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Buddhistdoor View: Quenching the Flames of Nationalism


Patriotism has long been used—and frequently exploited—as an effective shaper of national identity and belonging. And while some may deride the love of one’s country and culture as a misplaced pride in accomplishments or victories that the individual had no hand in manifesting—an accident of birth, perhaps this is merely a caricature of patriotism? Yet it is natural to want to feel at ease and happy about one’s birthplace. Though immigrants, refugees, and expatriates move away from the land of their birth, their first home is often never far from their hearts and minds. Many people who have spent significant portions of their lives in different countries or cultures are intensely preoccupied with notions of multiple belonging or transnational citizenry.

Nationalistic fervor, however, can also be a heady intoxicant. A Middle Path abandoned is a route to extremism. A healthy and confident ease with one’s origins should not be exaggerated, lest it mutate into an obsession with defining oneself over and against others. A commonsense recognition of cultural and political differences between societies can even be weaponized with a view to inflicting humiliation and cruelty, demanding total victory with no room for compromise.

There has been a recent resurgence in far-right nationalism in the West. In the US we see a formidable reassertion of white nationalism, which in its reactionary violence fails to take into account the American experiment in expanding the democratic franchise. The British government and media’s gung-ho discourse on Brexit (some of it possibly an intentional bluff to force the EU to agree to a different deal than the one it has already declared as the only workable solution) has turned an already difficult process into one with existential stakes that should concern any unionist against the UK’s breakup. In other words, nationalism is being expressed in volatile ways that reaffirm the Western experience since World War One: it is an evil that has an outsized role in fueling national, continental, and global conflict.

The situation is even more complicated in Asia, where many formerly European-ruled territories credit the breaking of colonial dominance (both materially and ideologically) to nationalism. Borders were drawn in blood and war. Relations were determined by imperfect leaders overseeing often unstable and brittle governments. Ethnically diverse groups were arbitrarily assigned artificial and bewildering boundaries. However, if the Westphalian model was the model for Western nation-states, the founding fathers of Asian nations (many of which were not much younger) desired to apply that political configuration to their own societies.

Today, Asia’s leaders—and its people—need to be courageous enough to speak out when nationalism goes too far, or is not fit for noble purpose—for example, the fervent anti-Rohingya sentiment that has been whipped up in recent years in Myanmar, or Japanese nationalism’s role in hindering the normalization of relations with South Korea and China. Asian civic leaders must also articulate how not all nationalisms are equal. If people are to respect the non-violent nationalism manifested by Mahatma Gandhi, which dealt a celebrated bodyblow to the British Empire, they must also question the new nationalism of the Modi government, which has gone further than any past administration in creating a nation ruled by Hindutva interests.

However, framing nationalism within a simplistic dichotomy of “East” and “West” is perhaps unhelpful, as these categories are themselves broad and arbitrary. It might make more sense to look at “sub-nationalisms,” or loyalties to localities or social movements within a single nation. The most urgent, and perhaps now most famous, example for our times is that of China and Hong Kong. The shelved-but-not-yet-withdrawn extradition bill that Hong Kong’s government proposed and attempted to fast-track in May with little public consultation sparked an unprecedented wave of protests from June that have led to now-regular violent clashes on the streets of this global city. The symbolic and legislative seats of power were defaced and vandalized, expressing a loss of faith in the One Country, Two Systems model agreed upon by Chinese head of state Deng Xiaoping and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. These ongoing protests have struck at the heart of Hong Kong’s international nature, with occupations of the airport forcing the disruption and cancellation of hundreds of international flights in and out of the territory.

Beyond the disturbing anti-protestor actions of Triads—organized gangsters—from July, frequent accusations of police brutality and collusion with Triads, the serious injuries sustained by protestors (most of them very young), journalists, and humanitarian workers, and denunciations of government ineptitude and paralysis, something even more worrying is happening. Hong Kong has always been host to multiple notions of identity and difference—indeed, this “in-between” state of being is one of the aspects that make the city unique. In recent years, however, particularly since the Umbrella Movement of 2014, citizens of Hong Kong and mainland China have been driven further apart through multiple levels of sometimes-intentional division.

The localist movement in Hong Kong, for example, began as a growing impatience with the “old guard” of pan-democrats who believed in passive engagement with the central government in Beijing. While the movement holds little moral force and even less political power, localist sensibilities are on the rise, with a distinct Hong Kong identity that has formed in opposition to Chinese national identity. Meanwhile, mainland Chinese typically refer to Hongkongers with the cherished salutation “tong bao”—compatriot, literally born of the same parents—less and less frequently. Many mainlanders do not even understand why or how the protests in Hong Kong have gotten so out of hand, and few are inclined to be sympathetic.

All of these, of course, are narratives painted by both the Hong Kong and Chinese media, and it is important not to fall into self-fulfilling prophecies. From the perspectives of those who see themselves as only Hongkongers and those who espouse the One China principle, reasonable solutions need to begin with honest, open dialogue and a willingness to de-escalate. Political courage and imagination are needed—perhaps more so on the side of Hong Kong’s government than the protestors—to bring about an accommodation that can persuade the protestors to give the city and its citizens a break, while reassuring Beijing about the stability of Hong Kong. Of course, however, ineptitude is the murderer of possibility, along with pride, bad faith, and ill intent.

There is a proverb attributed to Ashoka the Great, first among many exemplary Buddhist monarchs: “There are many principles in the world, and many of these principles contradict each other. Tolerance for the existence of another’s principle is the basis for your own existence.” (The Telegraph) However, what does toleration mean? If one side sees toleration of the other’s sincere wish for civic development as jeopardizing fundamental principles of national sovereignty, or reflexively equating Hong Kong’s integration with mainland China in 2047 with the total destruction of a city or a culture, then the fighting will continue, with divisions continuing to fester even during times of apparent peace.

One thing is certain, however: toleration means acknowledging the right of the other to not just exist but to engage in dialogue, and a commitment to co-exist in harmony. We must somehow think beyond Hong Kong localism and Chinese nationalism and be creative with hitherto untried, conceptually alien ideas. It cannot be purely either one or the other.

Somehow—beyond One Country, Two Systems—there will have to be a Nagarjuna-like recalibration of Hong Kong’s contract with its legal sovereign, a different kind of “in-between” than pre-1997 or pre-2047. A conventional truth—and an ultimate truth.

See more

The poetry of Bei Dao and the paradox of Hong Kong (The Telegraph)
It’s Time for Hong Kong to Get Real (Fair Observer)
Hong Kong’s Fight for Life (Dissent)

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