Nicole Wong: The False Song of Chinese Nationalism

The False Song of Chinese Nationalism
Written by Nicole Wong; originally on Comitium Volume 3 (publication of Hong Kong National Party)
Originally from issuu

Tanni / EJInsight
When Hongkongers first realised that their fate currently lies in the hands of the foreigner, when the first call for Hong Kong Independence was voiced, and when the Hong Kong National Party was first convened, the resounding rebuttal was that of a familiar question: “Are you not a Chinese as well?”  All too familiar indeed is the question, for not only is its contents a cliché, but its accompanying features: the moralising and patronising tone, the aged and wrinkled face, and the underlying sincere belief from the accuser that all parties engaging in the heated debate are, beyond any doubt, Chinese.  The PRC members are Chinese, the Hongkongers are Chinese; the pro-Establishments are Chinese, the pro-Independents are Chinese; you are Chinese, I am Chinese, we are all Chinese.  It is as if the fabled Golden Headband of Journey to the West's Monkey King has come to life, and with the familiar words, the inescapable Chinese identity binds us all to our predestined obedience to our Chinese colonial masters, who are, as we are reminded by this very instant, our beloved brothers in the Sinic brotherhood.

Thus smugly does the self-assured Sinic accuser disarm, without any self-awareness of Stockholm Syndrome, any threats to the imposed Chinese identity.  Those politically engaged amongst you might have noticed that this “call to linked arms” is no novel rhetoric.  Indeed, long since before the sovereignty of Hong Kong was handed from the Brits to the Chinese in 1997, whenever the separate identity of Hongkongers was ever raised, there came inevitably the self-assured, “patriotic” rebuttal: “Are you not Chinese?” And how effective it was in shutting down all discussions!  In an age where both the pro-Beijing and the pan-democrats believe they are merely squabbling brothers born of the same beanstalk [Though it must be said the illusion runs far deeper for the latter.], it is easy to see why the curse is so effective --- to claim you are somehow a different national identity from those with which you share the same nationality is a patently absurd idea.  It is not until very recently when Hongkongers realised that it is the premise of this curse that is the absurd detail: the age-old lie that Hongkongers are “Chinese”, for the specific definition of “Chinese” that this curse implies.  The opposition stops here, though, and most “localists” are content with substituting it with a murky self-identification of “Hongkonger”, after which we observe a mess of competing bikeshedding: whether “Hongkonger” is an ethnic-national identity, civic-national one, or both; when the “historical immigration cut-off” line should be drawn for “Hongkongers” to be considered natives; and so on.  None has recognised and attempted to lob off the chief supporting leg of the argument on the other side: the curse of “Are you not a Chinese?” is allowed to flourish even to this day, because the Hong Kong public still implicitly believes in, in one way or another, the false song of Chinese nationalism.

The “Chinese”: a national identity built on self-defeating ideas

There are many ways to dismantle the lie of Chinese nationalism.  One could observe how it is no more than a continuation of an imperial subject identity, given a modernist and fashionable name when the ROC and then the PRC adopted the idea from Europe.  This particular thrust has been explored by past publications on Comitium by analysing the intentionally woolly definition of the word “Chinese” written in the Chinese script.

The very same word could mean,
1, the pseudo-biological ethnicity of Han Chinese;
2, the legal nationality of a PRC national;
3, the cultural identity of a Chinese transcending legal nationality; and
4, the romantic idea of a single cultural tradition, presumably unbroken for millennia, found in the East Asian territories that are within today's PRC borders. 
The absurdly wide range of definitions contained within this single word has given rise to such claims from a certain Member of the National People's Congress, Michael Tien Puk-sun's mouth, “Just look at our skin [colour], if we weren't Chinese I don't know what we are” (definition by biology) to be followed by “the Chinese nation has its history spanning millennia.  Now I don't know if you've read any history,” (definition by romantic tradition) “but this whole thing is as simple as stating 'my mother is a woman'!” (definition by popular consensus) “When you go travelling, you fill in the nationality field with 'China' and not 'Hong Kong'” (definition by legal nationality).  At no point does the nebula of definitions attempt to be consistent with itself, with different facets thereof carted out when the situation calls for it --- its principal aim is to remind the audience that they are Chinese.  The Chinese nationalist-reminder thus selects its victims with utmost abandon, for anyone with the most tenuous claim to “Chinese”-ness, perhaps by some distant grand-grand-grand uncle who lived in a conquered province under the (Mongolian-ruled) Qing Dynasty, could still be lassoed in to become just as “Chinese” as the bloodline heir to Old Confucius by the interwoven mess that is “Chinese national identity”.  And once that association is mentioned, the Chinese nationalist-reminder grows full-blown into the Chinese nationalist-curse, for it is within that narrative that any such identified “Chinese” are duty-bound to follow the leadership of the current “Chinese” regime, i.e. the PRC.  That these wildly varying and at times self-conflicting definitions could be played out at will to form an unassailable and messy whole is precisely how the call to Chinese nationalism is no more than a utilitarian chain whose purpose isn't to define a nation, or a nation's people, but to subjugate whatever audience it may lay claim to.  Were this mess of what constitutes a Chinese to be taken seriously, the identity of a “Chinese” would be most schizophrenic indeed.

One could likewise observe how the idea of a Han Chinese identity would fall apart pretty quickly on both ethnic and civic/cultural grounds once you factor in the observable effects of geography on the centuries of interbreeding (and lack thereof), both in blood and language, so much so that the language of the Cantonese is mutually unintelligible with the tongue of the Fujianese, that the funeral customs of Sichuan would look alien to the most accepting Shanghainese, and that the adage of “All Chinese look alike” is indeed a racist generalisation, for no inhabitant of this East Asian land would be unable to differentiate the telling physical differences between a Beijingese and a Hongkonger.  All these, of course, could be wily dismissed by those who (mis-)follow the school of thought where nations are imagined, and thus as long as the ruling Beijing and the majority of her followers imagine Hongkongers to be part of this “Chinese” whole, it is democratically just to accept that, yes, Hongkongers are “Chinese”, too.  All the more lamentable is the reality, in fact, when it is not only the Beijingese, but also a substantial amount of Hongkongers, who buy into this line of thought.

“Chinese nationalism” fails to be nationalism at all

What, then, could the Hong Kong Nationalists offer as a rebuttal?  The answer is simple: Chinese nationalism fails as nationalism.  That is to say, Chinese nationalism is not nationalism.  To support this argument one might need to devote several lifetimes' work into defining “what is nationalism” academically, which is commendable as an intellectual pursuit on its own, but infinitely unhelpful to the situation that Hongkongers are facing with our limited time, quickly running out.  Thus sweeping away all academic considerations on the clinical definitions of nationalism and focusing on the most important thing at hand --- the people of the nation --- one arrives at a common thread that permeates through all definitions: that nationalism is a supreme uniting force for the people, by the people, of the people.  It is a noble call to arms, a sense of camaraderie with those with whom you know you share a common ground.  It is a promise that someone you might not know personally has your back covered on matters important.  And most importantly, it is an exclusive force, for it defines clearly its criteria for inclusion, and from it do the nationals derive their shared pride --- whether in culture, in blood, or in myth.

Let us ask, then, what are the effects of the question, “Are you not Chinese?” upon the accused Hongkongers.  It is not a noble call, but a condescending subjugation of the Hongkonger identity.  It is not a celebration of camaraderie, but a shaming order for compliance and obedience.  It is not a recognition for common ground, but an admission of a lack thereof.  It is not a promise of support, but a threat of public guilt.  And most damningly, it does not evoke pride in Hongkongers, but instead demands submission and self-deletion.  The question is not so much as a reminder of Sinic brotherhood but a memo on Sinic domination.  To tell a Hongkonger he or she is Chinese is anything but a nationalistic call --- Chinese imperialism is alive and well, and no matter of rebranding can the leopard change its spots, oppressive blemishes and all.