The first of October is the national day of China. This year, it was even the 70th anniversary of the momentous day Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Square. Claiming that “the Chinese people… have now stood up [against the] oppression and exploitation by foreign imperialism and domestic reactionary governments,” Mao announced on October 1, 1949 that “the era in which the Chinese people were regarded as uncivilized is now ended.”
Alongside the symbolic anniversary, I have been reflecting about what it means to be Chinese. And especially as protests in Hong Kong, a place where I have grown up and lived in, continue for the fourth month, in no small part due to the interference from the central Chinese government, I am grappling with the significant identity crisis — whether to identify as a Hong Konger, a Hong Konger in China, a Chinese person in Hong Kong, or Chinese — that many of my fellow Hong Kongers are facing.
Many Hong Kongers recognize that we have lived under legal protections of religion, expression, and assembly and are guaranteed free trials and human rights, most of which are unavailable in mainland China. British colonization, although morally wrong and historically indefensible, left us with a robust rule of law and the promise that our fundamental human rights would be preserved for at least a few decades.
As China justifies its actions during the Tiananmen Square massacre by pointing towards the stability and economic boom that the country has experienced in the past decade, we in Hong Kong cannot help but point towards the atrocity that happened when the army was pitted against its people, the Uyghurs who are forced into re-education camps, and the lawyers who are persecuted for defending human rights. Conscience preclude us from falling in line with the national story and identity that Beijing is spinning.
In China, this view would be dismissed as a blind fondness for foreign powers or a selfish attempt to pit the Chinese people’s government against outside forces. And this is internally coherent with both Mao’s rhetoric at the founding of China and the current government’s understanding of Chinese history — that the modern Chinese state has overcome a “century of humiliation” for the Chinese race. By solely emphasizing the solidarity among Chinese people against foreign powers, the Chinese government has carefully curtailed a narrative that frames democracy as a Western trap and dismisses popular discontent and legitimate demands as foreign conspiracies to divide Chinese unity. According to the Chinese government, one can either buy into its narrative and its version of Chinese identity or betray their Chinese identity.
Undeniably, there is a national interest in cultivating patriotism and stemming the growth of independence or separatist movements, to the limits of a government’s legitimacy. But to ignore the opinions that motivate these tendencies and to deny the right to these opinions is autocratic and delegitimizing. I believe that Hong Kong independence movements are unrealistic, counterproductive and willfully neglectful of the shared cultural and ethnical identities among Chinese people. However, the recent rise of these sentiments is only a symptom of the very real fears of crackdowns and violations by the Chinese government. In fact, Hong Kong independence was never a supported movement even under British colonization. But as the national narrative about identity seems to revolve around the monolithic gratitude towards the revitalization of the Chinese race, Hong Kongers have become more inclined to believe that the current protests are “the last stand” and more have abandoned their Chinese identity.
As we deviate from this predetermined identity of what it means to be Chinese, what are we left with? Can one be Chinese without loyally buying into what it means — for the Chinese government — to be Chinese?
I believe so. Harvard, as former University President Charles W. Eliot’s, Class of 1853, quote on Dexter gate says, encourages students to “Enter to grow in wisdom” and “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” I believe that to fulfill this honorable patriotic duty is not to be blindly nationalistic or to be an apologist about the darker parts of a country’s history. One should love one’s country not because of indoctrination or intimidation. Rather, one should rejoice in one’s national identity because of a shared sense of pride in its history, culture, or fundamental beliefs. Therefore, when facing the human rights violations of the autocratic government, one's duty to their country and kind compels one to speak up and criticise immorality.
I am proud to be a Chinese Hong Konger. My cultural heritage, from gatherings over yum-cha to the actual tradition of brewing tea, has been exported around the world, and my ethnicity is an unerasable component of how I was raised, who I am, and how I see the world. But I regret that this culture and ethnicity is now being championed by a government who purportedly claims to protect its people, yet, at the same time, fails to even respect their basic human rights, dignity, and value.
So for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the modern Chinese state, I call on Chinese students at Harvard to love their country — not by unthinkingly accepting the nationalistic narrative and identity, but by loving and respecting their fellow citizens and being responsible citizens and citizen-leaders who critically consider what is best for their country and kind.
Justin Y.C. Wong ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Dunster House.