Tension had been building for a long time. The former colonial power had returned the island to China a while ago already, but rather than act as happy patriots, the local inhabitants were increasingly chafing under what they saw as a breakdown in orderly government, encroachment on their economic opportunities, and discrimination against locals in favour of recent arrivals from the Mainland. Finally, one incident of aggressive policing set the people aflame and they turned on the symbols of China with great violence. Retribution, however, would be shift.
This was Taiwan in the year 1947. On the evening of 27 February, one and a half year after the Republic of China had taken over control of the island from the defeated Japanese Empire, agents of the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau seized the goods of a widow peddling illegal cigarettes and beat her. Bystanders gathered. As things got heated, one of the officers fired a gun into the crowd, killing one person. The next day, tension that had been building up burst and turned into rabid violence. Riots filled the streets. Soldiers fired into groups of people protesting outside government buildings, killing several. Taiwanese lynched a number of Mainlanders, especially outside Taipei. Over the following weeks, citizens’ committees took over in many locales, while the embattled Governor Chen Yi (陳儀) sought to negotiate with the public after cabling the central government in Nanjing for help. His attempts at defusing the situation were ineffective. The police was unable to maintain order. Eventually, National Army troops arrived from the Mainland to take back control, shooting from the ships as they were still sailing into port. The Nationalist Party (KMT) began a murderous crackdown on what it perceived to be traitors, often blaming the Japanese legacy for insufficient patriotism. Thousands of Taiwanese were killed in the ensuing terror, which often targeted local notables.
This was the February 28 Incident, known in Mandarin simply as 2.28 (二二八事件). Scholars pinpoint it as the starting point of modern Taiwanese nationalism. In the eyes of many Taiwanese the event and the ensuing period of White Terror cemented the view that the arrival of the shambolic KMT regime was not a return to the ‘Motherland’, but a corrupt and violent colonial regime replacing another harsh but effective colonial regime. Its present symbolic importance to the young nation can be gleaned from the fact that the large park next to the Presidential Office Building on Taipei’s main ceremonial boulevard has been turned into the 228 Peace Memorial Park (二二八和平紀念公園), the site of the annual Peace Memorial Day commemoration on 28 February and home to the Taipei 228 Memorial Hall. Taiwan’s civic nationalism contrasts the island state’s present freedom and democracy with the KMT’s terror and indoctrination of the 1947–87 martial law era. However, in the first period after the February 28 Incident, what dominated was a Taiwanese ethnic nationalism that cast the local Taiwanese (本省人 běnshěng rén) as victims of the ‘invading’ Mainlander (外省人 wàishěng rén) colonisers, who needed to be expelled back to China.
During the height of the Hong Kong protests in the summer of 2019, many Anglophone observers fretted over potential military or paramilitary intervention by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The statements and videos Beijing released show it was eager to reinforce the fears of this threat at the time, even though it is already exercising plenty of violence through the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF). This intimidation leads people to invoke the memory of the violent and bloody suppression by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the nation-wide protests that rocked China in 1989. However, the ‘Hard Hat Revolution’ is no Tiananmen Square protest. Rather than almost the whole of Chinese society finding itself in opposition to the Party leadership and its rural army, we have a much more confident and powerful government in Beijing backed by a solidly nationalist Chinese public facing a small, recently-recovered former colony. The comparison with post-war Taiwan is much more apt, not in the last place because the protests are leading shaping what Hong Kong is and who Hongkongers are. Just as in Taiwan’s case, the violence is solidifying a separate identity.
The reaction to events during the occupation of Hong Kong International Airport in the night of Tuesday 13 August 2019 are instructive. Two Mainland men were captured by protestors and roughly tied up, supposedly on the mob’s suspicion that they were police spies or working for the Party. This event sent shockwaves through the public. People inside and outside Hong Kong felt something nasty had emerged from this unguided mass movement. However, responses differed based on where observers were from. For foreign observers, the two attacks were mostly regrettable excesses against likely pro-CCP people, one of whom in fact was a propaganda worker for the nationalist tabloid Global Times. On the contrary, many Mainlanders—also those critical of the CCP—saw it much more as an anti-Mainlander attack. Their lives in Hong Kong often take place amid a background of powerful nativist sentiments.
This is complicated by diverging perspectives on what Hong Kong is. For many of the people in Hong Kong protesting on the streets, Hong Kong is special city in a Greater China; since 1949 it has become a distinct community that has unfortunately been governed by outsiders for the outsiders’ benefit throughout its history, first from London and now from Beijing. If you see the PRC as a hostile, outside power, growing numbers of Mainlanders moving into the cramped city—often bringing a Chinese nationalist view—might create some unease. Add to this a dose of condescension to and fear of the Mainland’s system of government (which might be justifiable, but obviously feels insulting to Chinese primed for humiliation by their patriotic education), and Hongkong’s post-1997 fears compare to the Taiwanese worry in 1945 about losing the ‘harsh but effective’ Japanese colonial overlords in return for the questionable governance of a regime that had for decades been wrecked by domestic strife and accusations of incompetence and corruption.
However, if your perception of Hong Kong is that it is just a special Chinese city, things change. In that case, it makes sense that you should be free to move within your own country; a visceral reaction to this by the obviously also Chinese people in Hong Kong is arrogant discrimination. After a century and a half of unjust separation of part of China by Western imperialists, now that Hong Kong has finally returned to the motherland, the former colonial subjects seem to feel superior to other Chinese almost precisely because they were once colonised. Many Mainlanders who have spent time in the SAR can tell you stories of smaller and bigger slights they have experienced. Mainland Chinese sometimes could show a bit more awareness of the balance of power in China and within Hong Kong. Moreover, Chinese nationalists living outside Hong Kong demanding subservience of its 7.3 million inhabitants on behalf of 1.2 billion Chinese can hardly portray themselves as victims of a stronger party. Nevertheless, the rejection and exclusion of Mainlanders in Hong Kong is often appalling and alienates many people, including those who would otherwise have been more sympathetic or Mainlanders who also see Hong Kong as its own place.
Ideally, Hong Kong would have ‘returned’ in 1997 to an increasingly peaceful and democratic China and the 50 years of Two Systems guaranteed by the 1984 Joint Declaration would grant time for the SAR and the Mainland to grow together as One Country. However, the chance for such an ending was crushed with the crackdown of 1989 and the patriotic education that the Party initiated afterwards. The Chinese Communist Party presides over an authoritarian state fuelled by increasingly aggressive and entitled nationalism. Meanwhile, the socio-economic situation in Hong Kong seems to put Mainlander arrivals in competition with the squeezed locals, while pro-Beijing factions prefer Mandarin-speaking Party-loyalists. This already was a recipe for disaster. The abhorrent violence coming from the anti-riot police and the waves of hatred Chinese officials and Mainland nationalists direct at Hongkongers have amped up the alienation. The resulting antagonism does not help Hong Kong develop an identity as a democratic Chinese space that can include ‘non-natives’. The way events are currently going only increases the perception of Mainlanders as outsiders to Hong Kong. In May 2020, the bubble burst. The Central People’s Government is now forcing through state security legislation for Hong Kong while the National Anthem Law pushed by pro-Beijing politicians in the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo) is only the start. The HKPF has lost all self-control and seems intent on violently crushing the protests forever. The end of Hong Kong’s freedoms now appears to be only a matter of time. In response, growing numbers of young Hong Kong protestors have begun chanting for Hong Kong independence, once an unthinkable fringe idea.
In Taiwan, the February 28 Incident dampened the enthusiasm that may have been there for ‘China’. Taiwanese national identity developed in opposition to Chinese ‘colonialism’ and the KMT-ROC regime oppressing it. The rift between Taiwan and China has only expanded since then and now cannot be healed, as the trends in various identity surveys make clear. Taiwan, of course, has been separate from China since 1895, has been its own country since 1949, and is geographically separated from China by 160 km of sea. Hong Kong is different. Throughout its history, it has always remained connected to China. However, the risk for those who care about One Country is that the Chinese party-state’s response to the Hong Kong protests will do the same for that special city’s identity as 28 February did for Taiwanese identity. Hong Kong is developing its own self-understanding. A June 2019 survey showed a collapse of Hongkongers identifying as Chinese. Already, the verbal and physical violence is hammering away in the forge of an even more distinct identity. Pro-Beijing elite figures alienate much of the public. In addition to the escalating violence and suppression from increasingly brazenly pro-Beijing nationalist Hong Kong officials and police, the new national security law would allow Mainland state security to deploy to Hong Kong. The biggest expression of care about China in Hong Kong, the annual 4 June vigil, may be banned in the future. The battle lines are getting clearer every day. Hongkongers see clearly that they are suppressed by those calling themselves Chinese. As the KMT experienced during the period of martial law in Taiwan, after such an assault in the name of Chinese nationalism, you can try to force people to see themselves as ‘Chinese’, but once they have learned through sacrifice of blood to see ‘China’ as their oppressor it is hard to change that.