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Who Should Decide Who I Am

Patriotism, to a large extent, depends on one’s sense of belonging to his/her country. The sense of patriotism heightens when people feel proud of their country or want to protect their country at a time of crisis. In Hong Kong, loving one’s country may mean loving its history, culture, tradition and/or people. However, in mainland China, loving the nation may require one to love the Communist Party and the  Chinese government at the same time. 

Since the changeover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997, the Chinese government has tried to promote the sense of patriotism among Hong Kong people. In recent years, the sense of belonging to China goes downward consistently, due to the tension between the Chinese government/ mainland Chinese and Hongkongers. Such tension comes from different values on human rights, democracy, civility as well as daily life practices and shopping behaviors. In order to enhance the sense of belonging and patriotism, a number of measures have been introduced in Hong Kong, such as making Chinese history a compulsory subject in secondary schools and the legislation of (respecting) national anthem law.

The most recent measure is the broadcasting of a speech on the role and mission of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) under the national constitution and the Basic Law, the mini-constitution of Hong Kong, by a senior mainland official in secondary schools, apart from addressing the Hong Kong top-ranking officials. In his speech, Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and the HKSAR Basic Law Committee Chairman, urged Hong Kong to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty, security and development interests. He pointed out that there are three main questions that Hong Kong has to face: Where are you from? Who are you? Where are you heading to?

These three questions were raised under the assumption that China’s Central Government is the origin of the Hong Kong government and the national constitution is the root of the Hong Kong Basic Law. No matter how special Hong Kong is, Li emphasized, it is under the rule and supervision of the central leaders and the national constitution. The central administration enjoys the comprehensive ruling power.   

Li highlighted that Hong Kong should not tolerate any attempts that promote separatism or jeopardize the country’s security, honor and interests. This was referring to the advocacy of Hong Kong’s independence among young people in university campus and the booing of Chinese national anthem in international football matches by some Hong Kong fans. Moreover, Li discussed Hong Kong’s responsibility to guard national development interests.  

It is interesting to see that the three questions mentioned  by Li are also often asked by moral theologians and virtue ethicists, though the intention and underlying assumption are very different.

Virtue ethicists view moral agents as people freely pursuing their desire for happiness in life. The moral agent, rather than moral action or its consequences, is at the center of moral reflection. They understand human agency as a means of shaping character, which is an important component of decision and action. It emphasizes a person in relationship with others through one’s character and choices. The answer to each question of the three interrelated questions—Who are we? Who ought we to become? And how do we get there?—refers to the virtues.  Linking virtue ethics to social ethics would also urge us to think what constitutes a good human life that promotes common good? What virtues do we need to be just and caring? What would a person with relational and social virtues look like? How does one cultivate these relational virtues in our context?

When someone asks who are we that live in Hong Kong, we would say, we just want to be Hongkongers that can decide our own destiny, involving in the decision-making process of those policies that affect our own lives, in order to build a society with just and care. 

However, for Li Fei and other leaders of the central government, their main concern is not so much about the moral agency or freedom of Hongkongers. The ruling authority is not inviting Hong Kong people to seek for our identity and explore where to go and how to get there. Rather, the ruling authority has decided the goals of Hong Kong as well as its people. The Beijing Government does not want to see any action or even thought that is not in line with them. This has been exercised explicitly through the Hong Kong government. Thus, when Hongkongers asked for democracy and political participation, they were rejected. Those who employed more radical ways were punished through harsh terms. This can be seen through the harsh punishment of some young pro-democracy activists who joined protests.

It seems that the Hong Kong/Central Government officials neglect the fact that a sense of belonging cannot be taught or imposed on, or be dictated by officials in Beijing or here in Hong Kong.  Enough space should be given to Hongkongers as we search for our identity. It is impossible to allow only one way of expressing belonging or patriotism. The only way to foster understanding and respect is authentic dialogue among various parties on an equal base. Meanwhile, to nurture democratic character, practicing democracy in daily life and persistent reflection are indispensable. The words of Alex Chow, one of the student leaders being jailed may inspire us. He said after his release on bail, “Democracy will be my practice in my whole life, as a scholar or an activist, even if there will be suppression.” 

This is also true among Hong Kong people who support democracy. Since the Umbrella Movement, there is a split in the pro-democratic camp on the strategy of striving for democracy and social change. On the one hand, the older generation opts for a realistic and pragmatic way of accepting the political reality. On the other hand, the younger generation chooses a more radical way of resistance in order to take charge of their destiny, opting for self-determination or even independence, though they may not achieve much at present. Some of them even have to pay a high price of being jailed.

Such difference is based on the different experiences and realities of generations, as a commentator said. There is no one absolute answer to the right way of striving for democracy and justice. More important is to maintain our ability of reflection and reasoning, willing to listen to the other side and to analyze the pros and cons of various strategies. We should bear in mind that our political stance or strategy is not the only truth and the other side may not be all wrong. Willingness to dialogue and listen is always an imperative to reconciliation in a split society.