Hong Kong’s countermessage to ethnic patriotism

The long and popular protests have helped forge a civic identity in contrast to Beijing’s imposed ‘dream’ of cultural unity around a racial stereotype of Chinese subservience.

Chinese soldiers practice detaining a person at an athletic center in Shenzhen across the bay from Hong Kong August 15.

For three months, at least a third of Hong Kong’s population of only 7 million has been protesting for democratic rights in the streets of the semi-autonomous territory. Yet Beijing’s powerful leader, Xi Jinping, has not crushed the demonstrations. Why? Does he worry about economic fallout? Or the loss of China’s hopes to be seen as a benign global leader?

One possibility is that Mr. Xi would be crushing one of his claims to power: the promise of a “China dream.” This grand idea, repeated again and again, rests in part on a racial stereotype. It is the myth that all people of Chinese descent share a cultural unity and their political identity must be defined – and enforced – by the Communist Party.

It is this notion of ethnic patriotism – or bloodlines as destiny – that has been so ably challenged by the protesters. Their embrace of civil values as a collective identity is not based on dimensions of “Chineseness.” They have forged a cultural unity around the daily practice of freedom of speech and assembly, equality under a system of law left by British rule, and political transparency and accountability.

Hong Kongers – which most prefer to be called instead of Chinese – have coalesced around a shared self-governance, mutual respect, and open-mindedness. The crushing of the protests could not crush this internalized identity. A violent display of authority would expose the empty myth of a homogeneous ethnicity. The emperor would be seen as having no clothes.

Since his rise to power in 2012, Mr. Xi has tried to extend his “China dream” to both Hong Kong and the independent island nation of Taiwan. In a 2015 meeting with Taiwan’s then-leader, Ma Ying-jeou, he stated, “We [China and Taiwan] are brothers connected by flesh even if our bones are broken. We are a family whose blood is thicker than water.”

The Taiwanese, who have enjoyed democracy for three decades, do not buy this claim, especially as it is made under the threat of military coercion. Nearly two-thirds of the country’s 23 million citizens see themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese. Their view is reinforced by Beijing’s rising threats against the Hong Kong protesters.

The “China dream” is based on the work of Mr. Xi’s ideology mastermind, Wang Huning. The former scholar sits on the party’s powerful politburo. His writings argue that Chinese people are prone to accept authoritarian rule out of Confucian-style reverence. They are “descendants of the dragon” and not yet advanced in their thinking to really know their interests. They need the paternalistic rule of an unchallenged Communist Party, not a system based on the choice of individuals. Mr. Wang says democratic freedoms and basic rights are “self-defeating.”

Cultural typecasting is not unique to China’s rulers. Many leaders hold to power on claims of ethnic cohesiveness rather than a civic nation.

In their thinking and actions, Hong Kong’s protesters have already overthrown Mr. Xi’s ethnic branding. Their conscience is already free. Their identity is chosen, not given, and rooted in universal values, not an imposed dream of ancestral traits. Whatever crackdown may still be imposed, this self-determined identity cannot be crushed. This may be giving Mr. Xi pause.

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