How does the usage of American imagery by protesters in Hong Kong reveal outsider culture's approach to grappling with both America and performance itself?
My plan for my object of study is the inclusion of props and phrases in protest performative in Hong Kong recently. The people of Hong Kong, in protesting against the Beijing-backed government that they feel do not democratically represent their interest, have taken to waving American flags along the streets, emphatically repeating 18th century phrases evoking a supposed “American spirit” that to them represents freedom and fairness. The main idea that I hope to argue in my paper is that Hong Konger’s usage of American symbolism demonstrates a fundamentally altered perspective from the traditional critical (and realistic) one we have been presented with and discuss in lecture, and that although Hong Kong has suffered at the hands of western imperial colonialism, the American individualist ideal can still be seen as a positive force for good when drawn in comparison with Chinese collectivism.
In essence, I aim to discover how a country that was previously forcibly taken over by the anglosphere can in the modern era profess their adoration of the same culture. I plan to investigate my research question through analyzing both the rich and storied history of Hong Kong, from British control of the territory to the current two systems plan and dissatisfaction with Beijing influence in local politics, while also going through different examples of American symbols that Hong Kongers utilize in their vast, nationwide performatives in order to make the statement that Hong Kong fights for the liberty and prosperity that our founders envisioned as integral to the human experience centuries ago.
I stand shoulder to shoulder with my fellows, attentive despite my lack of natural understanding of the dialect, safe (or at least I tell myself) despite what I’ve read on the news. A young man elevates himself, gaining full access to the collective line of sight.
He unfurls a flag, thirteen broad stripes horizontal along its plane, alternating between bright crimson and solid white. Along the left most corner, a flat, deep blue surface, along which sit 50 shining stars. To me, it is familiarity in a sea of strangers. To the over 300 million people that live in the United States, this simple item represents many things. To some, it is strength and patriotic excellence, to others it is hateful, genocidal colonialism. But this is not the United States.
A ripple extends through the crowd, as eyes turn towards the commotion. A broad figure is cast against the evening skyline: it is of a young man, tragic in his adolescence, donning a gas mask shared by many in the crowd. He is standing, fully spreading his body outwards and forwards, as if to declare his very presence as a statement against those opposed to its very presence. In his hands, he carries the weight of revolutions, the bloodstained banner that is tainted by centuries of bloodshed, both inflicted and instigated. In his hands, he grips this symbol that unites millions and divides countless more, before a gathering of people whose faces are so alike and yet remain so crucially different from my own, almost 7000 miles across the Pacific Ocean from the city I call my home. In his hands, he triumphantly raises the Star Spangled Banner.
Unanimously, the crowd erupts into cheers.
Taking a step back, the first question posed is why was Hong Kong protesting at all? The island nation, up until recently, was economically prosperous. In comparison to territories like Taiwan, whom the United Nations still refused to recognize as an independent nation due to Chinese pressure, or Chinese ethnic minorities like the Uyghur people, who are subject to intense de jure religious persecution, Hong Kong and its people were content.
The catalyst for the country-wide protests that even now capture all of the island was in March, when the Hong Kong government put forth a bill restructuring the existing extradition laws that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be deported to other countries if the government deemed fit. Among those other countries was China.
Hong Kong and China have a complex relationship. Formerly a part of the Chinese state, Hong Kong was conceded to great Britain in the Treaty of Nanking, following the first Opium War. It was returned to China in 1997, though not fully: instead, both China and Great Britain agreed to a unique form of governance now referred to as “One Country, Two Systems”. Essentially, although Hong Kong is part of the homeland of the Chinese people, they would be allowed to govern themselves under their own principles.
Hong Kongers thus took the Extradition Bill as evidence of the increasingly nefarious Chinese threat of taking over Hong Kong’s government, thus nullifying the distinction between the two systems. The rest is history.
Yet perhaps because of the unique arrangement Hong Kongers find themselves in as advocates for independence, not separation, whatever performatives they can muster at protests must be unique to Hong Kong culture, and fully dissociated from Chinese culture. This explains why many are exploring usage of symbolism outside of their own ethnic history. Perhaps to Americans like Colin Kaepernick, Betsy Ross’ original flag symbolizes a nation whose very ideals were blatant lies. To Hong Kongers, the flag is a mythic figure of its own right, a representation of the purity of democracy and the demands for a free government.
But that is not the only imagery that Hong Kongers have incorporated into their displays of anger, nor is their motivation as pure as the ideals they espouse. Although utilization of American imagery in the Hong Kong protests may seem to concern only the citizens of the small island, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about both American representation and perception abroad and the nature of truth in performatives themselves.
Yet the ways in which Hong Kong protesters evoke America often are conflated with the current administration, appearing to conflict with the ideals of the movement by demonstrating that the true purpose of American symbolism is to court support from the United States. Hong Kongress have been seen proudly displaying Trump merchandise, including posters and hats emblazoned with variations of his signature logo. Indeed, in the video linked, the protestors accompany their flag waving with the repeated chant to “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Jong”, calling for the United States Senator to pass an act supporting Hong Kong. This quite obviously calls into question the protestors motivations, and even their willingness to support a President who has espoused white supremacisf ideology when they themselves are not white.