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How racist nationalists hijacked Hong Kong’s solidarity rally with Uyghurs

Solidarity with Uyghurs must not be weaponized by Hong Kong’s pro-independence, right-wing localists.

The author would like to thank Sophia Chan, Darren Byler, Musafir, Wilfred Chan, JN Chien, JP, Yukiko Kobayashi Lui, Listen Chen, JS, and Vincent Wong for their generative feedback and assistance with the publishing process.

Last December, I attended the “Human Rights Rally of Solidarity With Uyghurs” in Hong Kong’s Central District, organized by Students of Power (學生歷量), a group of high school students. This was a significant acknowledgement by Hongkongers of the oppression of Uyghurs and other Muslims such as the Hui, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz communities by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in its northwest territory of Xinjiang.[1]

As I would discover, however, what should have been a rally to build much-needed solidarity was instead hijacked by racist nationalists who used it to proselytize their hateful ideology, one which both endangers oppressed communities and poisons Hong Kong’s movement with a destructive politics of division.

The movement’s insistence on unity has often sheltered the far-right from challenges as it marshalled nativist sentiments for its reactionary project. 

Decades of PRC-led expropriation, displacement, exploitation, and ethnic cleansing of Muslim communities in Xinjiang — including, in recent years, their mass detention in concentration camps under the direction of President Xi Jinping — has come under increasing international scrutiny. Recently, a leak of over 400 internal government documents exposed shocking details of how Xi’s directive to “show absolutely no mercy” in a “people’s war” against the “virus” of Islamic extremism in the region is being brutally implemented through these concentration camps, along with unprecedented controls and surveillance on those who remain outside. Western powers have responded with feeble and opportunistic condemnations. 

Hong Kong’s solidarity rally came as bottlenecks have increasingly frustrated Hong Kong’s uprising. With over 7,000 protesters arrested, direct actions and clashes with police have mostly abated. Meanwhile, the massive campaigns to lobby Western governments have not turned the tide as many protesters had hoped. Recognizing this moment of crisis and possibility, some on the Hong Kong left have urged a reorientation of the movement toward a more broad-based revolution linked with the struggles of marginalized groups, while the localist far right has refortified its conception of an insular and exclusionary Hong Kong. In this battle over the movement’s ideological trajectory, the stakes are dire. See Also

Against this context, it seemed that the student organizers of the rally sought to avoid both the appearance and act of promoting any particular political agenda by inviting speakers from across Hong Kong’s political spectrum, from Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人) of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) to Hong Kong independence personality Paladin Cheng (鄭俠). Yet the movement’s insistence on unity has often sheltered the far-right from challenges as it marshalled nativist sentiments for its reactionary project. 

In this case, the organizers’ attempt to give equal platform to a broad range of political positions enabled a vocal minority of racist nationalists to hijack the rally. The audience was primed for their propaganda by other speakers who, despite their differences in politics and rhetoric, invariably drew facile comparisons between the struggles of Uyghurs and Hongkongers to deliver an alarmist message that reduces Uyghurs to a political scarecrow, summed up by the slogan emblazoned on the backdrop of the rally stage: “Xinjiang today, Hong Kong tomorrow.” 

A student speaker fallaciously compared the settler-colonial practice of state-sponsored Han Chinese migration into Xinjiang with Hong Kong’s policy allowing up to 150 mainland relatives of Hongkongers to gain Hong Kong residency per day, warning that current Hongkongers could become a minority as a result. But unlike Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang, newer migrants from the mainland in Hong Kong are predominantly rural women married to Hong Kong men, and among Hong Kong’s most economically marginalized — not to mention the obvious fact that most Hongkongers today are themselves mainland migrants or their descendants. 

Before we can join our revolution to the struggles of others, we must first undertake “a revolution of ourselves.”

The far-right’s hijacking of the rally culminated with the speech of Andy Chan Ho-tin (陳浩天), founder of the outlawed pro-independence Hong Kong National Party. Chan denounced the Chinese nation as a contradictory concept enabling the violent assimilation of non-Han “nations” like the Uyghurs. In the same breath, Chan advanced the equally contradictory concept of a Hong Kong nation, armed with the same fabricated hierarchies of genetic and racial difference routinely deployed by the PRC government to oppress and assimilate Muslim communities. 

Chan asserted that just like Uyghurs, Hongkongers constitute a nation separate from China because of supposedly essential differences in language, culture, lifestyle, values, and even genetics. “To put it in more racist terms,” he said with brazen conviction, “we even look different from them,” adding that Hongkongers, unlike Mainlanders, have “freedom” in their genes because they are descendants of refugees who fled from mainland China.

Having presented these artificial parallels between Hongkongers and Uyghurs as evidence that both groups constitute distinct nations on racial terms, Chan urged Hongkongers to rebrand their struggle as an “anti-colonial” movement for independence from Chinese rule—an extreme perversion of the history of anti-colonialism as a movement against racial, religious, ethnic, and other social divisions that facilitate colonial domination.

Chan’s speech ended with the most enthusiastic applause received by any speaker. As chants of “Hong Kong independence—the only way out!” started to drown out chants of “stand with Uyghurs,” I realized with horror that a rally ostensibly in solidarity with oppressed Uyghurs had been hijacked into becoming a propaganda event to promote a Hong Kong nation built on racial exclusion—possible first steps toward fascism.

Despite their links, the presumption that Hongkongers and Uyghurs share identical stakes in their struggles is misguided and harmful to those we are supposedly in solidarity with. It is, of course, important for us to help each other — for example, in resisting technologies of repression employed by the PRC in both regions. However, these experiences can only be effectively shared and utilized through relationships of genuine solidarity built on a mutual respect for the differences that divide us and, indeed, are produced by us.See Also

As descendants of Han migrants from the mainland, Hongkongers play an indirect role in upholding the Han chauvinism that threatens Muslim communities in Xinjiang. Hongkongers must also not overlook the context of global Islamophobia, which is very much alive in Hong Kong. South Asian and Muslim Hongkongers have long endured racism and Islamophobia from their Han counterparts, including protesters. Before we can join our revolution to the struggles of others, we must first undertake “a revolution of ourselves.”

But as with too much in this movement, any chance to think critically about the Uyghur solidarity rally and its ideological content was quickly overshadowed by chaotic scenes of police violence that brought the event to an abrupt and premature end. This only makes our reflection more necessary. 

Hong Kong’s movement must overcome its instrumentalist and insular tendencies to clearly articulate the future it is fighting for—and what it is not. It must ask: who is our movement excluding when it always insists on unity, even with racist nationalists? How can we fight Chinese nationalism without resorting to a far-right Hong Kong nationalism? 

A more powerful alternative is to recognize the hegemony of state and capital as the real enemy, and the basis for our allyship with oppressed people everywhere—including people in mainland China. We can stand with oppressed minorities in Xinjiang by learning about their politics and history, sharing resources, and challenging Islamophobic and racist institutions in Hong Kong — instead of making these reductive and ultimately opportunistic shows of solidarity. To paraphrase a common admonition between Hong Kong protesters: we must not treat as condoms those we recognize as our comrades.[2]

Footnotes

[1] Xin Jiang (新疆) literally translates to “new frontier” in Chinese, though many people of the region prefer the name East Turkistan or Occupied Dzungarstan-Altishahr.

[2] This Cantonese catchphrase generally refers to the treatment of others as disposable, like condoms. The metaphor gained popularity among Hong Kong protesters as a warning not to treat fellow protesters (especially frontliners) as disposable, emphasizing the indispensability of each individual to the whole movement.

This article was first published by the collective Lausan on March 12, 2020. Lausan shares thinking on decolonial left perspective from Hong Kong. This article is reprinted here with permission.

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