23 February 2019
Just to make sure the message is loud and clear, the word "Chinese" will light up above Victoria Harbor. Photo: Friends of Hong Kong Association
Just to make sure the message is loud and clear, the word "Chinese" will light up above Victoria Harbor. Photo: Friends of Hong Kong Association

What happens when a fireworks display is a political show?

For 23 minutes on Oct. 1 — and at a cost of HK$6 million — Hong Kong will be treated to a “patriotic” fireworks display in Victoria Harbor, complete with the word “Chinese” in simplified Chinese characters.

The song “I Am Chinese” will blare in the background as the extravaganza unfolds.

Meanwhile, “love China” messages will flood all channels.

Let’s dispense with the small details — 65 shots to mark 65 years of the People’s Republic, 23,888 pieces of pyrotechnics fired from three barges in nine long salvos, etc. — and look at the big picture.

It’s another attempt by pro-Beijing supporters to remind Hong Kong that it is part of China, the notion being Hong Kong people are decidedly unpatriotic.

Previous celebrations of China’s national day have had a similar patriotic theme but perhaps less fervor than this one amid rising cross-border tensions over political reform in Hong Kong.

Also, this is the first time the event is being held after it was canceled last year in the aftermath of a ferry collision which killed 38 holiday revelers in 2012.  

Friends of Hong Kong Association, the event’s sponsor, would be hoping to get Hong Kong over that tragedy and get it to embrace the motherland at the same time.

But the timing could prove both unfortunate and providential. In fact, the whole patriotic exercise could backfire in a big way.

To most Hong Kong people, patriotism is a pragmatic concept that has more to do with the freedom to contribute positively to society and less with being subservient to a ruling elite.

They can tell the difference.

When Beijing tried to introduce an anti-subversion law in Hong Kong, people were quick to see it as a tool of political repression, driving them in their thousands into the streets in a show of protest and forcing the government to withdraw the measure.

They showed the same tenacity in opposing a Beijing-backed national education curriculum to be piloted in selected Hong Kong primary schools.

It was the most ambitious attempt to raise the next generation of “Chinese patriots” in Hong Kong which alarmed parents fearful of communist indoctrination of their children.

In recent months, cross-border relations have soured over a host of issues — from Chinese speculators buying up Hong Kong property and fueling residential prices to parallel imports that caused a run on certain local necessities and accusations of Hong Kong people’s hostility toward their mainland cousins.

Then came Beijing’s proposed election framework for the 2017 chief executive election that all but gives it control of the outcome by limiting the field to candidates of its own choosing.

All this has exacerbated Hong Kong’s distrust of Beijing, making it harder for its people to embrace China.

To be fair, Beijing has come to Hong Kong’s rescue in time of crisis such as during SARS, and has helped it maintain its competitiveness as a financial center by making it the main offshore trading hub for the renminbi.     

But in the 17 years since the handover, at least half of Hong Kong voters have returned mostly democratic lawmakers to the Legislative Council and district councils, eschewing pro-Beijing candidates.

Still, the pan-democrats are a muffled voice in the legislative chamber which is dominated by politicians selected by small groups of constituencies which together account for 70 percent of the seats. Most are pro-Beijing. 

That gives Beijing a disproportionate influence in Hong Kong’s political affairs and it’s not shy to use it.

Things will come to a head when Beijing’s electoral reform proposal comes up to a vote in Legco. Pan-democrats have vowed to veto it, which means it’s unlikely to pass.

Meanwhile, most Hong Kong people would welcome the chance to go about their daily lives without having to deal with politics.

But how can they when even a fireworks display is fraught with it? 

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EJ Insight writer

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