Tension had been building for a long time. It had been a while since the former colonial power had returned the island to China, but rather than being grateful, the local inhabitants were increasingly chafing under what they saw as a breakdown in the rule of law and encroachment on their economic opportunities. Finally, one incident of aggressive policing set the people aflame and attacked the symbols of China with great violence. Retribution, however, would be shift.
This was Taiwan in the year 1947. Two years after the Republic of China received control over the island from the defeated Japanese Empire, on the evening of 27 February, the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau seized the goods of an illegal cigarette peddler. As things got heated, one of the officers fired a gun into the gathering crowd, killing one. The next day the tension that had been building up turned into rabid violence. Riots filled the streets. Taiwanese lynched several Mainlanders, especially outside Taipei. Over the coming weeks citizens’ committees took over in many cities while the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT)’s Governor Chen Yi sought to negotiate with the public. His attempts were ineffective. The police was unable to maintain public order. Eventually, Nationalist troops from the Mainland arrived to take back control, shooting from the ships as they were still sailing into port. Thousands of Taiwanese were killed in the ensuing terror, which often targeted known Taiwanese intellectuals.
This was the February 28 Incident, known in Mandarin simply as 2.28. Scholars pinpoint it as the starting point of modern Taiwanese nationalism. In the eyes of many Taiwanese it turned the arrival of the shambolic KMT regime into outside colonisation rather than a return to the ‘Motherland’. Its 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, the site of the annual Peace Memorial Day commemoration on 28 February and home to the National 228 Memorial Museum. Taiwan’s civic nationalism contrasts the island’s present freedom and democracy with the KMT’s terror and indoctrination that came with the White Terror after 1947. The extremes of Taiwan’s ethnic nationalism contrast the local Taiwanese běnshěng rén with the ‘invading’ Mainland wàishěng rén colonisers.
In their discussions of the on-going protests in Hong Kong, many Anglophone observers fret over potential military or paramilitary intervention by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The statements and videos Beijing releases show it is eager to reinforce the fears of this threat, even though it simultaenously prefers the Hong Kong SAR government to solve the problem itself. This intimidation attempt leads people to invoke the memory of the violent suppression 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 government in Beijing backed by a solidly nationalist Chinese public facing a small, recently-recovered territory. The comparison with post-war Taiwan is much more apt, not in the last place because these protests are about what Hong Kong is.
The reaction to events during the occupation of Hong Kong International Airport in the night of Tuesday 13 August are instructive. Two Mainland men were captured by protestors and tied up, supposedly on the suspicion that they were police spies or working for the Party. This event sent shockwaves through the public. People 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. On the contrary, Mainlanders—also the anti-CCP ones—apparently see it much more as an anti-Mainlander attack. That is because their lives in Hong Kong often take place amid a background of powerful nativist sentiments.
The strong anti-Mainlander feelings in Hong Kong are not always that obvious in English, but if you speak Mandarin or Cantonese, you will encounter it. From a non-Chinese, Mainlanders who live or have lived in Hong Kong are often surprisingly cold to the protestors. That is not in the last place thanks to the aggressive language they encounter in Hong Kong, something white Westerners will never experience. We can talk about the way Beijing uses migration as a tool to ‘stabilise’ its restive regions, as it does in Tibet and Xinjiang, and as some people suspect it is trying to do with Hong Kong, but that does not change anything about the humanity of individuals who find themselves caught up in the currents of history. If you are a Mainland Chinese person who has seen Hongkongers call Mainland tourists locusts, read stories about Mainland children being bullied in school, and see some of the more excessive nativist rhetoric among protestors—let alone the kind of talk you might encounter as you go about Hong Kong—it is far from comforting to see the long-established verbal hatred of Mainlanders turn physical.
This is complicated further by diverging perspectives on what Hong Kong is. For many of the people in Hong Kong protesting on the streets, their city is special; it is 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 an outside power, seeing all those Mainlanders move into the cramped city might feel almost as colonial as the movement by Moscow of Russians to the Baltics during Soviet times felt to the inhabitants of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Add to this some condescension and uncertainty about the Mainland system (which might be justifiable, but obviously feels insulting), and Hongkong’s post-1997 fears compare neatly 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.
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 and nativist Hongkongers’ visceral reaction to it is arrogant discrimination. After a century and a half of unjust separation of part of the country by Western imperialists, now that the territory has finally returned to China 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. Although they could show a bit more awareness that nationalists demanding subservience of the 7.3 million Hongkongers on behalf of 1.2 billion Chinese can hardly portray themselves as victims outside the SAR, they are right to call out the hypocrisy of the appalling treatment they sometimes receive.
Ideally, Hong Kong would have returned to an increasingly peaceful and democratic China and the 50 years of Two Systems guaranteed by the Joint Declaration would grant time for the SAR and the Mainland to grow together again as One Country after 150 years of separation. However, 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. This is a recipe for disaster. The question now is what these on-going protests will turn Hong Kong into. The abhorrent violence coming from the anti-riot police and the waves of hatred Mainland nationalists direct at Hongkongers are worrisome. The 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 Taiwan, the February 28 Incident dampened the enthusiasm that may have been there for ‘China’. Taiwanese national identity developed in opposition to Chinese ‘colonialism’. The resulting rift has only expanded since then and now cannot be healed, as the trends in various identity surveys make clear. The risk for those who care about One Country is that China’s response to the Hong Kong protests will do the same for that special city. There are differences with Taiwan. Hong Kong is attached to the Mainland and the border was only really closed during the Maoist era, but even then refugees and revolutionary turmoil reached the city. Taiwan is geographically separated from the Mainland by 180 km of sea and was already lost to China in 1895, missing out on most of the its nationalist movements. But Hong Kong is developing its own self-understanding. 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. Protestors can blame escalating police violence on Beijing instructions, but ultimately the officers are still Hongkongers fighting Hongkongers. In contrast, an invasion by Chinese police or paramilitary troops would seal the city’s fate. Then, Mainlanders would be fighting Hongkongers and the battle lines could be drawn clearly. As the KMT experienced during the period of martial law in Taiwan, after such an assault you can try to force people to see themselves as Chinese, but once they have learned through sacrifice of blood to see ‘China’ as the oppressor it is hard to change that.