Deep down, most Hongkongers yearn to be part of something bigger and grander than their overstuffed, overcrowded little world of daily worries and complaints.

They want to feel proud about being a small piece of a large country that has pulled itself out of the dire poverty and cultural mayhem of the Mao Zedong years to take its rightful place as a power to be reckoned with in the 21st century.

They want to be proud of their rich Chinese heritage and long-standing traditions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping taking oath on March 17, 2018. Photo: Screenshot.

They want to embrace what President Xi Jinping has seductively characterised as “the Chinese dream” of continuing national prosperity and growing international influence and respect.

But sometimes loyalty and patriotism are just too much to ask, and once again this is one of those times.

So far, October has been a really bad month for the Chinese leadership on the international stage.

The Hong Kong government made its own embarrassing contribution to the proliferation of unflattering China headlines when officials here, clearly looking north for clucks of approval, expelled a foreign journalist, Financial Times Asia editor Victor Mallet, from a city that heretofore had been a bastion of press freedom on a continent where overly inquisitive journalists are often muzzled, jailed and even killed.

Although no official reason has been offered for Mallet’s expulsion, his apparent offence was to invite the pro-independence leader of the Hong Kong Nationalist Party, Andy Chan Ho-tin, whose party has since been banned, to speak at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club last month.

At the time, Mallet was the club’s vice president and a respected member of the international press corps; now he is persona non grata in Hong Kong, and the “one country, two systems” principle that was supposed to safeguard Hong Kong’s special freedoms from Beijing’s suffocating authoritarianism has taken another bruising body blow.

Victor Mallet. Photo: Paul Yeung/Pool.

But Hong Kong’s travails are nothing in comparison to far larger and more terrifying examples of oppression occurring on the mainland.

First came the reports late last summer that, in an eery echo of the Mao era, up to a million people had been locked up in political and cultural indoctrination camps in China’s western autonomous Xinjiang region, home to a Muslim Uighur minority group with their own religious and ethnic traditions that the central government is doing its best to eradicate.

Detainees reportedly must renounce their faith and swear loyalty to Xi.

Denunciations by a United Nations human rights panel and a host of human rights groups around the globe elicited a predictable response from Beijing: outraged denials and furious calls for foreign bodies to keep their noses out of China’s internal affairs.

Now, while admitting that such re-education camps exist, authorities in Xinjiang have dubbed them innocuous “vocational training centres” and formally legalised their operation under this gross misnomer.


But nobody is fooled. You won’t see any skilled tradesmen and women emerging from these dark holds; rather, Communist Party doctrine and renunciation of Uighur culture is the lesson of the day.

Make no mistake about it: What’s happening in Xinjiang is cultural genocide.

Another restive region, Buddhist Tibet, former home of the exiled Dalai Lama, is suffering a similar fate. But, again, the more human rights advocates raise their voices, the more the Chinese leadership doubles down on their demonisation of the Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Noble Peace Prize, as a violent “splittist” and the more Tibetan culture withers on the vine.

Pangs of patriotism and pride in nation are hard to summon in light of stories like these—especially for Hongkongers, who for so many years were protected from the Mao madness on the mainland by virtue of being a British colony.

Photo: Wikicommons.

True, that was then and this is now. Today’s China is a much richer, better place. The economic progress of the last 40 years has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Still, however, 21 years after the 1997 handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong remains at serious odds with its new master.

Hongkongers may curse the British for their exploitation and elitism during the UK’s 156-year rule over the city, but they are mostly thankful for the common-law system that the colonialists left behind.

In Hong Kong, the law rules; on the mainland, the party rules. As most Hongkongers continue to see it: Vive la différence!

Which bring us to another recent alarming international headline concerning China: the surprise detention of the Chinese head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei.

Meng, the first Chinese person to head the global policing agency that is based in Lyon, France, “disappeared” last month after returning to China.

Nearly two weeks later, Chinese authorities finally announced that he was being investigated on charges of bribery; meanwhile, back in Lyon, his wife claimed that her life and those of her twin seven-year-old sons have been threatened via a creepy phone call from someone claiming to represent the Chinese government.

Interpol President Meng Hongwei. Photo: WebSummit/Flickr.

Due to the maddening opacity of China’s security apparatus and legal system, it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on in this case, but it’s safe to say that bribery cannot be the real issue; otherwise, there would not be many politicians left in China—they would all be in jail.

All we can conclude is that Meng has proven insufficiently supportive of Xi and, in that strange land that is the mainland, such disloyalty is the ultimate sin, punishable by a slew of corruption allegations the truth or falsehood of which is entirely immaterial.

That’s not the kind of place Hong Kong wants to be. So pardon us if the March of Volunteers—the Chinese national anthem for which due respect is soon to be enshrined in Hong Kong law—gets caught in our throats.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.