The Hong Kong protesters have surprised the world with their persistence and resilience against one of the hardest states that the modern world has known.
For common Indians, the protests in one of the richest, most developed, cosmopolitan cities in the world, with people waiving the British flag, is a bit of a puzzle.
The Left intellectuals are explaining the protests as a failure of capitalism — the high and increasing rent, cut-throat competition, lack of well-paying jobs etc. Others are trying to explain it as the inevitable demand for democracy as people become economically stronger.
There is merit to these arguments, but they still fail to explain why the Hong Kongers who are ethnically, culturally, historically, and geographically closer to China, are missing the colonial rule.
Not only the Union Jack made appearance in the large-scale marches in Hong Kong, but the protesters who stormed the Legislative Council building in July 2019 also draped the British Hong Kong flag across the podium in the assembly’s chamber, and waved the Union Jack.
It is almost a blow to the staunch anti-colonial beliefs of a third-world country, that the people of a former colony, decades after freedom, are waiving the flag of the colonising country to protest China, their ethnic and civilisational homeland.
Colonialism is a historical mistake and has to give way to independence, is the settled and broad-based consensus.
The Hong Kong protests, on the other hand, display broad-based and widespread usage of colonial symbols, displaying a sense of nostalgia, or what China calls, “fantasising the faded glory of British colonialism".
What, then, has brought Hong Kongers to go against the tide of time?
China, for Hong Kongers, it seems, is just another colonial power, one which is worse as compared to a democratic and multicultural Britain.
Hong Kongers complain that since the territory came under the “one country, two systems” of China, latter has steadily encroached upon its autonomy, while China justifies it as the normal course of a postcolonial country securing its territorial integrity.
Most post-colonial nations, including India, suffer from ambiguities at their peripheries, a legacy of the colonial rule. North East India is a case in point. The people in the region differed significantly from the rest of the country, yet eventually became comfortable with the union.
Surveys from the University of Hong Kong show that most people in Hong Kong identify themselves as "Hong Kongers" — only 11 per cent would call themselves "Chinese" and 71 per cent of people say they do not feel proud about being Chinese citizens.
Hong Kongers have described legal, social and cultural differences — and the fact Hong Kong was a separate colony for 150 years — as reasons for why they don't identify with their compatriots in mainland China.
A comparison with North East India
When India gained independence in 1947, it had to tread a careful path of accommodating regional, cultural and linguistic aspirations, and fighting secessionist tendencies to solidify the nation.
The task was made easier by the legacy of Indian national movement that united different people against the foreign rule. However, there was one region, which was left out of the ‘liberating touch’ of the freedom movement — the North East.
North East India was deliberately kept isolated from the rest of the country by the British in order to maintain commercial interests, for example, of the British plantation owners, while Christian missionaries were given a free-hand to proselytise.
The underlying assumption was that the tribes in the region were far too behind, even from native Indians, to be accommodated in any modern political system, and instead, needed a basic level of civilising first, to be done through Christianity.
The isolation had the added benefit of less freedom fighters to deal with.
Not that the British and missionaries didn’t encounter any resistance. The brave tribals fought against political and cultural subjugation as well as economic exploitation. However, in the face of the lack of a modern political organisation, methods of struggle, and integration with the broader national politics, they weren’t successful.
By the time of the independence, not only the North East (now overwhelmingly Christian) was ethnically, culturally, socially, linguistically, politically and economically very different from the rest of the country, but also, the Christian missionaries had succeeded in convincing the inhabitants that there interests can only be protected through secession from the Indian union.
The challenge faced by China in case of Hong Kong weren’t as stark.
A majority of the Hong Kongers were ethnically the same as the majority in the mainland China. The colony had seen economic and financial development, and was well connected with the mainland through economic ties.
There is, however, a significant similarity— the role of Church. The Christian missionaries were quite active in both Hong Kong and North East in the colonial times.
It is in keeping with a global, organised, multinational company like character of the Church that it plays a significant role in global politics.
Christianity was a significant part of the colonising missions across the globe, and Christian organisations today have openly hailed their role as foreign policy instruments of the First World.
Apart from India’s North East, Pathalgadi, Maoist insurgency, the role played by Catholic Church in the downfall of the communist system in Eastern Europe, role of Christian missionaries in the political turbulence in the South Korea and the Philippines in the cold war period, are few examples.
It is no surprise that China views Christian missionaries, with their headquarters in the West, with suspicion, and has taken several steps to counter their influence.
After the 1997 agreement, China initiated a crackdown in the Hong Kong where Christian institutions held considerable control of education and culture to bring them in line with Communist party’s agenda.
A reaction by Church, based on past precedence, was expected.
A 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal looked at the religious background of some of the protest movement’s main organisers, and pointed out that many key leaders were Christians. At least three of the founders of the Umbrella Movement were Christians, including the face of the movement, Joshua Wong.
A strong Christian presence was noted throughout the protests: “prayer groups, crosses, and protesters reading Bibles in the street.”
Churches played a “quiet but important role in the city’s protests, by offering food and shelter to demonstrators.” As Christianity Today reported, there’s a significant Christian dimension to this year’s protests as well, just like there was in 2014.
The WSJ article also notes, “Hong Kong churches have long tried to spread Christianity in China. Protestant pastors based in Hong Kong have helped propagate the evangelical brands of Christianity that have alarmed the Chinese leadership in Beijing with their fast growth.”
Not just China, several countries have wary of the influence of Christian organisations.
Interference of Church in politics continues to be a major topic of debate in western countries. In the third world though, the challenge is graver given the history of colonialism and assault on sovereignty.
In the North East India, the NEFA, which showed scarce secessionist tendencies was dominated by indigenous religions. On the other hand, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, which saw armed insurgency, were overwhelmingly Christian.
Hong Kong, on the other hand, despite strong presence of Christianity, had significant population following Chinese religions (Today, 56 per cent of the Hong Kongers follow no religion).
Why then China, is facing a strong opposition in Hong Kong with Union Jack being rubbed in its face while India has more or less gained hold of North East?
The answer might lie in the failure of the Chinese leadership in ‘nation-building’, a task necessary for all the post-colonial countries.
The cultural aspect
India set out with a pragmatic approach in handling the strategically important North East region. The success of the approach was realised in the case of NEFA directly managed by the union government, which was later awarded statehood as Arunachal Pradesh.
States like Nagaland and Mizoram, initially a part of Assam state, weren’t handled as well by the state government, and saw armed insurgency necessitating a military response by the union. Today however, apart from small troubles, they sit rather comfortably within the union.
Apart from a democratic set up and deft political handling, the cultural capital of plurality, diversity and tolerance of an ancient civilisation played a huge role in the integration of the North East.
Both Gandhi and Nehru counted on this cultural capital.
The tribals, despite conversion to Christianity, kept alive their cultural traditions. Mainlanders were not shy of showing respect, and even a certain degree of protectiveness towards the tribal culture, which assumed a symbolism of the authentic representation of the nature and its beauty, and tribals gained respect as the guardians of this treasure, referred to as Adivasi, the ‘original inhabitants’.
Hong Kong, separated from the mainland China, did not go through the Maoist revolution. Protected from the four fold aim of cultural revolution to destroy "old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas," the Hong Kongers maintained a distinct way of life.
As soon as the 1997 accord was signed, China started spreading communist propaganda in the region. The "old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas" of the Hong Kongers were looked down upon. Mandarin, the official language of Communist China was imposed despite Cantonese being spoken by the majority of the people.
In bulldozing the communist ideology over the Hong Kongers, China was no different from the British imperialists, and in its assumption of the superiority of communism, China is no different from the imperialists it criticises.
The British assumed that the inculcation western ways, inherently superior to the native ways, would bind the colonised forever with them.
The United States, in its mission to spread of democracy, worked on an assumption that liberal values are inherently superior to the traditional ones, and therefore, once the absolutist leaders are removed by force, the conquered would welcome America with open arms.
China assumed that communist ideology’s inherent superiority would bind the Hong Kongers with the mainland. The onslaught of Communist propaganda, which took years to root in the mainland itself, hit hard a culture, which was already wounded by colonialism.
While the Chinese can deride Hong Kongers as ‘British dogs’, the failure occurred on the part of the Chinese leadership in recognising the deep and complicated needs of colonised people.
Colonisation isn’t limited to political structures of foreign subjugation. Foreign invasions have been happening all through out history, but latter differs in its systematic, deep attempt at erasing a people’s identity. The colonisers weren’t only in the pursuit of profit. They were on a ‘civilising mission’.
A necessary predecessor of the political nationalism in the colonies is nation-building, which involves rekindling the faith of the people in themselves, and making them recognise who are they are, and where they came from. This gives rise to a national consciousness.
The cultural renaissance that happened in the nineteenth century India, reaching heights during Swadeshi movement, with its emphasis on Atmasakti is one example.
Before India could become a nation state, Indians recognised their roots, and gained a sense of their being, their position in history and the world. Freedom from the foreign rule wasn’t the end, but a necessary adjunct of realising full potential of own existence. Indian national movement became an expression of a common moral purpose.
But Chinese state had no time to tend the wounds of colonialism. Much ahead in the march towards the ‘end of history’, having shed the burden of everything old, China had no space for the bourgeoisie extravagance called culture and tradition.
It is interesting how both in India and China, after the departure of colonialists, the leadership’s fascination with communism has undermined the legacy of national struggle, albeit in very different ways.
While the Chinese remained occupied with political integration, and the city of Hong Kong continued its march towards a soul-less existence, flush with money but lacking meaning. Hong Kong became the city that’s running too fast to look anywhere else but forward, while the destination remains uncertain.
The Communist propaganda probably succeeded in further erasing whatever was left of Hong Kong’s "old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas", but couldn’t provide a hope for the future.
Today, Hong Kong's young people are the unhappiest they have been in a decade — and the least likely, of all age groups, to agree with the statement "life is really worth living". Other surveys find that 60 per cent of those aged 18-29 want to emigrate, and 80 per cent are unhappy with the political situation.
The disenchanted youth have nothing to turn to, but the memories of an island nation oceans apart that ruled them for 150 years, in their protests.
Built on the plank of political democracy and representation, Hong Kong protests are also about the despair of the youth arising for a meaningless, materialist, alienated existence where they are forced to pursue money doggedly to ensure a decent existence, while everything else is in tatters.
Hong Kong protests are as much about the past, as about the future.
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