Vancouver “Save Hong Kong” rally unites two nationalisms under the banner of western imperialism

This weekend the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movements (VSSDM) held a “Save Hong Kong” rally outside the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch. The rally began with the Canadian national anthem, followed by “Glory to Hong Kong,” a national anthem-esque song popularized by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. The stage was flanked by two large Canadian flags, and smaller Canadian flags festooned the crowd. 

Like another Hong Kong solidarity rally held in October at UBC, VSSDM’s “Save Hong Kong” event tethered support for the movement in Hong Kong to the defense of Canadian imperialism, amplifying the  politically heterogenous Hong Kong movement’s most conservative, bourgeois tendencies. Speakers argued for Canada to defend “Canadian values” at home and abroad, whipped up moral panic over Chinese “infiltration” of Canada, and called for sanctions and tighter border control to retaliate against perceived enemies of Hong Kong and Canada. 

The VSSDM rally used red China as a foil to render natural and benevolent Canadian imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. They erased the presence of leftists forces in the struggle in Hong Kong, reinforcing the very forms of power that anti-imperialists seek to weaken.

Mabel Tung, VSSDM (Listen Chen/The Volcano)

The first speaker was Mabel Tung from VSSDM. She called directly for the Liberal government to use Canada’s “Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act” to impose sanctions on and deny entry to Chinese and Hong Kong officials who the Canadian state deems complicit in human rights violations or corruption. Tung’s demand comes from the recent “CanSave” open letter, which calls on the Canadian government to use borders and sanctions to retaliate against mainland Chinese people in response to the Hong Kong government’s handling of protests. In addition to the call to use the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, the letter demands that Prime Minister Trudeau “temporarily [suspend] the processing of student visa applications from China or [impose] more stringent requirements for Chinese students to come to Canada,” conflating mainland Chinese people with the Chinese Communist Party in a classic move that recalls a cold war-style racist yellow peril.  

Speaker Fenella Sung with the Canadian Friends of Hong Kong picked up where Tung left off and brought the sensational anti-China rhetoric a step further. She said that Hong Kongers “are at the forefront in the global fight against the expansion of dictatorial values and systems. They are fighting against the Chinese Communist Party, whose sharp claws have overreached into our land, here in Canada.” Her first example of Chinese “infiltration” was that the CCP is “brainwashing” students at a secondary school in Richmond—evinced by the showing of a Chinese state-produced propaganda film trailer in a Mandarin class. Sung’s panic over a Mandarin class viewing Chinese state propaganda hinges on an anti-Communist double standard that identifies all expressions of non-western imperialist states as propagandistic, while casting a sense of benevolent objectivity over the ideological productions of states in the imperialist core. Colonial and bourgeois propaganda inflect every aspect of Canadian public school curriculums, but Canadian nationalists would never identify that as “propaganda.” 

Sung’s second example was that the CCP “lobbies our elected officials, hoping they [will] backtrack on their election promises of curbing dirty money that floods our housing and destroys our community,” a reference to the Chinese consulate’s donations to the Union of BC Municipalities’ (UBCM) annual convention. Her invocation of “dirty money” highlights the rapidly expanding complex of imperialist, sinophobic conspiracy theories initiated by the David Eby and the BC NDP. What began as scapegoating mainland Chinese individuals for the housing crisis has snowballed into a racist hysteria that now pulls together the overdose crisis, real estate, money laundering, and state infiltration. For Sung and the Canadian anti-China forces she represents, the donations of the Chinese consulate to the UBCM convention is evidence of an externally-imposed distortion of “Canadian democracy,” but the UBCM’s trade show, which invites corporations to compete for contracts from elected officials, is business as usual.

(Listen Chen/The Volcano)

Sung finished off her speech with a final dazzling overstatement, claiming that if we “allow the CCP to infiltrate into Canada, influence our politicians, and undermine our democracy… HK will be our crystal ball.” Such an overreach can only be predicated on a profound misunderstanding of the military and economic hegemony of Canada’s imperialist bloc with the United States. 

But Sung’s panicked claims make sense in the context of western Canada’s historic and evolving anti-Chinese racism. That ethnically Chinese people are increasingly jumping onto the anti-China bandwagon should not surprise us, because white supremacy creates a hierarchy of racialization wherein the further removed from white race power you are, the more likely you are to be trampled on by others climbing over you to gain entry into white civil society. Just as Irish people became white by foregoing a sense of identification and shared political interests with racialized immigrants, former slaves, and Indigenous people, some Chinese Canadians are choosing to cope with white supremacy by investing in the project of Canadian nation-building by adopting settler-colonial and imperialist nationalism. Sung gave her speech standing on unacknowledged occupied Indigenous land, celebrating the so-called democracy of a genocidal, racist, imperial state. 

Another speaker, Lee Haber, appealed to Canadian nationalism by invoking an imperialist trope of lost national glory. Hoping to incite fear in the hears of freedom-loving Canadian nationalists everywhere, Haber solemnly declared that Canada is no longer the “true north, strong and free,” but the “far east, quiet and obedient,” because it is failing to “protect [Canadian] values everywhere on earth.” Haber’s words dovetail with the puzzling tendency of some portions of the Hong Kong movement to locate liberation in visions of Hong Kong’s colonial past. The last line of the Glory to Hong Kong anthem (我願榮光歸香港), for example, can be translated as “I wish glory to return to Hong Kong” as 歸 means both to give back to as well as to belong to. Within the bourgeois solidarity movement for Hong Kong, that glorified past is racially coded: it’s the era before the rise of Chinese state power; a liberalized twin to the far right’s nostalgia for a past before multiculturalism and “mass immigration.” 

The VSSDM rally and solidarity efforts like the CanSave open letter posture as speaking for the Hong Kong movement as a whole, but represent only the bourgeois forces that are politically oriented towards the west within an ideologically diverse movement. Groups like the VSSDM and the authors of the CanSave letter construct Hong Kong as a lost satellite of western imperialism, blocked by Chinese state power from adopting its “rightful” place within the dominion of US-Canadian hegemony. Such a narrative necessarily leaves intact Hong Kong’s capitalist economy and classed social relations, fixating exclusively on political, pro-imperialist revolution. 

But leftists in Hong Kong and abroad are not fighting for Hong Kong to become another bourgeois liberal democracy—we’re fighting to expand the space for anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist politics within the movement, as a precursor to fighting for a future free from both political oppression and economic exploitation. Such a vision is necessarily internationalist because Hong Kong is part of a global economic system, and what happens there is implicated in competing struggles for hegemony by the west and China. If the movement in Hong Kong is already implicated in imperialist power struggles, then the anti-imperialist efforts of leftists in Canada are not just local struggles—we are also helping to defend anti-imperialist forces in Hong Kong, however small those forces might be. Within the struggle to build an international left capable of tackling capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism, there is no room for the bourgeois nonsense and fetishization of western state power exemplified by the VSSDM. 

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