Pokémon protests: what they tell us about Hong Kong-China relations

Nintendo has declared its intention to unify Pokémon offerings across China, sparking the latest Hong Kong protests fueled by fears of diminishing autonomy.

Tsugufumi Matsumoto/AP/File
A Japanese youngster visiting the Pokemon Center, Tokyo's popular cartoon house, touches the ear of the Pikachu display, in August 2000.

Protesters in Hong Kong have marched on the Japanese consulate to decry video game maker Nintendo's decision to streamline its Pokémon franchise, choosing to unify character names across China and refer to them using only Mandarin pronunciations.

The complaints go beyond Pikachu, the fuzzy yellow mouse-like creation who has become the franchise's poster-child. To some, Nintendo's launching of a "Greater China" version of the game symbolizes another small step of China's ambitions around the cultural and political absorption of Hong Kong. 

Most native Hong Kongers speak Cantonese, a major language in southern China spoken by more than 60 million. But Mandarin has become more common since the former British colony's handover back to mainland China in 1997 – a point of contention with many Hong Kongers who are fearful of growing Chinese influence.

Cantonese and Mandarin use similar written characters, although the mainland uses "simplified" forms promoted in the mid-twentieth century to boost literacy. The two languages also have different grammar and pronunciation.  

Pokémon protestors say the name shifts are about more than video games, movies, and stuffed animals. That Pikachu's name can provoke such anger, "seemingly over something so marginal, simply indicates the breadth and depth of distrust and unease felt by many in Hong Kong at what they see as the erosion of their cultural identity," says Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London. 

It is hard to say how deep the concerns run in Hong Kong society over the renaming of Pikachu and comrades, but the number of protesters was only in the dozens, according to the BBC. As Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview, this represents the "views of very committed Pokémon players and collectors."

Yet Dr. Bush, who is director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings, concedes that concerns about Hong Kong's autonomy could be "lurking in the background."

When the British Crown colony of Hong Kong became a specially administered part of China in 1997, the Basic Law enshrined political and economic autonomy for the island, with responsibility for defense and foreign affairs residing in Beijing. The agreement was supposed to last for 50 years.

But in the years following, there have been periodic bouts of protest as Chinese actions have inflamed passions in Hong Kong, stoking fears that Beijing would interfere in a meaningful way far sooner than 2047.

Perhaps the most significant of these confrontations arose in the form of the 2014 "Occupy Central" movement, which aimed to ensure that Hong Kongers could freely elect their leader. China, concerned about the precedent this could set for other regions on the mainland, prevaricated, insisting instead that Beijing nominate the candidates. Approved nominees are then selected by an Election Committee of about 1,200 people, a majority of whom are viewed as pro-Beijing. The Basic Law, however, stipulates that the "ultimate aim" is universal suffrage. 

Yet some see progress since the "Umbrella Revolution" of 2014, when protestors pushed back against Beijing's plans to have a mainland-friendly committee nominate 2017 candidates for Chief Executive, Hong Kong's top post.

"A year ago, before [and] during the Occupy Central campaigns, the Beijing government was unequivocal and uncompromising in its approach to Hong Kong and had a 'take no hostages' approach," Dr. Brown, who is also a senior fellow at Chatham House, London, tells the Monitor in an email interview. "In the last few months, it has become far less willing to wade into local issues, even despite the visit by politburo member Zhang Dejiang to the city earlier this month."

That visit prompted further protests in Hong Kong, as activists sought to demonstrate to the Chinese visitors that all was not well, even if the authorities were trying to paint a picture of peace and harmony.

Hong Kong is not a hotbed of revolutionary fervor, say most observers. Rather, it is a "pluralistic" society embodying a diversity of views, with a decent proportion willing to acknowledge that "China has taken a number of steps to improve Hong Kong's economy."

But cultural tensions remain high-pitched, with Cantonese Hong Kongers fearing that Mandarin and mainland Chinese will overwhelm their language, culture, and political autonomy. 

A large segment of the Hong Kong population does focus on political issues, says Bush. And some pro-democracy parties have proven just as uncooperative as Beijing when it comes to seeking compromise. "The more radical wing seems to be in a dominant position," he says, "so even if a reasonable compromise [with Beijing] were to emerge, it's not clear that more moderate members would feel able to vote according to their conscience."

Yet there is an onus on Beijing, as well, to engage more constructively with the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong. That, says Bush, is a "necessary condition" for an outcome palatable to all.

"At the moment, both sides have proved very poor at communicating with each other," says Brown. "Beijing needs to communicate better with the people of Hong Kong. And the opposition parties in Hong Kong need to be more pragmatic, more coherent, and have a clearer sense of what they are striving for and how to get there."

But first, Cantonese Pokémon fans have to wrestle with saying "Goodbye, 'Bei-Ka-Ciu,'" and "Hello, 'Pi-Ka-Qiu.'"

"Pikachu has been in Hong Kong for more than 20 years," protestor Sing Leung told The Telegraph. "It is not simply a game or comic book, it is the collective memory of a generation."

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