Two slogans shape Hong Kong

Studio Incendo

*Published in Taipei Times (2020, Jun 12)

While the world is still busy fighting the Wuhan Virus, Hong Kong protesters are already resuming their campaign against another recurring threat from the north — the threat to end Hong Kong’s political autonomy. After the withdrawal of the notorious Extradition Bill in 2019, Mainland China has delivered another gift to its only free port of ideas: national security law. A new cycle of political unrest is foreseeable. Now is the right time to recall our memory of the last summer.

Despite Beijing’s continuous muscle flexing in Hong Kong, many democrats there had long believed in an independent judiciary to be the territory’s ultimate safeguard of political autonomy. However, the proposal of the Extradition Bill last summer has shown Beijing’s determination to bridge the gap between two legal systems — yes, we all know that the Chinese Communist Party has promised to rule the territory according to the principle “One Country, Two Systems”. Today, with China’s decision to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, we witness how this promise has become a sorry joke. And so our disillusioned citizens are returning to the dear battlefield which was once the Waterloo for the northern aggression.

Since the outbreak of the Anti-Extradition Protests last summer, Edward Leung Tin-kei, an activist promoting Hong Kong localism and was therefore jailed in 2018, is widely regarded as the new spiritual leader of the pro-democratic mass. Everywhere in the territory we hear protesters chanting “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now”, the election slogan of Leung in 2016 while he was running for a seat in the Legislative Council. Provided the fierce competition between different political ideologies in Hong Kong,[1] we should reasonably wonder why a slogan from a pro-independence figure can suddenly express the inner voices of most dissidents. Does this phenomenon prove the official assumption that the demand for universal suffrage is only separatism in disguise?

To understand such political drama on the edge of China, I suggest a parallel reading of the two slogans that shape Hong Kong. From “One Country, Two Systems” to “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now”, the final tale of a territory thereby unfolds.

For twenty years since the handover, democrats in Hong Kong keep accusing the rulers in Beijing of breaching the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. Yet, from the official perspective, the central government is always trying its best to keep its promise to the Hong Kong people — on condition that it holds the absolute right to interpret the rules of the game. In 2014, Beijing issued the controversial White Paper, which firmly states that the policy of “One Country” precedes that of “Two Systems”. Thereby Beijing tells its readiness to sacrifice Hong Kong’s special status in the name of national security, despite the initial idea that the “Two Systems” policy was to serve a gradual modernization of Mainland China as well as a peaceful unification with Taiwan. After two decades of house sharing experiment, all we see is an overconfident regime which stops learning and starts selling its “China model” overseas. If the liberals in Hong Kong have ever expected to democratize Red China, they fail. They cannot even protect their bastion of liberty from the clenching fist of the “One Country”.

In response to suppression, resistance forces in black bloc gather under the flag reading “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now”. Interestingly, this slogan of an imperative mood used to arouse a localist sentiment which is not necessarily shared by all freedom fighters. Its charm comes indeed from its openness to interpretations. Hence sometimes we can hear protesters explaining their own understandings of the slogan in the media. In its original language, “Free Hong Kong” literally means “light returns to Hong Kong”, and practically implies reclaiming a land from invaders, which is in line with the localist perception that the “Hong Kong nation” has fallen to a foreign power from the north. “Revolution Now” is also a tricky part of the slogan, as its precise translation is “era revolution”. Leung once considered adopting “generation revolution”, an earlier version of the phrase, as his election slogan, which makes sense as most of his supporters belonged to the younger generation that thirsted for change. After reconsideration with his team, he decided to use “era revolution” instead, to convey that the will to change does not depend on which generation one belongs, but on whether one keeps up with the times. Thereby he softened the exclusive tone of the phrase, contributing to the unexpected popularization of the whole mantra. Of course, its attraction also owes to the depressive fact that the governance of Hong Kong is not yet liberated from the era of colonial brutality, leading to reformists’ repetitive appeal to “universal values” as the benchmarks of modern society.

From the compositions of the two slogans, we discover the chiasmic tension between two families of political discourses: that of strengthening national solidarity and that of cultivating global citizenship. The policy of “Two Systems” had once planted the hope for a democratic China in the hearts of Hong Kongers, especially when joining the modern world through political reforms was still on Beijing’s agenda. The cruel reality is that now we are more or less experiencing the overarching policy of “One Country”, according to which promoting democracy becomes a “western conspiracy” to undermine a superpower-to-be in the East. The fall of “Two Systems” together with the rise of “One Country” hears echoes in the streets of Hong Kong. The rapid spread of one-party dictatorship across the border discomforts many who treasure Hong Kong as their home. More and more residents sense the danger of losing their local identity before they could enjoy the promised universal suffrage. After the failure of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, the last civil means to seek dialogue and reconciliation with the government, supporters of localism surge. Defenders of “universal values” suddenly face a hard choice between dealing with the devil as usual and keeping a hostile distance from the unchecked patriotism from the north. Those who opt for the latter believe that freedom from Mainland’s control is a prerequisite of political modernization in the true sense of the term. So we come to understand that the combination of “Free Hong Kong” and “Revolution Now” has indeed a winding history.

Thanks to its apparent ambiguity, the slogan of a localist origin has successfully connected dissidents across the political spectrum. To quote the insight of the sociologist Amitai Etzioni, the recent unrest in Hong Kong can be seen as the clash between two kinds of nationalism, namely the authoritarian nationalism on the suppressive side and the civic nationalism on the resistant side. By juxtaposing the two slogans which are determining Hong Kong’s fate, we can learn that the two kinds of nationalism, the government-led patriotism of China and the localism as a branch of democratic movement in Hong Kong, are after all of very different natures. The fears of Mainlandization — to follow Etzioni’s judgment — will effectively drive the global territory to the course of Taiwanization.[2]

[1] For an overview of the main political ideologies in Hong Kong that participate in the current unrest, see my last article “The decolonization of Hong Kong” on Taipei Times (2019, Nov 26), URL=

[2] “‘Good’ vs ‘Bad’ Nationalism in Asia: The task of keeping nationalism civic, rather than aggressive and authoritarian”, The Diplomat (2019, Sep 23), URL=

I tell the stories of Hong Kong before it is too late.