Democracy Lab

Nationality: Democrat

Democracy and identity politics aren't mutually exclusive. But don't try telling that to the Chinese Communist Party.

In December, a Hong Kong sociologist by the name of Robert Chung found himself at the center of a political storm. A study commissioned by Chung, director of opinion research at a leading university in the territory, discovered that the number of people who identify themselves primarily as citizens of Hong Kong was higher than it's been for the past 10 years. The survey showed that the number of those who viewed themselves as Chinese had fallen to 16.6 percent. That's a 12-year low and less than half of what it was three years ago.

Since then the territory's communist press has launched a vicious attack on the pollster. "Political fraudster" and "a slave of dirty political money" are just two of the Cultural Revolution style epithets trotted out against Professor Chung. Hao Tiechuan, a Beijing official stationed in Hong Kong, called in local reporters to denounce Professor Chung's work as "unscientific" and "illogical."

Beijing, always wary of Hong Kong's loyalty because of its colonial heritage, ratchets up the rhetoric even higher during "election" season. In March, 1200 mostly pro-Beijing loyalists will choose the next chief executive, and in September, Hong Kong citizens will go to the polls to choose 35 of 70 seats in the partially-democratic legislature. Last fall, pro-Beijing candidates won local district-level polls overwhelmingly, although an investigation has been opened into possible vote-rigging. Beijing's attacks on Professor Chung-- as well as on a so-called "Gang of Four" of prominent democracy advocates -- may be calculated to keep the minions who choose the chief executive in line and dampen turnout by the solid majority of Hong Kong voters who favor progress toward full democracy.

But Beijing's fury reflects a much deeper problem for the Party: any list of factors contributing to the development of a distinct identity among Hong Kong people would have to include civil liberties, independent courts, press freedom, and political parties. When Beijing concluded negotiations on Hong Kong's return with the British, it promised a "high degree of autonomy" and agreed that democracy was the "ultimate aim." Beijing, however, gave itself the right to interpret these terms, and since reassuming control of the territory it has repeatedly pushed back the date when Hong Kong people might choose their leader and legislature.

Hong Kong's people have energetically defended their civil and political liberties. To Beijing's chagrin, that includes holding demonstrations held each year on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule. In 2003, a massive march, estimated at 500,000, defeated plans to enact legislation outlawing subversion according to Article 23 of the Beijing-drafted Basic Law -- "a people's victory over their Hong Kong puppet government and the dictatorial Chinese Communist Party," Liu Xiaobo wrote in a 2007 essay, recently republished in a collection of his essays and poems. An uptick in the number of protestors at last summer's July 1 demonstration has been attributed at least in part to opposition to the government's proposal to do away with by-elections. The proposal, which would allow the runner-up to take over a vacated seat, was a transparent attempt to punish several pro-democracy legislators who resigned their seats in order to run again in a self-styled "referendum on democracy." They won. Now that Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is himself imprisoned on subversion charges, his face appears on posters at the annual commemoration of the 1989 massacre of democracy protesters.

Hong Kong isn't the only place where the Party faces a burgeoning identity linked to democratic values and institutions. For decades, Taiwan was a higher priority for the Party than Hong Kong, much of which was automatically supposed to revert to mainland rule under leases that expired in 1997. In fact, the "the one country, two systems" model that has been applied to Hong Kong was originally designed with Taiwan in mind. When President Carter broke relations with Taipei and withdrew U.S. troops, Beijing hoped that Taiwan could be enticed, or coerced, into unification with the mainland.

So far, that has not happened -- and not only because the U.S. Congress established de facto diplomatic relations with Taipei and committed the U.S. to help Taiwan defend itself. Taiwanese, too, have developed their own distinct identity tied to democracy. Polls show a steady climb in the percentage of people who consider themselves "Taiwanese." At first, some observers claimed that the growing sense of a distinct Taiwanese identity was artificial, the result of campaigns by pro-independence politicians seeking electoral advantage in a population sharply divided between relative newcomers from the mainland and the native Taiwanese population. In fact, according to Melissa J. Brown, a cultural anthropologist and the author of Is Taiwan Chinese?, those politicians "merely articulated and emphasized a change in Taiwanese identity that had been developing" in the years since Taiwan embraced democracy. Despite their different policies on relations with China, today both of Taiwan's major political parties consider democracy a non-negotiable element of any resolution of the island's fate.

Perhaps worse, from Beijing's perspective, as Shelley Rigger, a political scientist at Davidson College writes, Taiwanese people's "commitment to democracy is stronger than their determination to achieve a particular outcome." A civic identity that prioritizes democracy is an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party, which peddles a brand of nationalism based on chauvinism, xenophobia, and great power pretentions.

The democratic identity developing among Tibetans in exile is also a challenge for Beijing. Communist propaganda presents the Dalai Lama as an "evil splittist," the representative of a backward, aristocratic elite from which the Party has emancipated the long-suffering Tibetans. In fact, the Tibetan spiritual leader long ago abandoned independence as a goal, opting instead for "genuine autonomy" within the People's Republic. He has led the India-based Tibetan government in exile through a democratic transition. Last March, he completed the project by separating his religious duties from his political ones, turning over the latter to a prime minister elected by eligible voters among Tibetan exiles in South Asia, Europe, and the United States. The Dalai Lama has said that whether the institution of the Dalai Lama continues is up to Tibetans, and he pursues dialogue with ordinary Chinese citizens. All of this is extremely threatening to Beijing, which, upon the current Dalai Lama's death, is planning to install its own puppet ruler in Tibet through "guidelines on reincarnation" that emphasize "patriotism" and "love of the motherland."

Professor Chung, the Hong Kong sociologist, has declined to speculate on the reasons behind the change in attitudes among citizens of the territory. He did point out, perhaps wryly, that "Cultural Revolution-style curses and defamations, no matter at whom they are directed, are not conducive to the building of Chinese national identity among Hong Kong people."

Certainly, attitudes fluctuate for a variety of reasons. Professor Chung's statistics over the years show a higher identification with the mainland during events that might stir feelings of pride and belonging, such as the 1997 return to Chinese rule or the Beijing Olympics. On the flip side, Hong Kongers harbor resentment about the influx of mainlanders who push up property values, or take advantage of rules granting residence to mainland babies born in Hong Kong. Ill-mannered tourists are another source of irritation, and an ad taken out in a leading newspaper denouncing them as "locusts" exacerbated tensions. (The man in the photo above is demonstrating against plans to allow mainland drivers to enter Hong Kong in their cars.) On the other hand, some mainlanders come to the territory each year to participate in the June 4 march that commemorates the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Beijing's "candidates" for the chief executive post, Henry Tang and C.Y. Leung, are stepping gingerly through the minefield of Hong Kong identity politics. Both criticized a mainland TV talk show diatribe by Kong Qingdong, a Beijing University professor who claims direct descent from Confucius, a favorite Communist Party apologist. Hong Kong people, according to Professor Kong, "got accustomed to being "running dogs for British imperialists.... They are still dogs.... They are not human." Dog-walking protesters promptly turned up at Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong.

Tang and Leung, however, are both in a bind. As supplicants for Hong Kong's top job, they can ape the mainland's values and lose the ability to govern, or stand up for Hong Kong's values and institutions and lose Beijing's backing. It's a dilemma that will become more, not less, problematic for them -- as well as their patrons in the Communist Party.

ANTONY DICKSON/AFP/Getty Images

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