Hong Kong: fanning the flames of localism

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As Hong Kong’s Chinese New Year celebrations descended into chaotic rioting, my Facebook wall exploded with vehement denunciations of the city’s government. It transpires that police officers had fired warning shots into the air, a virtually unprecedented act in one of the world’s least violent cities. Bizarrely, the latest set of protests that provoked a police crackdown were waged not over political issues, but were instead carried out in the name of defending unlicensed street hawkers from a government crackdown. 

Whatever the merits of such policies (surely the government could have picked a better time than the most important holiday of the year?), it is difficult to see why this could have aroused a crowd of this sort of protestors. These were violent and deliberately confrontational campaigners, ostensibly linked to the ‘localist’ movement. And that was precisely the point: the specific trigger of last night’s events was nothing more than a convenient casus belli for a large, alienated and increasingly vocal segment of the city’s population. 

Most self-identified localists are of course entirely law-abiding citizens. It would be delusional for the government to try to paint all protestors as bottle-throwing anarchists, although Chief Executive C. Y. Leung certainly cannot be accused of possessing either moderation or common sense in abundance. I do understand why so many young people in the city state, people I grew up alongside, have found themselves attracted to a movement which professes to uphold ‘Hong Kong’ values and Cantonese culture. But I am nonetheless appalled by what parts of this movement stand for and what they aim to achieve. I shudder at the thought that the city of my birth would turn its back on the currents of trade, of intellectual ferment, and of courageous, ambitious immigrants who transformed a barren outcrop on the fringes of China into one of the world’s greatest cities.

Been on the Star Ferry? That was founded by a Parsi from Bombay in the nineteenth century. Stayed at the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon? That was founded by Mizrahi Jewish people from Iraq, a family which remains prominent in Hong Kong’s public life. But the city is not unique in this regard. The world’s great entrepôts did not spring out of nowhere – it took ingenuity, perseverance, and tolerance of outsiders from undistinguished backgrounds speaking eccentric languages and worshipping foreign deities for Hong Kong to acquire its glittering skyline.

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Today’s localists reject anything that is not ‘indigenous’ to their city – for them, you cannot be a member of the community without speaking Cantonese. They adopt the mantle of liberalism and progressivism, yet many turn a blind eye to the systematic and shameful marginalisation of refugees, asylum seekers and domestic helpers who live in the city’s dark shadows. If their views had triumphed a century ago, neither of Hong Kong’s two famed seats of higher learning could have existed. The egg tarts much beloved by our Chancellor (and your correspondent) would never have existed in their current form: they’re largely an adaptation of a Portuguese staple. 

We often look wistfully upon the vanished, cosmopolitan world of port cities the world over. The imperialists who shattered that world, bringing misery, bloodshed, poverty and ignorance in their wake genuinely believed in their goals. They were in many cases principled, honourable men and women fighting for a cause they deemed to be just. And so history repeats itself, thousands of miles to the east this time, in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

In the name of fighting tyranny, imperialism and exploitation, the radicalised youth direct their anger towards the same forces that have brought peace and prosperity to their nation. The signposts and bottles flung at Hong Kong’s police force last night will easily be turned against defenceless immigrants from China, Pakistan, Myanmar, Nigeria, the DRC and even further afield. For months, years already, waves of abuse and contempt have already been unleashed online. I despise Hong Kong’s government for its pusillanimity towards Beijing, for its incompetence and for its sheer insensitivity to public opinion.

But let’s not kid ourselves: there is an increasingly dark underbelly amid the democratic opposition as well, and one that does not bode well for anyone who stands for the internationalism and basic tolerance. In this confused landscape, I cannot understand how so many can blind themselves to the intolerance and hatred that permeates part of the localist movement.

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And of course, there are a great many Hong Kong people who are tireless advocates for minority rights but nonetheless identify with the ‘localist’ movement. They fear that mainland immigrants will dilute the city’s culture and take over local institutions, but treat those of their friends and relatives from China with respect and courtesy. I have little faith that Beijing’s propaganda outlets will recognise this basic distinction, but there remain, in an increasingly divided city, decent men and women from across the political spectrum who reject both extremes.

Yet equality and tolerance are not items on a menu from which we can pick. You cannot advocate sympathy and tolerance from some people, yet reject the basic equality of others. It is high time that we discard the irrational supposition that your basic loyalties are determined by the lottery of birth. Across the world, there is a pressing need to engage in a sensible, rational debate on immigration and refugee policies. But that can never be a pretext for vilifying an entire people en masse without regard to the unique circumstances of each and every individual. Oxonians are never slow to condemn racism or intolerance in their own university or country; the challenge now is whether we are willing to hold other countries to these universal principles, or consign the ‘Hong Kong’s of this world to the trap of low expectations and the untold misery this brings.