Patriot games played out in Hong Kong
Love. It is a complicated thing. So when Beijing calls on Hong Kongers to ai guo, ai gang - love the country, love Hong Kong - what does it mean exactly? The question has roused passions in Hong Kong amid recent remarks by Chinese leaders.President Xi Jinping has urged Hong Kongers to work in the larger interests of China, and help fulfil the "Chinese Dream". Xi's exhortation was in the vein of similar calls by officials during the National People's Congress session, chivvying Hong Kongers to consider the country's wellbeing. One of them, Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengsheng, said only those who are "patriotic" can be allowed to rule Hong Kong. Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference spokesman Lu Xinhua, speaking on Hong Kong's universal suffrage system, said it should produce a chief executive who "loves China and Hong Kong".
It is surely reasonable to require the Hong Kong leader to be "patriotic" and "love" the country. But the question is, in what form should this love take?
Pro-democracy politicians say they love the country but not its "one-party dictatorship rotten to the core", as Democratic Party legislator Albert Ho put it. In fact, free elections can be "a model to show that Chinese people are capable of governing themselves by democracy", he said.
Such rambunctious definitions of patriotism provoke an equally hardline response from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A true democratic election in Hong Kong could bring "subversive" forces into power, Yu warned.
Meanwhile, Beijing-friendly politicians in Hong Kong say the reality is that the city's leader should be one who can work with the leadership in Beijing.
The current war of words has again torpedoed the careful balance that the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping struck in 1984. Then, he defined a patriot as one who "respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong's prosperity and stability. We don't demand that they be in favour of China's socialist system; we only ask them to love the motherland and Hong Kong."
It was carefully couched to preclude a conflation of country and party.
Hong Kong underwent a similar bout of soul-searching in 2004 amid a political reform debate. But the situation has become more intractable in recent years as both camps dig in their heels and ratchet up their rhetoric. The angst reached a high in the past year, as Beijing's tarrying in granting Hong Kong universal suffrage and its increasingly prominent involvement in domestic affairs contribute to distrust of the central authorities.
Radical politicians are winning more support at the polls. Young people are waving British flags. In the latest show of defiance, Hong Kong University (HKU) law academic Benny Tai has proposed an Occupy Central movement next year - an idea gaining traction among even moderates and public intellectuals.
This, in turn, is propelling Beijing's "love China, love Hong Kong" rhetoric, which HKU political scientist Peter Cheung terms "a slogan in the CCP discourse" used to discredit opponents. It is hardly going to work, he muses. "I don't see the Hong Kong people taking it positively."
Making things worse, the vitriol has spilled over beyond the political arena. A rather ugly xenophobic attitude towards mainland visitors, whose social norms have yet to catch up with their earning power, is often seen.
"Love" is many-faceted. But love for the people appears to be the baseline in this context. Says Dr Tai: "We love the people and land, but not the regime."
So there may not be an end in sight to the political stalemate, as various parties compete to sell their version of patriotism. But if there is one thing that is within the control of Hong Kongers, it will be how they treat their compatriots in the street.