Wednesday, April 13, 2005

National Myths and their Consequences

This week's violent demonstrations all over China against Japan's wartime atrocities and its refusal to admit to them in textbooks, in the face of a potential Japanese Security Council seat, vividly illustrate the power of history. For well over two centuries, nationalism and historic mythologies have been entwined into sweeping, emotionally charged national narratives that become a major, if not the animating force, for citizens. Indeed, it is a heady, potent cocktail, and it must be, for nationalism was conceived by rulers to inspire patriotic fervor so great that men would die for the cause. It forges an esprit de corps that not only encourages great deeds, but also the moral basis for mundane actions such as paying taxes. (Americans - you have 2 days left!)

The problem of course, is that there's always more than one team. Any nationalism, almost by definition, requires there to be an opponent, and any 'Auld Enemy' is usually flagged for special notice in national textbooks. The scar wartime Japan left on its neighbors ran deep indeed - and the fact that Japan avoided sustained, frank dialogue domestically about its WWII role (unlike Germany) due to Cold War realities made it a festering wound. As much as the British are derided for their role in the Opium War and the era of unequal treaties for China, the Japanese historic experience was far worse.

To be fair, Japan has for decades been one of the most generous donor countries as a percentage of GDP, particularly to other Asian nations. But their avoidance of their past has come back to haunt them now, especially as China increasingly looks to be assuming the mantel of leadership in East Asia and beyond. For this clash of history is a clash of national narratives, imposed by their changing relative strengths. With only the eldest Japanese having some context of the past, the rest of the Japanese are left unable to comprehend the depth of current resentment and hatred that is so much part and parcel of Chinese nationalism.

For it is a nationalism that is stronger than almost any other. Today's ruling Chinese Communist party holds power and legitimacy not through orthodoxy but a mixture of nationalist populism and economic performance. Think, for a moment, how strong the bonds of nationalism must be to bind 1.2 billion people together!

Which makes the city of Hong Kong so interesting, because it's one of the only places in the world that has no national mythology that binds it together. The Hong Kong Chinese buy to some extent into the nationalism implied by 'Chineseness' - especially when it comes to Japan, given Hong Kong's own suffering during the War. Its people are just 1 or 2 generations removed from China for the most part. But these myths are not Hong Kong specific, and anyway most locals still identify themselves as 'Hong Kong Chinese' rather than just 'Chinese'. Is there a Hong Kong specific historic narrative? We would say 'no.' It is a city without triumphal monuments, national idols, or political architecture. As we say in our Tsim Sha Tsui walk, it seems at first glance a city without heroes - a colony liberated from colonialism by treaty and exchange rate mechanisms, not drama and revolution. A city up until recently whose own history was ignored in schools (no doubt due to the ignominy of its birth in the Opium Wars).

Is that a good thing, as CUHK anthropologist Gordon Mathews suggests, to be free from the 'narrative of the state' and governed only by the 'narrative of the market'? One might argue yes, that people acting in their self interest over fuzzy patriotic notions generally make better decisions, and the absence of nationalism is filled by a 'cosmopolitanism'. But is this state sustainable now that it has become a part of China and its incredibly strong national narrative? We think in order to maintain its unique strengths imbued by its colonial experience, Hong Kong's interest may be in developing a much greater appreciation for its own history as a way of inculcating a greater sense of 'civic spirit'. A spirit that might, say, make local tycoons pause before deserting Hong Kong for Shanghai should opportunity beckon!

Once again we've made a post far too long. We welcome your comments!

No comments: