On Saturday, China’s top legislature passed a new criminal law to punish acts “gravely disrespecting the national anthem,” in response to “incidents of disrespecting the national anthem [which have] occurred in Hong Kong.” In recent years, demonstrators claiming to struggle for Hong Kong’s “independence” and “democracy” have protested against China’s national anthem by attending sporting events and turning their backs, booing, and raising their middle fingers as the anthem plays.
Western corporate media has condemned the law as being part of a “sweeping crackdown on dissent and free speech” under China’s “increasingly authoritarian president, Xi Jinping.” The Washington Post and New York Times have compared protests of China’s anthem to the movement in the United States of kneeling during the anthem in protest of ongoing racist oppression and police brutality against African Americans.
However, while the two movements share superficial similarities, a closer look reveals that, in fact, China’s “anthem protest” does not share the progressive character of the “Take a Knee” movement in the United States. In order to understand this contrast, it is necessary to first examine Hong Kong’s history as a British colony.
British colonial domination of Hong Kong
During the Opium War of 1839-1842, Hong Kong was stolen from China by Britain, which annexed the region in order to secure its ability to import opium and reap lucrative drug profits. This war marked the beginning of China’s “century of humiliation”, during which it was subjected to domination and underdevelopment by Western and Japanese imperialism.
In 1949, China’s socialist revolution cast off these colonial shackles and announced to the world that “the Chinese people have stood up.” Britain, however, maintained its hold on Hong Kong, which continued to act as a hub for capitalism and Western influence. Although China could have reclaimed Hong Kong from Britain by force, it sought a peaceful solution and, in 1997, Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty. Proceeding under the principle of “one country, two systems,” reunification has affirmed that Hong Kong exists within China but as a distinct region allowed to retain its capitalist system and administrative autonomy.
Hong Kong’s movement for “independence” and “democracy”
Although reunification has liberated Hong Kong from British colonial domination, there exists a movement in the region which opposes it. In 2014, this movement rose to prominence with the “Occupy Central” protests — named after Occupy Wall Street — and were praised by Western governments and corporate media. While this movement claims to fight for Hong Kong’s “independence” and “democracy”, the evidence demonstrates decisively that this is not the case.
The “independence” movement seeks to return Hong Kong to its former Western-centric orientation, which had privileged a small minority of the population. Movement leaders have received support from the National Endowment for Democracy — a U.S. organization used to promote foreign destabilization — and collaborated with right-wing British politicians. Tellingly, protests often take place under the banner of the British-era colonial flag and Union Jack.
A strong supporter of Hong Kong “independence” was Liu Xiaobo, the prominent Chinese dissident praised by the West as a “human rights activist” and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu championed Western imperialism, arguing that “the major wars that the U.S. became involved in are all ethically defensible” — including Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Korea — and advocating for China’s “westernization.” Applauding Hong Kong’s history of colonial domination, Liu stated that “it took Hong Kong 100 years to become what it is. Given the size of China, certainly, it would need 300 years of colonization for it to become like what Hong Kong is today. I even doubt whether 300 years would be enough.”
In addition, while the movement claims that China restricts Hong Kong’s democracy, in fact, no democracy existed prior to reunification. Exercising absolute authority, the British refused to allow any general election in Hong Kong for more than 150 years and appointed white British aristocrats to govern the colony which was 98 percent Chinese. Only in 1994, ahead of the impending transfer, did the U.K. implement “elections” in an effort to maintain soft power in the region. As such, reunification has advanced Hong Kong’s democracy, ending British dominance and beginning a transition from the colonial system which only provided privileges to a tiny minority of elites.
The contemporary “democracy” movement has an upper-class character, representing those resisting the loss of their colonial-era privileges. Its leaders include “hedge fund managers” seeking to “incite a political awakening among the bankers, stockbrokers and financial traders.” Hong Kong’s “democrats” have slammed the arrest of billionaires during China’s anti-corruption campaign, fearing that Hong Kong is “losing its status as an international business hub.”
A study of the “Occupy Central” protests of 2014 by the Hong Kong Transition Project — a research organization consisting of academics in Hong Kong, the U.K. and the U.S. — confirms the class character of the movement. In addition to finding that the “Occupy Central” protests were opposed by the majority — 59 percent— of those living in Hong Kong, the study found that support for the movement was correlated with income earned. The protests received the strongest support — 54 percent — among those with an annual income greater than US$100,000 and in contrast, opposition to the movement was at 58, 68, and 78 percent for those earning less than US$20,000, less than US$10,000, and the unemployed, respectively.
It is clear that this movement struggles neither for independence nor democracy. Instead, it represents a small, privileged minority within Hong Kong seeking to return the province to its former status of racist, colonial subordination to the West and resist the influence of socialist China which has increased focus on corruption and inequality, weakening the power of Hong Kong’s capitalist elites.
Two very different anthem protests
In recent years, supporters of this movement have protested China’s national anthem — the “March of the Volunteers” — written in 1935 by poet Tian Han and inspired by China’s war of resistance against Japanese occupation. It was chosen as the national anthem and broadcast worldwide on the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949.
Beginning with the call “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves,” the anthem symbolizes China’s resistance to and liberation from Western and Japanese imperialist oppression. The protests of the anthem represent the neo-colonial orientation of Hong Kong’s so-called “independence” and “democracy” movement. Given that China is the primary target of US imperialism — due to the threat it poses to the unipolar world dominance of the U.S. — China must remain vigilant against movements which the U.S. and West can use to weaken and destabilize China, as they have done across the Global South.
In sharp contrast, the anthem protests in the United States were initiated by professional football player Colin Kaepernick against the ongoing racist, colonial oppression and police terror which continues with impunity against African Americans. Protests against the “Star-Spangled Banner” — the racist U.S. national anthem which celebrates the killing of African American slaves — have grown into a mass movement led predominantly by African American unionized working athletes in the NFL, and taken up by high schoolers, other professional athletes, and ordinary people demonstrating in solidarity. The movement has been responded to aggressively by racist, patriotic and militaristic sectors of the population who staunchly support US imperialism, with many protesters receiving death threats, Colin Kaepernick being “blackballed,” and President Donald Trump demanding that the NFL fire any employee “disrespecting” the anthem. Notably, NFL players only began appearing on the field for the national anthem in 2009, as the U.S. Department of Defense paid the NFL millions of dollars to promote patriotism and militarism, including conducting military flyovers during games and enlistment campaigns.
Whereas the anthem protests in Hong Kong represent a movement supported by and supportive of Western imperialism and colonial oppression, the U.S. anthem protests are definitively a resistance movement against the ongoing racist, colonial oppression faced by African Americans.
Although Western corporate media attempts to equate them in order to promote anti-China sentiments, there can be no doubt that these anthem protests represent struggles moving in opposite directions: one desiring a return to racist, colonial domination, and the other seeking liberation from it.
Ajit Singh is a Marxist, anti-imperialist writer and activist. He received his Juris Doctor in Law from the University of Western Ontario in 2014.