Opinion Politics & Protest

Could Hong Kong ever become a nation state?

Hong Kong independence as an objective we all understand, love it or loath it. But Hong Kong nationalism is tricky. This is because nationalism itself is an ambiguous concept.

A nation, in ordinary everyday speech, means a country with a flag, anthem, government, armed forces (except Puerto Rico), UN seat, team in World Cup, and so on. There will be an adjective which denotes the citizens of that country, who will carry its passport when traveling abroad. We know where we are. In the interests of clarity this is sometimes called a “nation state”, thus implicitly recognising that you can have a nation without a state, or a state without a nation.

hong kong localist independence

File photo: Todd Darling.

The other meaning of “nation” is a group of people united by a common language and culture. This is at once a tighter definition – more than mere administrative convenience is required – and a looser one, since it is a matter of whether the group we are talking about regards themselves as a distinctive community. It is a nuisance having two meanings for the same word, and those of us who grew up with the political definition may feel that this problem arises from the modern habit of allowing groups – especially allegedly oppressed groups – to choose their own labels. So if the Last of the Mohicans want to call themselves a “nation” then the rest of us have to lump it. But this is unfair, because it seems that the cultural meaning of “nation” came first. In fact the idea that a nation should coincide with a state is a fairly modern one. Some interpretations of English history maintain that the English advantage was the early date at which the country became, more or less, a nation state. Consider the famous speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II which (space being no problem on the internet) goes like this:

“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,–
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

This was written in 1595 and could hardly have been written about any other country in Europe at the time. Most people, and not only in Europe, lived in what we would now regard as multi-national, or at least multi-ethnic, empires. Nor was this necessarily a problem. When Finland, for example, was transferred from Sweden to Russia in 1809 many Finns thought this was an improvement.

detail frank roubaud siege of sevastopol

Detail of Franz Roubaud’s panoramic painting, The Siege of Sevastopol (1904). Photo: Wikicommons.

When the Crimean War broke out in 1853 Finland produced hosts of eager volunteers to serve in the Tsar’s armies. Later history shows what can go wrong with this sort of arrangement. In the 1890s there were clumsy attempts to turn the Russian Empire into a nation state by insisting on the use of Russian law and language everywhere. This went down so badly in Finland that by the time the First World War broke out the population was considered too unreliable to be worth conscripting.

Nationalism in the modern sense was really invented in the 19th century and did not really get onto the map until the 20th. Ethnic groups who had happily coexisted in multi-ethnic empires suddenly discovered their differences. Languages which had hitherto been left to the local farmers sprouted dictionaries, literature and ancient history – some of it, like the works of Ossian, owing a great deal to the imagination. So Bohemia, which had for centuries been part of the Holy Roman Empire, became Czech, the Slovenians became South Slavs and so on. Generally this is not a happy story.

People used to live in great mixtures. Different ethnic groups specialised in different pursuits – this is why the technical terms in music are all Italian and the technical terms in fencing are all in French. A great deal of movement, much of it compelled, was necessary to sort out the ethnic jigsaw. There have been, and continue to be, endless arguments about whether a group is a nation, and whether in that case they should or should not have a state of their own. Sometimes the answer to the first question is “yes” and the answer to the second is “no”. The Zulu nation, for example, preserves its traditional culture but is politically part of the South Africa. Canada’s “First nations” do not aspire to independent statehood. Neither, at least for now, do the Welsh.

Leung Chun-ying

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Photo: GovHK.

Now, to Hong Kong. Mr C.Y. Leung observed the other day that Hong Kong had been “part of China since ancient times.” Like so much that emerges from that particular mouth, this is a bit deceptive. It is true that Hong Kong became part of an entity which also included what Joseph Needham calls “core China” for the first time in about 200 BC, which is ancient enough for my university, at least, where ancient run up to about 400 AD. On the other hand Mr Leung rather gave the misleading impression that Hong Kong had been part of China ever since ancient times, which is nonsense.

Over the years there were whole centuries in which there was no China to be part of, and other centuries in which China was more or less in one piece but part of an empire presided over by a foreigner. Indeed the empire which was bullied in the 19th century was a Manchu empire. The people who did the bullying soon noticed that the local population had no interest in changing to a European or Japanese empire. They also noticed that the only people prepared to fight with any enthusiasm for the empire were Manchu bannermen.

hong kong independence

Photo: HKFP.

The problem, and it is a China problem, not a Hong Kong problem, is that the ancient China which we all revere was a multi-ethnic empire like the Roman, Russian, French or British ones. This is a structure which has now become unfashionable. Also, since it is hardly compatible with Marxist ideology, the rulers of China since 1949 have had to pretend that China was a nation state in the way that other – much smaller – entities are nation states. In rather the same way the Russians, after the revolution, had to pretend that the USSR was a voluntary union and, later, that its satellites had eagerly signed up for the Warsaw Pact.


Central, Hong Kong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Multi-ethnic empires do not depend on a uniform culture; they depend on force, but a reasonably effective one will be put up with if it is an honest referee. The problem with pretending that your empire is a nation state is that it leads to clumsy efforts to unify the culture: insistence on one language, one legal system, obedience to the capital’s way of doing things, and so on. And this gets people’s backs up.

Hong Kong has, I would have thought, a good claim to be a nation in the cultural sense. It has its own distinctive history, a language, a popular culture, a sense of itself as different from the rest of China. Clearly if “one country two systems” was given a liberal interpretation the question of nationhood in the political sense would not arise. Hong Kong’s independence movement is not an initiative, it is a reaction – to the constant drumbeat of insistence that we must now do everything their way – from simplified characters to secret police swoops.

Those who do not learn from history are compelled to repeat it. The secret of survival for large empires is to let the provinces have their way in things which do not matter too much.

Could Hong Kong ever become a nation state?