure up to the height of the Tang dynasty during which peoples from distant lands came to participate in Chinese life and commerce, willingly.

Obedience and loyalty hold the key to how a Chinese polity is treated by the central government. Thus, Macao is treated much more favorably than Hong Kong. In the eyes of the Chinese leadership, the polity that declares that its citizens are not Chinese is the worst—like a wayward son who no longer acknowledges his parents.

By this count, the Taiwanese opposition to the central government is the most dangerous and disintegrative. The Democratic Progressive Party has pursued policies of de-sinofication: Taiwanese are not Chinese and do not belong to the Chinese family. Whereas the naughty Hongkongers who have irritated the central government to no end may be disciplined into submission, the rebellious Taiwanese are collaborating with a foreign government and are thus threatening the peace in the western Pacific.

Concluding thoughts

I owe the reader where I stand with regard to the plight of Chinese peoples who want to be autonomous or independent from the central government. In my mind, self-determination should be a right. But I am also mindful of the Chinese “Grand Unification” mindset. And I am also a realist and a pacifist who does not want to see the unnecessary loss of lives and even less the horrid specter of war—as in the case of Taiwan crossing the red line and declaring that it is an independent country. In the case of Hong Kong, it would be unwise to engage in violent protests that play into the hands of the central government to impose the national security law more harshly on Hong Kong residents. This point has not been acknowledged in the Western media.

Across the world, armed conflicts in the name of achieving independence have resulted in the deaths of many thousands. I invite you to look at nationalist-secessionist movements of the Basque in Spain, the Tamil “Tigers” in Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. Do the secessionists fare better after years of strife or civil war that leaves the local economy and living conditions in ruins? This should be a lesson for Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan: Don’t play with fire that will engulf yourself and innocent others in flames.

The situation in Tibet is complicated. I don’t see any willful intent to destroy Tibetan culture, or anything remotely resembling mass killings. Rather, I see economic forces leading to socioeconomic disparity at work, leaving Tibetans behind the Hans. These forces are hard to control by the government, at the central or local levels. But they must be addressed to achieve justice and prevent interethnic strife.

I have seen reports of mass incarceration, “reeducation” (brainwashing), and false self-confessions of crime induced by coercion in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Even if only partially true, they send a chill down my spine. What else can I say?

We need strategy, balance, and rationality no less than courage and determination against political oppression. Learn to bargain. Concentrate our efforts on achievable goals, not on ideal but unrealistic ones.

I wish that the central government will accept this simple dialectical formulation: Unity without diversity is boring uniformity; diversity without unity is factionalism. Non-violent expressions of conflict serve an integrative function; moreover, insisting on maintaining harmony, without giving opportunities for conflicts to be voiced and resolved, sows the seed for non-integration. If you do not recognize the value of conflicts and provide no channels for their resolution, the result is pseudo harmony. When underlying conflicts do erupt into the open, as they have periodically in Chinese history, they tend to assume violent forms. So, why not make your governance less uniform and more attractive with diversity, such that people would no longer want to leave the Chinese family?

Finally, I have a message to both of the superpowers, the U.S.A. and China: Please leave Hong Kong and Taiwan alone. Equally, many countries would be better off without meddling by superpowers, which have often been threatening to smaller countries. But small is beautiful, like New Zealand, Holland, and the Nordic countries that respect human rights and are non-violent.

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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