When seeing the massive protests in Hong Kong in particular against the Extradition Law and the more general issue of encroaching mainland Chinese Communist influence and increasing control, I immediately and strongly side with the Hong Kong protestors. Why? It’s because as an American citizen enjoying an awesome life living in New York City, I believe in the same things the Hong Kong people believe with respect to Western-style freedoms and fear the same things they fear in an authoritarian Communist government (with Chinese Characteristics).
However, I must admit I’m terrified that I can understand the mainland Chinese point of view on the Hong Kong issue, as well as related issues like Taiwan. This post will articulate specific reasons why I can understand that mainland Communist Chinese of view, and how issues that appear self-evidently and intuitively correct may not be so when the reference frame is changed or the metrics to judge are modified.
1. Identity, Nationalism, and Ethno-Nationalism
For context, I identify first and foremost as an American citizen. Every day I wake up, I feel grateful and lucky to breathe free under the American system as a naturalized American citizen of Chinese heritage (over 90% Chinese genetically according to 23andme.com) who was born in the Khao-I-Dang refugee on the Thailand-Cambodia border after my parents fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. I do not feel like a minority in America, forget about an oppressed or discriminated-against minority, but every bit as American as anyone else and I harbor absolutely no racial animus towards the dominant racial group of White or European-Americans.
My love for America and Democracy is only rivaled by my hatred for Communism, which I believe is the absolute most sinister system ever conceived by humanity resulting in the deaths of over 100 million people in the 20th century and many times over more suffering, fear, unhappiness, and stifled dreams.
Capitalism With Chinese Characteristics
How does this hatred of Communism manifest itself with respect to how I think of China? The ruling Chinese Communist Party is nominally Communist, and brands itself as practicing “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” However, in practice it’s really “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics” as we see in the authoritarian capitalist and market system, and the continuation of Chinese civilization from over the last three thousand years, with severe catastrophes starting from the Opium Wars, The Taiping-Qing Civil War (Taiping “Rebellion” connotes that the “rebel” Taipings were not legitimate and that the Qing were the legitimate authority, but this is arguably not so), Fall of the Qing Dynasty, rise of the Republic of China, and rise of the modern People’s Republic of China, spanning about one hundred years’ worth of calamity and chaos.
When younger, I never even remotely identified as Chinese or even Asian, but as American who looked slightly different than other Americans. However, as I learned more about the very old and rich heritage of Chinese civilization and my own genetics as I’ve grown older, I do feel an affinity with the Chinese homeland and the Chinese people even though I have never set foot in Chinese territory and still consider myself American first and foremost.
This renewed identity was a bit confusing at first, but I think it’s only natural as any human and their ancestral homelands via genetic affinity. Americans of French, Italians, Russians, Egyptians, Spanish, Turks, etc. heritage may all feel affinity to their homeland and heritage too, even though they may are also equally loyal as American citizens. Perhaps the main difference is that I look more physically different from an average American than an Italian may look. America was not even conceived in theory when some of these countries, empires, or race- or ethnicity-based political units had already existed for hundreds or thousands of years.
It’s that personal affinity for China that has made me question some of the more emotional and instant positions I take, especially on the Hong Kong issue.
2. Humiliation and Chinese Sovereignty
There’s no shortage of alarmist books and thinking that fear the implications for the strength of a rising China that seeks to assert itself as a challenge to the sole Superpower in the world. One representative book is Michael Pillsbury’s One Hundred Year Marathon, which was so extreme in its neoconservative view that it bordered on cartoon-like caricature at times. Even so, these fears do have merit since China is indeed becoming more powerful and assertive, geopolitically, economically, and in many domains.
But China’s strength and capability to call the shots has not been such in recent history. One widespread narrative is that the Chinese people have suffered through humiliation or catastrophe at the hands of foreign encroachment over the past few hundred years.
Those with a more strongly ethnic orientation may believe Chinese humiliation started from the rise of the Qing Dynasty where the ethnic Manchus became the overlords of China starting 1644, ruling over the Chinese people. Those with a more anti-Western or anti-European orientation may believe Chinese humiliation started with European invasion and colonization starting with the Opium Wars and leading to the annexation of territories like Hong Kong, Macau, or Shanghai. And of course, there’s the old hatreds of the Japanese, most acutely in the brutal Second Sino-Japanese War during 1937 and 1945 leading to an estimated 25–30 million Chinese dead.
The interpretations for China’s rise and recovery from humiliation can range many timeframes and events as well. Some believe China started when it became one unified nation again coming back under ethnic Chinese control in 1912 with the establishment of the Republic of China (which unfortunately almost immediately fracturing into about a dozen regions of power under different warlords). Some may believe the recovery started in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Still others acknowledge the calamity of the Great Leap Forward with the estimated 45 million dead under Mao as a domestic enemy of the people, and may believe it started with the reform and opening up by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.
In all cases, the narrative is that China was once great and the leader of the world, suffered massive calamity and great humiliation under the influence of foreign forces, and now is rising again to claim its rightful place as the leader of the world. With that strength is a way to correct past wrongs, especially when the Chinese people were too weak and had no choice but to prostrate powerless at themselves at the feet of more powerful outsiders.
Legacy of Colonialism
This historical legacy of a weak China forced to bow down to a greater raw violent power, aka: colonialism, and thus involuntarily ceding its territories is the context of where Hong Kong’s status can be viewed today. Hong Kong has been, is, and always will be Chinese territory, so why must it make any apologies for exercising its legitimate authority over the island group?
If China was too weak before, it is strong enough now. What is morally wrong with this? Why should the protestations of a few million supercede the (implied) will of the two to three magnitudes of order more Chinese on the mainland? Especially when those values were from the very Western imperialists that forcibly took sovereign Chinese territory in the form of Hong Kong away from China in the first place?
To better understand these questions, we may want to consider some examples from American history to see if they’re totally unreasonable, or at least to provide broader context.
3. Reframing American History
So let’s try to think of the Chinese sovereignty issue by reframing it in terms of the American sovereignty and American history. In these following thought experiments, the assumption is that of the American nation and its territories. I omit other factors that may make this much more complex, such as the rights and claims of the original Native Americans or the enslaved African-Americans who were forcibly brought here on slave ships. This is not because I don’t think these are legitimate and important issues since they are, but because I can make the contexts as simple and congruent as possible with the context of mainland China and its territories, where I similarly do not consider the complex issues of minority non-Han ethnic groups within China, most especially the Tibetans, Uyghurs, Miao, and others, which collectively number in the tens of millions.
British Occupation of Washington DC
During the War of 1812, on August 24th, 1814 (not 1812), the British Empire briefly invaded the American homeland and occupied Washington DC. The invading British troops marauded through and set fire to federal buildings, including the White House and caused theAmerican government including President Madison to retreat elsewhere. This invasion was the only time that America has been occupied by a foreign power and it was only temporary.
But what if Washington DC were kept by the British indefinitely? And it developed governed by British law before the British agreed to hand it back? Would Americans still be content with the maintenance of British customs and laws, as well as sovereignty of Washington DC? Most likely not.
It’s possible to interpret this occupied Washington DC within a USA as akin to Hong Kong’s status with respect to mainland China. The sovereignty of the greater America and its rule over Washington DC that would not be questioned. The only difference is that America had the power to repel the British and this situation never played out. In contrast, China had been very weak, and could not reclaim Hong Kong until only recently.
Confederacy Retreating to Cuba
Another example to consider from American history is if the Union Army could not attain a definitive victory over the Army of the Confederate States of America. What would’ve happened if the CSA government and army were able to flee to Cuba, defend it against attempts to invade by the Union Army, and eventually establish a government there that claimed it was the rightful and legitimate government of the entire United States? Or at least the Confederate States of America? What if this were to exist until modern times?
Now, what would happen if China sold weapons to the CSA, and insisted that the CSA were its own sovereign political entity and not an internal affair of the USA? Would the American government and people be okay with this? Most likely not, there’d be all attempts to reunify.
It’s possible to interpret this Confederate States of America with respect to the USA with Chinese interference as akin to Taiwan’s situation with respect to mainland China with American interference.
4. Benefits of European Colonization of China
Of course, only the most brainwashed, uneducated, or extreme ethno-nationalist Chinese person would say that European influence in Hong Kong, Macau, and Shanghai was “only” and “strictly” a bad thing.
In these areas, there has been great economic and cultural progress precisely from the effects of European colonization. Furthermore, they have also served to help China touch the greater world beyond its border by having a point of contact with the rest of the world lead to great improvements in the lives of the Chinese living there.
Important Caveat About History, Racial/Ethnic Groups, and Individuals
I mention here Chinese, Manchus, British, Europeans, Whites, etc. on multiple occasions. It’s important to be mindful of the contemporary political milieu and racial conflict in America, so we although we can speak of history, nations, and races, we must be very mindful that we do not attribute the behaviors, actions, crimes, and sins of historical individuals or groups to their descendants living now. For those Chinese who may feel a sense of ethno-nationalism and anger for past wrongs, it is not “these” White people, “these” Europeans, “these” British, French, Portuguese, etc. alive today who acted in this way towards “these” Chinese.
5. Judgment via Which Metrics?
Thus, reframing existing geopolitical conflicts in terms of American and Chinese history and geopolitics permit understanding better the Chinese view and shows that some deeply emotional issues may not be clear cut, or that it may even be impossible to frame them as clear cut.
There’s a tension now in Hong Kong vs. mainland China between what we view as implicitly “good” values such as Freedom of Speech and Democracy under a broad Western world view, versus other values such as “Sovereignty”.
What is the resolution? Logically and philosophically, I can make the argument that since America has the right of sovereignty over Washington DC and the former/temporary Confederate States of America, that therefore China has the right to exercise its sovereignty over Hong Kong and Taiwan. I do not necessarily believe in this, but it is a valid line of reasoning.
Some further questions is what values or metrics to judge are more important? Freedom and Democracy? Or Sovereignty?
It’s easy to say that Freedom and Democracy are self-evidently good. But the very issue of Sovereignty may be complex or ill-defined, especially if it accounts for spatial extent and time. For example, what about the “sovereignty” of Hong Kong residents from China, some who were born there and never knew any other life? How about the “sovereignty” of native Taiwanese residents , some who are culturally or even genetically distinguishable from the mainland Han Chinese, some who migrated into Taiwan as part of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Republic of China who migrated there? The same could also be said of the Okinawans in Japan, the Native Americans in the continental USA, the native Hawaiians in Hawaii. The list goes on.
It’s tough or even impossible to get to a definitive conclusion, but it’s important to consider context, with respect to: history, reference frame, and issues such as Freedom versus Sovereignty.