The Rise of Localism and Civic Identity in HK


Just published: “The Rise of ‘Localism‘ and Civic Identity in Post-handover Hong Kong: Questioning the Chinese Nation-state.” The China Quarterly, Vol. 230, June 2017, pp. 323-347. DOI:
(image © Wikipedia user Prosperity Horizons CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

The very short version:
This article argues that the new “localist” discourse in Hong Kong is mainly based on a Hong Kong-centered civic identity. As such it still overlaps with the traditional pan-Chinese civic nationalism (as manifested in June Fourth vigils), but is increasingly in conflict with the ethnocultural nationalist discourse that has become more prevalent in mainland China in recent years.

While it was traditionally accepted that Hongkongers shared a form of pan-Chinese cultural identification that did not contradict their local distinctiveness, over the last decade Hong Kong has seen the rise of new types of local identity discourses. Most recently, “localists” have been a vocal presence. Hong Kong has – quite unexpectedly – developed a strong claim for self-determination. But how new is “localism” with respect to the more traditional “Hong Kong identity” that appeared in the 1970s? The present study takes a two-dimensional approach to study these discourses, examining not only their framework of identification (local versus pan-Chinese) but also their mode of identification (ethno-cultural versus civic). Using three case studies, the June Fourth vigil, the 2012 anti-National Education protest and the 2014 Umbrella movement, it distinguishes between groups advocating civic identification with the local community (Scholarism, HKFS) and others highlighting ethnic identification (Chin Wan). It argues that while local and national identification were traditionally not incompatible, the civic-based identification with a local democratic community, as advocated by most participants in recent movements, is becoming increasingly incompatible with the ethnic and cultural definition of the Chinese nation that is now being promoted by the Beijing government.


Commemorating an Anti-Authoritarian Provocateur: Wang Xiaobo.

wang-xiaobo Just published: Commemorating an Anti-Authoritarian Provocateur: Reflections on Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997), Blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books, 11 April 2017.
Reprinted on Geremie Barmé’s China Heritage site.

Wang Xiaobo, an important Chinese literary and intellectual figure who died of a heart attack 20 years ago this week at the age of 44, remains largely unknown to the reading public outside China.  Only a few novellas and one important essay of his have been translated into English.  In China, by contrast, his popularity reached unprecedented heights in the late 1990s, and he was even included posthumously (with five other “emeriti”) on the first list of China’s 50 “most influential public intellectuals” published in 2004. Even now, his books are still reprinted and widely read: Changjiang Literature and Art has just published a new seven-volume selection of his writings to mark the anniversary of his death. …

Further reading from the Chinese internet:
– Li Yinhe 李银河: 王小波逝世二十年祭
– Biographical roundup with a quote from Wang Xiaobo’s last email and a nice comment from Wang Meng 王蒙: 王小波二十周年祭:原谅我一生不羁放纵爱自由
– Xu Zhiyuan’s 许知远 thoughts on Wang Xiaobo and his interview with Li Yinhe 纪念王小波逝世20周年:如果他还活着
– Sanlian Shenghuo Zhoukan feature with contributions by Li Yinhe, Liang Hong, Yang Zao, Li Jing 我们为什么要读王小波?
– Even People’s Daily chipped in with an commemorative piece: 今天,我们应该如何读王小波 

Resisting dissolution: stalemate between HK civil society and central government


Just published: “Resisting dissolution: the stalemate between Hong Kong civil society and China’s central government,” Open Democracy, 2 December 2016.

In this piece of commentary, written just before the second wave of judicial reviews were launched against incumbent lawmakers by the Hong Kong government, I argue that a clearer picture is emerging of how the central government may be envisaging limited autonomy under the Basic Law in the runup to 2047.

Hong Kong election: a victory for the Umbrella Movement

220px-chuhoidikComing after many months of rising political tensions on all sides, and continued erosion of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, this year’s legislative elections were perceived as crucial to the city’s future.

Participation was massive, reaching an unprecedented level of 58%, especially in the last hours as voters tried to allocate votes strategically, leading to long queues inside voting offices after closing time and delays in starting the vote count. This figure alone shows that Hongkongers have not lost faith in the democratic system and still believe that free elections are the best way to resist encroachments on the Basic Law.

The results were a resounding victory for the pro-democracy camp, which not only was able to retain its majority of directly elected seats, but even increased it by one to 19 out of 35. It also picked up an additional seat in the trade-based functional constituency seats (in the architecture and town planning sector), and held on to its majority of three out of five “super seats”, elected by all voters among  district councillors, bringing its share of the functional constituency seats to 10 out of 35. This means that the democrats can easily hold on to their veto power (one third of votes or 24 seats) over constitutional reform bills, even if a few maverick lawmakers decide to abstain. Holding on to a simple majority of geographical seats also means the pro-establishment camp cannot change the rules of procedure to stop filibustering, for example. Together with the pro-business Liberal Party’s 4 seats and the single independent Medical sector lawmaker, there could conceivably be an “anti-CY” camp of 34 seats out of 70 in LegCo, making the passage of national security legislation under article 23 (which only requires a simple majority) very difficult for the government.

The results were also a significant achievement for the Umbrella Movement camp. 6 seats were won by groups who emerged in the wake of the movement, including Youngspiration (2), Demosisto (Nathan Law), won by young candidates in their twenties, and older social movement activists, Eddie Chu Hoi-Dick (photo above), who first became involved in the heritage preservation movement over a decade ago, and Lau Siu-lai, a sociologist who lectured on democracy during the Umbrella Movement. Not one, but two new generations have entered LegCo simultaneously. The fact that the impetus of the social movement has translated into parliamentary gains is a considerable achievement for the Umbrella Camp, given the criticism they have faced from the establishment, as well as a victory for democracy. It is at least as significant as the 5 seats won by the post-Sunflower NPP in Taiwan, despite the lack of coordination with mainstream pan-democrats in the Hong Kong context.

While the mainstream pan-democratic parties held their previous positions, the pro-democracy camp has gone through a profound generational renewal, with most veteran lawmakers voted out, including foundational figures like Cyd Ho and Lee Cheuk-yan from the Labour Party. Iconic activist Long Hair (Leung Kwok-hung) barely held on to his seat by a few hundred votes.  However, this development means that the pro-democracy camp now has a strong basis of charismatic politicians under 40 who can lead for many years, including lawyers Dennis Kwok and Alvin Yeung in the Civic Party and former ICAC investigator Lam Cheuk-ting and romance writer Kwong Chun-yu in the Democratic Party.

While a few of the new post-Umbrella lawmakers support independence or self-determination, the more radical nativists were mostly defeated, including the eccentric Chin Wan, with anti-mainlander group Civic Passion getting only one candidate elected, Cheng Chung-Tai. In fact, the pan-democrats may be less reliant on splinter groups than in the last legislature. It remains to be seen whether the opposition camp can set aside their differences about the status of Hong Kong and focus on a shared agenda of advancing democracy. It also remains to be seen whether the SAR government will continue to pour oil on the fire of independence by, for example, disqualifying some of the elected candidates.

Although the results are generally positive for the pro-establishment parties, for the Chief Executive and the SAR government, who took a strong stance against the Umbrella Movement, insisting it was “illegal” (although courts have overwhelming belied this assertion), and called to constituents to “vote out” the pro-democracy camp, the results can be seen as a slap in the face. It may be difficult for the Chief Executive to convince the central government that he is able to lead the territory for another five-year term after such a resounding victory by both pro-democracy and pro-Umbrella forces.

As usual, the campaign was confusing, and media coverage was unsystematic, especially coverage of the various opinion polls. The campaign was also studded with incidents, including the disqualification of several candidates on grounds that most lawyers believe are extremely flimsy, alleged threats that led a candidate to withdraw, as well as a strategy in the pro-Beijing camp of playing up the threat of independence. The government also leaked pictures of riot police preparing for election day, and the central counting station at Asia World Expo was heavily manned with police and private security, artifically creating an atmosphere of tension. It remains to be seen how the courts will deal with the legal challenges: if a judicial review succeeds, re-votes may be necessary in up to 4 out of 5 districts.

Slogans of HK’s Umbrella Movement

P1010891Just published: “Creating a Textual Public space. Slogans and Texts from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement,” Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 75.3 (Aug. 2016).

In this article, using textual material collected on site, I identify the central claim of the Umbrella Movement as an assertion of agency by a community with fluid borders. This community is performed through a variety of cultural repertoires, varying from traditional Chinese philosophy to contemporary pop music, but, most importantly, it is also enacted in the space of a deliberative forum.

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement (Sept-Dec 2014) represented a watershed in Hong Kong’s political culture and self-understanding. Based on a study of over 1000 slogans and other textual and visual material documented during the movement, this study provides an overview of claims, which are oriented towards an assertion of agency, articulated at different levels: in a universalistic mode (“democracy”), in relation with a political community (Hong Kong autonomy and decolonization) and through concrete policy aims. At the same time, slogans mobilize a diversity of cultural and historical repertoires which attest the hybrid quality of Hong Kong identity and underscore the diversity of sources of political legitimacy. Finally, it will be argued that by establishing a system of contending discourses within the occupied public spaces, the movement strived to act out a type of discursive democracy. Despite the challenges that this discursive space encountered in interacting with the authorities and the public at large, it represented an unfinished attempt to build a new civic culture among Hong Kong’s younger generation.

Art exhibit: 95th anniversary of the CCP


In July, the National Art Museum of China 中国美术馆 organized a vast exhibtion of paintings from its own collection to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the CCP.
Some notes below from my visit:

The exhibit was organized into three sections, each section taking up three exhibition rooms:
1) The New Democratic Revolution 新民主主义革命时期 1921-1949
2) Socialist Revolution and Construction 社会主义革命和建设时期 1949-1978
3) Reform and Opening-up and Socialist Modernization 改革开放和社会主义现代化建设新时期 1978-
There is a nice presentation with a good number of paintings featured on the museum website.

As you come in, you see two monumental oil paintings of the First Congress held in 1921, one at the historic venue in Shanghai (above), the other on the boat at Jiaxing (below), both prominently featuring Mao Zedong. They are part of the pre-1949 section which continues on the left hand side, followed by the Mao-era section on the right-hand side of the museum.

By far the most impresssive is the third section, devoted to post-1979, which occupies the central part of the museum, and in particular the main exhibition room right in the center. It is dominated by 6 huge paintings featuring CCP leaders: in the center a famous full length vertical scroll-style painting of Mao made in 1960, flanked by a wide horizontal one of Mao leading delegates to the first CCPPC. On the left hand side is Jiang Zemin, at the center of a famous painting commemorating the handover of Hong Kong, and on the far left an oil painting of Xi Jinping visiting the Northern Frontier.
On the right of the CCPPC is a wistful, romantic portrait of Deng Xiaoping, and on the far right a huge oil painting of Hu Jintao saluting China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei with an uncharacteristic grin.
So when you look at the whole wall, the two big Mao’s in the center are flanked by Xi and Jiang on the left, and by Deng and Hu on the right. I’ve inserted the paintings below in the order in which they appear from left to right.

Left side:《踏雪边防》  王吉松, 2014;《香港回归》王颖生 2009

20160706jd95zn_63 20160706jd95zn_61

Center: 《主席走遍全国》李琦 1960; 《当代英雄》, collective, 1960.



Right side: 《疾风》李秀实, 1979; 《出征》王吉松, 2007.

MSG-1-10062 11.3-60

You could engage in quite a bit of political tea-leaf reading with these six paintings that are clearly the star of the show. First, Mao is a cut above the others, getting two paintings, although in one of them he is just part of a vast collective. Second the choice of representative paintings is somewhat eclectic. Mao gets commemorated both in his personal capacity (Li Qi’s painting seamlessly ties together traditional and socialist imagery) and for setting up the institutions of the new state. But how about Deng? Does this romantic portrait with a title taken from a classical poem do justice to his political role? The only other major event memorialized in the series is the handover of Hong Kong, also in a huge, impressive triptych. Deng appears in the background of that one (with Thatcher), making up for the unpolitical flavor of “Jifeng”. Hu and Xi receive a more allegorical treatment, with Hu commemorated for developing technology and Xi for defending China’s borders.

The work representing the May Fourth period was generally weaker, formulaic, and produced either in the Mao era or in the last decade, like the mannerist oil painting of the Party conference on Jiaxing lake above (2009).

There were however some very remarkable works on display from the Civil War years, especially 1947-48. In addition to rare woodblock prints by Li Hua 李桦 (民主进行曲,起来饥饿交迫的奴隶) and Wang Qi 王琦  (洪流), I particularly enjoyed a 1948 Brueghel-ian oil painting recording in stark detail the denunciation of a landlord by the masses, and a 1950 ink painting portraying the peasants’ new-found enthusiasm when paying their agricultural tax.

莫朴 《清算》1948;潘天寿《 杭县农民争交农业税》1950

5080904804604716307 img_9913

The recent focus on ideology and campaigns was also on display, with Jiao Yulu and Lei Feng both featured prominently, the Jiao Yulu painting dated 2009.











Nixon made a brief appearance in another recent painting, looking positively villainous, perhaps reflecting a new  understanding of the 1972 meeting, many years later… By contrast, the 2015 victory parade, already immortalized in oil, glowed with rainbow colors… Certainly, Xi Jinping’s 2014 exhortation to artists to record important political events has not gone unheeded, and the official art industry seems to be booming.

《毛泽东会见尼克松》马刚, 2009; 《二〇一五年九月三日》陈坚, 2016

20091002-23 20160706jd95zn_64

Finally, events of the Cultural Revolution were almost absent from the exhibit, although it coincided with the 50th anniversary of its inception. However, a modest but moving series of picture book illustrations caught my eye, titled, “The Call of the Great Northern Wilderness,” dated 2014, and appearing in the contemporary section of the exhibit.

侯国良 《北大荒的呼唤》/连环画,2014
1 “我们纵使离开了这里,北大荒也永远不会从我们心中抹去。”
2 “随着时间的推移,我们越来越觉得北大荒的亲切、可爱。”
3 “也许在我们一生的记忆里,最重要、最宝贵的位置将永远被北大荒所占据。”
4 “想念曾经生活过的这块地方。”
6 “我问过许多人,她们都想回来看看。”
(couldn’t find the caption for no. 5 which is probably a self-portrait of the artist)


The captions tell the story of the Zhiqing or Educated Youth who were sent down to learn from the “lower and middle peasants” and spent their most productive years in hardship. Although some may see them as overly idealized, these wistful, personal paintings that capture the ironic nostalgia of a sacrificed generation were also a glimpse of individuality in an exhibition otherwise strongly geared to the needs of the state and the collective.

English presentation:
Chinese with slideshow:


The troubles of Yanhuang Chunqiu and the dwindling public sphere

杨绛走好Just published: “Debating the Memory of the  Cultural Revolution in China Today”, MCLC Resource Center, August 2016.

This is a short piece that tries to explain the significance of the monthly magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu (Annals of the Yellow Emperor) and the reasons why it was forced to shut down in early July. By connecting Annals with the 50th anniversary of Bian Zhongyun’s still unelucidated death on August 5th and the heated debate about intellectuals’ responsibility after Yang Jiang’s death in May, the piece argues for the importance of the public sphere in dealing with issues of memory. The illustration is a poster that appeared  on certain subway lines in Beijing this summer bidding farewell to Yang Jiang.