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Enforced Patriotism Tests Hong Kong Opposition

A protester raises a placard during a protest outside the police headquarter in Hong Kong, Sept. 25, 2018.
A protester raises a placard during a protest outside the police headquarter in Hong Kong, Sept. 25, 2018.

The Hong Kong legislature is expected to soon debate a bill that calls for stiff punishments for anyone who fails to stand or “display any behavior that is disrespectful” to the Chinese national anthem. But the legislation isn’t bringing out the patriot in everyone.

“It’s a total subversion of our legal concept since it violates the right to keep silent,” said Hong Kong lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dik, pointing to the passage on a photocopied sheet that he highlighted in green. “Not only can’t you deliberately insult the national anthem, even if you do nothing, it’s an offense. It’s the new political logic of active patriotism.”

After a massive pro-democracy protest in 2014 fanned a small, but determined independence movement, China has sought to reverse a years’ long trend of youth who identify as Hong Kongers, not Chinese citizens.

President Xi Jinping and several top officials have rolled out various measures that seem created to remind Hong Kong that it is an inalienable part of China. Xi has stated repeatedly that advocating independence — in Tibet, in Hong Kong or Taiwan — is subversive and will not be allowed.

“Since 2003, patriotism has been raised again and again as a pretext by Beijing trying to stifle dissenting voices and control the power game,” said Sing Ming, associate professor of political science at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology. “Those terms of patriotism, ‘love Hong Kong, love the country,’ those are not empty…We are worried when they are raised now, particularly when President Xi said Beijing should control everything in Hong Kong. We are very apprehensive of politics that they will use as a criteria for patriotism.”

Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, has continuously brushed aside concerns about requests for loyalty, especially in a city filled with residents from around the world. “Of course, in Hong Kong we do expect, whether you are a scientist or researcher, or government official like myself, to love our country and love Hong Kong,” she told reporters in May.

The city’s education officials have continuously crafted policies to urge students to love the country. The effort a few years back, a proposed schools curriculum written to foster positive feelings about the nation, drew more than 100,000 outraged protesters to the streets in 2012, as they decried the content as brainwashing. The city government shelved the lessons, but residents say the curriculum is quietly taught in pro-Beijing schools.

The Hong Kong government did not respond to VOA’s request for comment on this story.

In May, Xi offered Hong Kong’s scientists and technology researchers access to government grants for the first time since Britain relinquished the territory to Beijing, 21 years ago. The funds would strengthen the city’s research sector as officials rebrand Hong Kong as a technology and science hub.

The invitation, however, came with a prerequisite: Successful applicants had to “love the country and Hong Kong,” as state media outlet Xinhua termed it.

People queue up to receive the copy of the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's first policy address at a street in Hong Kong, Oct. 11, 2017.
People queue up to receive the copy of the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's first policy address at a street in Hong Kong, Oct. 11, 2017.

​It sounded similar to a request the government made in 2014 that city judges love China. The proposal agitated the bar and was rejected as improper; several judges are foreign nationals who have long worked in the city to deepen the professional standards of the bench.

Benson Wong, an assistant professor of government at Hong Kong Baptist University, said research proposals had been rejected because they were deemed offensive to the party. One of his projects sought to assess the impact of mainland study tours — another tool to build bonds with the nation — on Hong Kong students. His proposal, he said, was criticized as “too hostile” to China.

Lawmakers have not escaped new patriotic standards. Six legislators were ejected by the courts, starting in 2016, after each was accused of improper oath-taking. Since then, several democracy advocates have been blocked from seeking office, deemed unlikely to uphold the Basic Law, the city’s constitution. None has succeeded in overturning those decisions.

Chu’s patriotism was tested this fall. The 41-year-old journalist has served in LegCo since 2016, winning a record number of votes as he vowed to clear out corruption in the territory’s rural areas. There, researchers say, land bequeathed by the government to indigenous residents has been illegally sold or stolen. Frightened local residents feel pressured to stay silent.

Last year, Chu decided that the best way to curb the property grabs, and ensure more land for public use, would be to serve on a rural village board.

But Hong Kong has started barring politicians who have voiced support for independence from running for elected office.

In December, a government officer barred Chu, a sitting lawmaker, from running for his village board. Chu’s support for Hong Kong’s self-determination, the official wrote, was akin to advocating independence, because Chu did not adamantly reject such a stance.

Chu has said continuously he does not advocate independence, but that Hong Kongers must be allowed to advocate for independence peacefully.

For now, Chu remains a sitting legislator, but he senses that time has now been shortened. As the government limits more opposition actions, and labels more activists as subversives, Chu acknowledged in an interview that it’s unlikely he’ll be allowed to seek re-election in 2020. He says there’s little he can accomplish in the legislative council now, since no one in the pro-Beijing majority would support any of his initiatives.