Electoral reform: In changing Hong Kong, who counts as a ‘patriot’?

Lam Yik/Reuters
Chinese and Hong Kong flags are seen through a window outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, March 11, 2021. Last week, the National People's Congress in Beijing approved sweeping changes to the territory's electoral system.

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In Hong Kong, “one unpatriotic politician is too many,” Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told a press conference Friday.

It was one day after China’s parliament had rubber-stamped a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system – the biggest change since 1997, when Beijing regained sovereignty over the former British colony. The revamping effectively excludes pro-democracy candidates, part of a broader tightening of controls after two years of mass protests in the city of 7.5 million people. 

Why We Wrote This

Sweeping changes in Hong Kong aim to put patriots in charge. But what is patriotism? Beijing’s definition contrasts sharply with many Hong Kongers’.

Officials have defended the change as necessary to put “patriots” in charge. But what does that mean? Beijing’s vision of loyalty contrasts with many Hong Kongers’ own views of their identity and allegiances. Part of Hong Kong “nationalism” is rooted in “what makes Hong Kong different from mainland China politically,” says Peter Hays Gries of the University of Manchester: namely, its relative freedom and openness and experiment with democracy. 

Beijing wants “unquestioning loyalty to the party,” says Alvin Cheung, a Hong Kong barrister now at New York University. “That’s going to sit ill with a lot of people in Hong Kong, many of whom are descended from people who fled the [People’s Republic of China] in prior decades.”

Beijing is justifying its sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system – the biggest change to the territory’s political system since China regained sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997 – as necessary to put “patriots” firmly in charge.

The institutional revamping last week effectively excludes pro-democracy candidates and reverses decades of slow progress toward greater representation in Hong Kong. It follows Beijing’s imposition of a national security law last June that has seen scores of liberal politicians and activists arrested, part of a broader tightening of controls following mass protests for democracy in 2019 and 2020.

“One unpatriotic politician is too many,” said Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, at a press conference on Friday.

Why We Wrote This

Sweeping changes in Hong Kong aim to put patriots in charge. But what is patriotism? Beijing’s definition contrasts sharply with many Hong Kongers’.

The changes approved Thursday by China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), will increase the ranks of pro-Beijing members on the committee that selects the territory’s chief executive, as well as on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council – reducing the proportion of directly elected seats.

Beijing created a new vetting body, the “candidate qualification review committee,” to screen out those considered insufficiently loyal.

“If you make nomination effectively impossible for anybody but a die-hard Beijing loyalist, it really doesn’t matter how many popularly elected seats there are,” notes Alvin Cheung, a Hong Kong barrister and university lecturer now at New York University.

But what does Beijing mean by “patriots”? For many in Hong Kong, the central government’s vision of loyalty contrasts with their own views of identity and allegiances – a clash that could have far-reaching consequences for the territory’s governance.

Thomas Peter/Retuters
Zhang Ziaoming and Deng Zhonghua, deputy directors of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, attend a news conference in Beijing on the National People's Congress' approval of electoral reform in Hong Kong, March 12, 2021.

Loving patria ... and party

In China, patriotism – ai guo, or literally “love of country” – is often viewed against the backdrop of its modern history of foreign invasion and occupation, what Beijing calls the “century of humiliation,” says Peter Hays Gries, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Manchester.

“Patriotism,” he says, “has always been defined as anti-imperialist. And as such, it’s actually closer to what scholars call nationalism.”

Echoing such sentiment, NPC Standing Committee Vice Chairman Wang Chen, presenting Beijing’s new patriotism requirement, said foreign countries had “blatantly meddled” in Hong Kong affairs and “flagrantly emboldened ... anti-China, destabilizing forces in Hong Kong,” seriously jeopardizing China’s sovereignty.

Yet while China’s intention to have patriots running Hong Kong has been consistent since the 1980s, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping entered negotiations over the colony’s future with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Deng’s vision was considerably more pragmatic and flexible.

“Deng Xiaoping said clearly that patriots need not be active supporters of the Communist Party,” says Willy Lam, a China politics scholar at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Indeed, in 1987 Mr. Deng said that “if some people in Hong Kong criticize the Chinese Communist Party and China, we will allow them to do so,” although he added that they would not be allowed to “convert Hong Kong into a base of opposition to the mainland.”

Today under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in contrast, patriotism is more “orthodox and austere,” and requires support for the party, says Mr. Lam.

“When we talk about patriotism, we are not talking about the abstraction of loving a cultural or historical China, but rather loving the currently existing People’s Republic of China under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” Song Ru’an, deputy commissioner of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, told reporters before the reforms were approved.

Distinct identity

But the party’s litmus test for patriotism lacks resonance in Hong Kong, which has its own unique local identity and nationalism distinct from that of mainland China. A 2019 poll of Hong Kong residents found that three-fourths identify as “Hong Konger” or “Hong Konger in China” – the highest percentage since 1997. Only a quarter expressed pride in being citizens of China, with that figure dropping to 10% among respondents aged 18 to 29.

“A Hong Kong nationalism” has emerged, focused in part on “what makes Hong Kong different from mainland China politically,” says Dr. Gries – namely its relative freedom and openness and experiment with democracy.

As Beijing has tightened its grip, it has pushed a growing minority toward supporting independence – increasing tensions between China’s nationalistic brand of patriotism and local nationalism in Hong Kong, says Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.

“When the Chinese government or Communist Party or their supporters talk about ‘patriotism,’ they don’t mean patriotism at all,” says Dr. Tsang. “They mean party-centric nationalism,” which revolves around the idea that only the leadership of the Communist Party can “make China great again.”

“There is no room in that party-centric nationalism to support anything like ‘Hong Kong nationalism,’” he says.

This clash is also reflected in the different emphasis that mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers place on the “one country, two systems” formula under which Beijing resumed sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997, while agreeing to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years and expand representative governance. Beijing puts priority on “one country” and sees Hong Kong’s democratic activists as “separatists who want to humiliate China again by carving up its sovereignty,” says Dr. Gries. For their part, Hong Kongers, who seek to deepen democratic reforms, emphasize “two systems.”

“It’s this tragedy ... because both sides believe they are defending ‘one country, two systems’” from attack, he says.

Beijing has maintained Hong Kong’s capitalist economic system. But its moves to curtail the political freedoms of “one country, two systems” have left many Hong Kongers feeling betrayed, and viewing Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s government as “an arm of the Chinese Communist Party,” says Dr. Gries.

“The government is completely out of step with the majority of the public who still desire that relatively autonomous rule they were promised under this agreement between the U.K. and China,” he says.

Future leaders

Even before last week’s reforms, many analysts were concerned about the changing composition of Hong Kong leadership, as pressure grows for aspiring officials to attempt to please Beijing.

One example is Beijing’s recent imposition of a loyalty oath requirement for Hong Kong’s 180,000-strong civil service. “One of the greatest inheritances Hong Kong got from 150 years of British colonial rule was to have a world-class, impartial, professional civil service,” says Dr. Tsang. “The loyalty test means they will no longer be able to stay politically neutral.”

Doubts are also emerging about Hong Kong’s independent judiciary. Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said last month that Hong Kong’s bodies of power, including the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, must be “run by genuine patriots.”

Such statements are “very disturbing because the rule of law and independence of the judiciary are remaining cornerstones of Hong Kong’s success,” says Mr. Lam.

“Beijing only wants people who will respond to a command to jump with the question: How high?” says Mr. Cheung. “They want unquestioning loyalty to the party. That’s going to sit ill with a lot of people in Hong Kong, many of whom are descended from people who fled the PRC in prior decades.”

Indeed, China has signaled disappointment with the performance of Hong Kong’s traditional pro-Beijing establishment – defeated by a pro-democracy landslide in a November 2019 local election – and is moving to inject more mainlanders into the territory’s governing bodies, Mr. Lam says. These could include party members raised in the mainland and educated in the West who work as professionals in Hong Kong.

“When Beijing talks of ‘patriots,’ it is referring to politicians like Carrie Lam. Lam is the embodiment of a Beijing-style patriot; she stood firm in the face of pro-democracy protests and praises Beijing’s every move in Hong Kong. The Chinese government’s electoral reform is designed to plant more ‘Carrie Lams’ in Hong Kong,” says Diana Fu, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

Yet it was Mrs. Lam’s response to massive street protests – considered tone-deaf by many Hong Kongers – that fueled the very opposition Beijing seeks to avoid. “With all these changes,” says Dr. Tsang, “it can only get worse.”

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