Simmering anti-China sentiment has come to the boil in Taiwan and Hong Kong over recent weeks.
In Taiwan, anger at mainland Chinese influence has blossomed into the student-led Sunflower Movement. “Don’t let Taiwan become another Hong Kong” is a warning echoing through the Sunflower protests, a reference to the loss of “authentic” Hong Kong to the influence of mainland Chinese politics, capital and tourists.
In Hong Kong, a row over a mainland child urinating in public during his family’s visit to the city recently brought tempers that were already simmering over unruly Chinese tourists into a divisive open conflict between Hong Kongers and mainlanders.
It happened months after some Hong Kong protesters confronted a group of mainland tourists outside a luxury store, calling them “locusts” and “Shina” (a term used by the Japanese to describe Chinese people during the World War II occupation).
While there are genuine causes of grievance and concern in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, their strong reactions underline their sense of insecurity and fear for their culture under an increasingly assertive mainland China. In this context, the localist – and protectionist – sentiments in both places are signs not of strength but of their lack of confidence. The urge to distance Taiwan and Hong Kong from China has become a mainstay in recent protests.
Such drive for de-sinification, however, is misplaced because both regions underestimate their own cultural and political significance in the global Chinese consciousness.
Taiwan and Hong Kong, which have been leading the trend of Chinese culture for the past decades, should not just give up their say in all matters Chinese to the mainland.
While many see Chinese history as the story of the Middle Kingdom, modern China has always been influenced by people living outside the mainland. It was true from the very beginning.
The Republic of China was founded by revolutionists led by Sun Yat-sen, who studied and practised medicine in Hong Kong and Macau before becoming an expat in the US.
That trend has become even more obvious in the past decades. One of the biggest Chinese icons in recent history is Bruce Lee, who was born in the US and made his name in Hong Kong. In fact, the whole Chinese kung-fu movie genre was invented by the late Hong Kong film mogul Run Run Shaw.
One of the most influential Chinese writers is Louis Cha Leung-yung, whose wuxia (martial arts and chivalry) novels loosely based on Chinese history are well-known to the Chinese-speaking world and have been repeatedly adapted into TV series, movies, video games and comics.
Teresa Teng from Taiwan is arguably the most representative of Chinese singers. More recent performers like Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung from Hong Kong as well as Jay Chou and Jolin Tsai from Taiwan are also hugely successful in the Chinese-speaking market.
The kung-fu epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, the most internationally successful Chinese film, was directed by Taiwan’s Ang Lee and starred Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-fat and Malaysian-Chinese star Michelle Yeoh.
These people and their work succeed not only in representing China to the world but also in reverse-importing “China-ness” back to the mainland. Despite being Taiwanese in an era of much more hostile cross-strait relations, Teresa Teng was so influential in the mainland that the saying “the big Deng (Deng Xiaoping) ruled China by day, but the small Teng (the singer) ruled China by night” was common.
While China was slower in embracing Bruce Lee, the kung fu icon has become a representation of Chinese pride in the mainland. Mainland Chinese producers have become the main adapters of Louis Cha’s novels. And the Taiwanese film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” helped launch the career of Zhang Zhiyi, arguably mainland China’s most successful actor, and several big-budget mainland wuxia films.
While mainland China’s increasing financial and political clout will no doubt give it more cultural weight, it is far from certain that Beijing can just bankroll a cultural dominance. Even now, many in the mainland regard Taiwanese and Hong Kong products as superior to their own, which is one of the main reasons behind Hong Kong’s mainland tourist overcrowding problem.
Taiwan and Hong Kong’s cultural successes were created not with a protectionist state of mind, but with ingenuity, confidence and a can-do spirit. It is not an exaggeration to say that Taiwan and Hong Kong have been the main shapers of the contemporary China’s cultural psyche. They should not give up that role without a fight.