Search Monday March 22, 2004

China's patriotism cry undermines Hong Kong
History and hypocrisy
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Tuesday, March 2, 2004

HONG KONG: China's demonization of democracy advocates in Hong Kong as "unpatriotic" makes an interesting tableau of local history as displayed through distorting mirrors.

According to Beijing and its local supporters, Hong Kong's democrats are unfit to play a role in government because they lack patriotism. Members of the business elite have jumped on the bandwagon, accusing democrats of being unpatriotic populists who want to increase taxes and provide free lunches. But recollections of the past have given rise to popular cynicism about the patriotism charge.

Even the traditional leftists are divided. Tsang Tak-sing, editor of the Communist Party mouthpiece Ta Kung Pao, was jailed by the British during the 1967 Cultural Revolution, when patriotism was defined as "loving Mao Zedong." He clings to every twist in the party line. So does his brother Tsang Yok-sing, a leading pro-Beijing legislator - though this patriot may not like to be reminded that in 1988 he applied to emigrate to Canada and his family did get right of abode there.

By contrast, Chak Nuen-fai, a leftist publisher also jailed for subversion in 1967, has never applied to go anywhere. He has now accused Beijing of cynical opportunism in its claims to define who is and is not patriotic. He is sympathetic to antigovernment demonstrators and asks: "What's wrong with people calling for democratization in China?"

A senior figure in the democratic camp, the former teachers' union leader Szeto Wah, had a long record of criticizing the colonialists and promoting the Chinese language. Yet he is now among those singled out for attack by self-styled patriots. The independent legislator Emily Lau was battling the British for democracy when many of her current critics were hunting titles like Order of the British Empire. She has been particularly targeted by "patriots" for daring to suggest that the wishes of Taiwan's people be respected.

In the administration and the business community there are numerous prominent figures who were once eager to collect honors from the colonialists or buy foreign citizenships. Some have since renounced their foreign passports, but others cling to them, sometimes secretly.

Potential conflicts of patriotic allegiance are everywhere. Take Ronnie Chan, a prominent second-generation businessman who runs the Hang Lung property group. He has often boasted of his American citizenship. He was, until its collapse, on the board of Enron, and on its audit committee, and heads the local branch of the U.S.-based Asia Society. Yet his political utterances are laced with Chinese patriotism and with disdain for the Jeffersonian liberal democracy of the U.S. Constitution. Chan recently formed a new political pressure group with an executive committee consisting mainly of fellow owners of inherited wealth. Beijing sees them as loyal allies because they will fight to maintain the status quo and their own privileges.

Conflicts of patriotism do not touch Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing. His companies invest relatively little in China but he does not have a foreign passport and has business connections with Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. His elder son Victor, however, is in an ambiguous position. He is described as Chinese in local documents but is currently trying to buy Air Canada, which requires him to identify himself as a Canadian citizen. Is he driven by Chinese or Canadian patriotism? Canada may be complacent, but China's Constitution - in theory at least - does not permit dual nationality.

Other leading "patriotic" businessmen have passports from Southeast Asian countries. That is not deemed to matter to China so long as they identify with the motherland - though loyalty conflicts are an issue in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Hong Kong is a pragmatic place where passports have been regarded from a practical rather than an emotional viewpoint, which has been one of its attractions for overseas Chinese. Protecting the family has long taken precedence over loyalty to the state, and especially to the Communist Party government. Hundreds of thousands have overseas residence rights. Tung Chee-hwa's own family, most of whose members hold U.S. passports, is a case in point. Likewise, many big Hong Kong family businesses are incorporated in offshore centers like Bermuda for regulatory and political rather than tax reasons.

Given Hong Kong's history, Beijing's use of patriotism is not just a crude and hypocritical attempt to defend an unpopular administration and increasingly corrupted system of government. It strikes at the root of Hong Kong's pragmatism and marginalizes the large non-Chinese and overseas Chinese population whose engagement is crucial to its survival as an international center of commerce.