As protests in Hong Kong rage on, the conflict is no longer limited to the streets and media outlets of the Greater China region. Wherever Hongkongers are present around the world, they have carried out public gatherings that seek to support their compatriots fighting against Beijing’s overbearing authoritarianism. Yet in their show of force, Hongkongers often come into conflict with nationalistic overseas Chinese in all their flag-waving, national-anthem-singing glory. As recent incidents in Australia and Canada show, wherever the nationalist Chinese are, they have presented themselves as ready to get into fistfights with Hongkongers to defend their motherland.
The militancy of pro-Beijing counter-protesters in Western democracies like Australia and Canada can be rather baffling for casual observers. After all, Western mainstream media, politicians, and public opinion have largely condemned the heavy-handedness of the Beijing government for threatening Hong Kong’s legal and political autonomy. Mainland Chinese in such societies, through schools, workplaces, or even just casual glances at the news, should be exposed to plenty of arguments and evidence that the pro-Beijing stance is considered hostile where they currently live. So it is perplexing that many mainland Chinese will actively choose to go out into the streets, get in fights with Hongkongers, and earn the ire of the local majority that finds their blatant nationalism repulsive.
Understanding the radical behavior of the Chinese nationalists residing outside China, however, becomes much easier when observing their sometimes limited social interactions outside the local Chinese community. As China has become increasingly portrayed as “the dangerous other” in Western public discourse, those who come from that country have found themselves increasingly incapable of communicating objectively with the non-Chinese living among them. For instance, a May 2019 article in The Economist argued that Chinese students in America’s elite colleges now find themselves criticized by their classmates simply for supporting Chinese government positions, leading many to conclude that it is no longer possible to persuade others that China’s actions are not plain evil, but are rooted in logic and legitimate self-interest.
The disillusionment of overseas Chinese with non-Chinese members of their Western homes has at times been leveraged by the Chinese government. As Chinese students and workers retreat into Chinese “bubbles” after facing wholesale condemnation, Chinese government officials have increasingly provided financial support for Chinese students and cultural organizations that make up those Chinese bubbles. In exchange for this monetary support, the Chinese state has asked Chinese organizations to stick together to defend the motherland against the Western narrative that modern-day China lacks any sort of redeeming qualities.
That message – that the West has an anti-China bias for no reason – has resonated with the many overseas Chinese disillusioned by interactions outside the Chinese community. Living in societies that are inundated with news that portrays China in a negative light, it is inevitable that many overseas Chinese are embarrassed by their ties to China. To regain confidence as Chinese, some have felt the need to reiterate their support for a stronger, more powerful motherland led by the Communist Party of China. In the process, they consciously or unconsciously buy into the Chinese government’s “century of humiliation” narrative, that others’ criticism of China and the Chinese boils down to China’s historical weakness. Thus the Chinese government and its overseas supporters argue that, for Chinese abroad to be respected, they must display overt strength and solidarity, even to a militant degree.
The mentality of displaying Chinese pride through an overt show of strength has become especially amplified concerning the issue of Hong Kong. With the colonization of Hong Kong a key episode of the “century of humiliation,” the Chinese government narrative has been largely hostile toward any effort to portray Hong Kong as separate from China and “un-Chinese” in any way. The attempt of Hongkongers to distance themselves from mainland China, by that logic, has become particularly infuriating for the pro-Beijing overseas Chinese. To them, while the non-Chinese criticism of China can be forgiven because of ignorance of Chinese history and contemporary China’s achievements, Hongkongers criticizing China is intolerable because they are Chinese and suffered from Western colonialism. This perceived distinction between foreigners and Hongkongers has led to more hostility toward Hong Kong protesters.
The presence of such a militant nationalist Chinese population in the West benefits no one but the Chinese government. The more the pro-Beijing Chinese voice their anger, the greater the gulf between them and other members of Western civil society. The result is even greater disillusionment of the Chinese toward the West, in that their love of China is fundamentally incompatible with Western values and ideology. The Chinese government will waste no time buying influence with disillusioned overseas Chinese, asking them to do its bidding, supposedly to strengthen the power of China and Chinese people around the world. When many overseas Chinese answer the call of the Chinese government, communal unity, national security, and democratic values of the Western societies where these Chinese live will be threatened.
To mitigate the danger, the first step is to fix the source of overseas Chinese people’s disillusionment. Mainstream Western media and their non-Chinese audience have for too long failed to distinguish between the positions of the Chinese government and of the Chinese people, particularly those living outside China. By simply portraying the Chinese as in agreement with the Chinese government, Westerners have taken away the agency of the Chinese people, dehumanizing them simply as unthinking agents of the Chinese state. Ironically, by criticizing Chinese individuals for adhering to Chinese government positions, Westerners are driving the Chinese they come into contact with into the arms of the Chinese state.
Hence to restrict the influence of pro-Beijing militancy outside China, Westerners must learn to see Chinese people as individuals with independent thoughts and capacity to change their positions based on critical analyses of real-world situations. By unbiasedly and objectively interacting with Chinese individuals as free-thinking persons, the non-Chinese can help humanize them and create norms that respect the Chinese ways of thinking as equally valid. Only by acknowledging Chinese people’s individuality can Westerners vanquish the irrationally excessive and government-sponsored nature of Chinese nationalism outside China.