Ad for Henry Halloran Lecture

Get up, you who refuse to be slaves

Chinese state media attacks of the recent Hong Kong protests as being unpatriotic are both unfounded and hypocritical.

Profile figures of Hong Kong protestors wearing face masks and yellow helmets as smoke with the skyline billows in the background

As the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (anti-ELAB) protests entered their seventh consecutive week in Hong Kong, the University of Queensland became the first Australian host of a student-led protest on this issue. On 24 July, a diverse group of UQ students — Hongkongers, Australians, and other sympathetic parties — conducted a sit-in on campus to protest. But a contingent of Mainland Chinese students staged a counter-protest, trying to disperse the crowd with intimidation.

The Mainland counter-protesters surged online soon after to explain their actions. The original batch of protesters were criticising the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) involvement in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. According to the counter-protesters, the anti-CCP protesters sought to undermine China’s unity. They called the protesters “traitors and “splittists [sic]” who sought Hong Kong independence, a threat to China’s ideological and territorial claim.

Though the protesters had aimed their grievances towards the CCP, the counter-protesters viewed this as an attack on their nationality. Some even branded the protesters as “racists.” While attacks on a country can devolve into racism, the protesters’ primary target was the CCP as an institution. Several counter-protesters stressed patriotism, or more specifically,  a desire to defend their nation’s name from being tarnished, as their motive for starting the fight.

Such arguments are disingenuous. For one, the counter-protesters’ characterisation of the anti-ELAB protests as “pro-Hong Kong independence” betrays a failure to understand the issue. It is true that anti-ELAB protesters hold diverse views and envision different outcomes. However, the protests themselves make five demands to the Hong Kong government. They are:

1.    A permanent withdrawal of the extradition bill. Thus far, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has refused to use the legal term “withdraw”, so the bill is only “suspended”.

2.     The resignation of Carrie Lam, and implementation of full universal suffrage. Democracy is enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution (Basic Law). However, Lam herself is unelected, and a number of pro-democracy lawmakers were barred from office after their election in 2017.

3.     An independent investigation into police brutality. The excessive violence that police used against protesters and journalists has undermined Hongkongers’ faith in the force.

4.     The withdrawal of the label “riot” used to characterise the 12 June protest. Though the right to protest is enshrined in Basic Law, rioting carries a ten-year sentence.

5.     The release of arrested protesters without charges. The protesters fear that the arrests were made for political reasons.

Independence is not on the list. Most anti-ELAB protesters would prefer that China simply respect the “one country, two systems” agreement. This agreement, intended as Hong Kong’s decolonisation model, should have secured the city’s political autonomy until 2047. But since Xi Jinping’s accession in 2013, Hongkongers have sensed efforts by Beijing to prematurely erode their constitutional freedoms.

The anti-ELAB protests’ demands are not excessive either — nothing that cannot be solved without opening discussions with the people. However, Lam has long disappeared from the public eye, leaving Hong Kong’s future in limbo. The only intermediary left between state and people is the increasingly violent police. Instead of soul-searching, the CCP has abdicated responsibility for Hong Kong’s anger by blaming “foreign influences.” White House reports of Chinese forces gathering on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border have understandably also fuelled fears of a second Tiananmen Square.

As for Xinjiang, it would be insulting to pretend that nothing is happening to the Uighur population there. Satellite images show so-called “re-education camps” cropping up like weeds across the province. The CCP claims that they are there to rehabilitate the largely Muslim Uighurs from “extremism” (that is, Islam). Of course, this wording reflects international Islamophobic discourse, which condemns Islam as an inherently violent religion. Countless Uighur refugees attest to being barred from practising Islam, hounded by government agents outside of China, or tortured in camps. The CCP’s furtiveness has only raised suspicion. Without evidence for the contrary, many have concluded that the CCP is carrying out the cultural genocide of Uighurs.      

So, the counter-protesters’ rationale betrays a more disturbing viewpoint. For them, love for the country means loyalty to the government. Attacks on the CCP, for that group of Mainlanders, were attacks on them as Chinese people. The CCP itself has drawn similar equivalencies between the state and individual; when anti-ELAB protesters in Hong Kong defaced the Chinese emblem with ink, a CCP spokesperson claimed that this “hurt the nation’s feelings.”

Genuine love for the country should translate to love for the country’s citizens. Symbols are inanimate. Territory is impermanent. Governments can be arbitrary. The people are the beating heart of a nation. It is confounding that those counter-protesters, who claimed to be patriots, were not the first to raise their voices against the maltreatment of their compatriots.

Instead, they ignored the protesters’ demands, which reflected fears about the rights and safety of Hongkongers and Uighurs. To re-establish “unity”, they mimicked on an Australian campus the CCP’s modus operani against dissidents: force and intimidation. But the protest itself did not create disunity in China. The protest was symptomatic of disunity.

Outside the controlled discourse of their homeland, these counter-protesters are in the perfect position to engage with those fighting against the CCP. The presence of Mainland allies in the anti-ELAB crowd reflects as much. In Australia, the counter-protesters have an opportunity to hear what Hongkongers and Uighurs think about the CCP.

They can empathise with the dissenters and become conscious of their shared political struggles. Ultimately, they can learn that criticism of their government is not incompatible with their patriotism. Criticism can even express that patriotism.

The UQ counter-protesters betrayed the deepest irony of their “patriotism” on 24 July. Attempting to drown out the protesters, they blared the Chinese national anthem on a boom box. But the first line of the anthem declares, “Get up, you who refuse to be slaves.” If anything, that is the call to which the anti-CCP protesters responded. The invitation is open to all.