The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why China should recognize that dissent can be patriotic

History suggests that narrowly defining Chinese identity will backfire

Demonstrators walk past a swastika and the word “Chinazi” displayed on a wall in Hong Kong. (Justin Chin/Bloomberg News)
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When a group of Hong Kong protesters pulled down a Chinese national flag in Shatin recently, the Beijing mouthpiece China Daily called the protests “anti-China in nature.” Not only was the flag desecration the result of “foreign provocation,” the paper claimed, but even worse, it showed a “lack of patriotism among youngsters in the city.”

The Chinese Communist Party rejects the Hong Kong identity of the protesters, which clashes with the strident, uniform nationalism that the party has stoked in recent years. Hong Kong is central to this narrative. While the CCP once relied on violent class struggle to legitimize its authority, in the past three decades the party has increasingly emphasized its role in ending China’s “hundred years of humiliation,” which began when the British defeated China in the First Opium War and took Hong Kong as a colony. Beijing also claims the sole right to determine who is a good and loyal Chinese citizen, casting those with alternative views and complicated identities — like the current protesters — as disloyal and dupes of foreign enemies bent on undermining China itself.

Such a worldview leaves almost no room for loyal dissent or even disagreement. And it is neither new nor unique to the CCP. In fact, the Chinese Nationalist regime, which the Communists defeated in 1949, used the same basic accusations almost a century ago — against Chinese Americans. But the experience of Chinese American emigres in China in the 20th century suggests that narrowly defining Chinese identity to exclude Western ideas and values will backfire, alienate loyal members of the society and galvanize resistance.

Few people today think of the United States as an immigrant-sending nation. But between 1901 and 1940, thousands of Chinese Americans moved to China in search of the economic and social mobility that drew millions of Europeans to the United States in these same years. Most were the children of merchants, one of the few categories of Chinese allowed into the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Birth on U.S. soil gave them American citizenship but little else. Deep and persistent racial discrimination meant that even the most educated Chinese American citizens could rarely find work outside restaurants, laundries and trinket stores. In contrast, China, a failing empire that in 1912 became a struggling republic, appeared to offer them not just a sense of belonging but opportunities unimaginable in the United States. Between 1901 and World War II, between one-third and one-half of all U.S.-born Chinese moved to Asia.

College-educated Chinese American citizens had even more reason to cross the Pacific to where professional careers and high social status as “Western-returned students” awaited them. Most avoided Hong Kong, a colony that offered no outlet for their patriotic enthusiasm. Instead, they dreamed of using their skills and education to “modernize” China, which at the time had very few Western-educated engineers, doctors or other professionals. And many of the first Chinese American college graduates to move to China achieved their dreams there; they ran hospitals, founded banks, managed iron mines, worked as college professors and served in the republic’s diplomatic corps.

But American-born people soon lost the competitive edge of their Western educations. By the 1920s, far more China-born people had studied abroad, often at U.S. universities. While educated Chinese Americans once enjoyed meteoric careers, they became increasingly sidelined by native-born people with better connections, native language fluency and greater cultural comfort.

Worse yet, Chinese Americans and others born abroad became political targets. After the young republic fell apart, Nationalist Party founder Sun Yat-sen — the man often called the “father of modern China” — sought foreign backing for a military campaign against the country’s feuding warlords. Once Sun signed an agreement with a Soviet representative in 1923, the Guangdong-based Nationalist Party adopted a vocal anti-imperialist agenda and scapegoated many of the province’s foreign-born Chinese, including Chinese Americans, for their alleged Western ties and assumed disloyalty.

After Sun’s death, the Nationalist Party succeeded in uniting much of China, and the new government consolidated its power in a way reminiscent of Beijing’s approach today: by defining “Chinese” in narrow, exclusive terms. The Nationalist government claimed authority over Chinese Americans, whom it regarded as solely Chinese citizens, but it simultaneously disparaged their habits, ideas and politics as “foreign.” Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s New Life Movement exemplified this approach: Bent on creating disciplined, loyal and submissive citizens, the movement attacked Western individualism and cultural influences, such as dancing and permanent waves, as decadent, degenerate and unpatriotic.

Chinese American emigres were stunned at this turn of events, but most quietly refused to let the Nationalists define them. By the mid-1930s, the vast majority had retreated into areas that were beyond the control of the central government. Hundreds made their homes in Shanghai’s International Settlement and French Concession, zones of the city that 19th-century treaties placed under foreign control. More than a thousand lived in Guangdong Province, now under the leadership of a general who operated independently of the central government. Several hundred, many of them educated professionals, settled in Hong Kong, the colony that Chinese American “modernizers” had once avoided.

Such places were the legacy of the unequal treaties that had awarded pieces of Chinese territory to foreign nations, undermining China’s basic sovereignty. The new regime had limited success renegotiating these agreements and regaining Chinese territory. The foreign-controlled spaces just beyond its reach thus remained reminders of national humiliation.

Yet these places offered breathing space to Chinese American emigres. There, they no longer needed to fear that their complex histories, affinities and identities made them insufficiently patriotic, moral or Chinese. Instead, they defined for themselves what Chineseness meant. Like many Hong Kong residents today, they did so in ways that demonstrated a stubborn resistance to national leaders who demanded submission and obedience.

This became especially apparent after the 1937 outbreak of war with Japan. Although Chinese Americans almost uniformly condemned the Japanese invasion of China, almost none heeded the Nationalist government’s call to follow it inland to “Free China.” Instead, most left for America, and those who did not stayed in their foreign-controlled spaces, which remained neutral territory — for the time being.

This choice eventually proved costly. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese occupied the formerly neutral zones, whose Chinese American residents now struggled to survive. The Western nations that joined China in the fight against Japan also repudiated many of the unequal treaties and ceded control of the foreign concessions to the Nationalist regime. Not coincidentally, between 1946 and 1949, most of the almost 2,000 Chinese Americans who had lived through the Japanese occupation fled China, never to return. Although many feared the Communists, they worried even more about the disappearance of the in-between spaces where they had once lived and thrived. Almost all of those who stayed in Asia after the war settled in Hong Kong, the last in-between space.

That literal space ceased to exist in 1997, and over the past decade and a half, Beijing has worked to undermine its figurative counterpart. But whatever happens in the weeks and months to come, the CCP’s attempts to mandate a particular definition of acceptable Chineseness have backfired. Almost a century ago, even the most avowedly patriotic Chinese American emigres fled such mandates. Now, Hong Kong residents have taken the next step: If this is what it means to be Chinese, they appear to be saying they want no part of it.