As with the famous question posed by Freud (“What does Woman want?”), the best answer is always “Ask one.”
光復香港 is one of the things they want. The Guardian translates it as “Reclaim Hong Kong,” which at least has the advantage of not being particularly inflammatory, but misses the point, the flavor and the jibe.
I should mention that some 1.7 million people, about a quarter of the population of Hong Kong, were out in the street peacefully supporting this and a few other slogans this past weekend. That’s quite a turnout.
Various persons who seemingly have an interest in making the protesters’ demands unacceptable have been turning the slogan into something it’s not. “Secession,” they make it say, and mutter darkly about how an independent nation of Hong Kong would be easy prey for the capitalists to recolonize, and so on.
That way of putting things makes China the protector of helpless little Hong Kong, unable to detect where its true interests lie, and the bulwark against the opium-peddling gweilo. But a closer acquaintance with Chinese and Hong Kong history marks that fantasy as dishonest. Even if the alternatives are imperfect, Hong Kong people know enough to choose.
And that’s exactly the point of using guangfu 光復 in a slogan. Go to your dictionary. It means “recover [as in lost territory or lost reputation], restore.” Ever since 1949, one of the mottoes of the Guomindang on Taiwan was guangfu dalu 光復大陸, “recover the mainland,” a prospect that became less and less likely as the years went on. One of the stated policy aims of the People’s Republic since the same time has been to guangfu Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, seen as colonies violently severed from the motherland. Reportedly in 1997, owing to a handover agreement, the PRC did just that. There was rejoicing in Beijing and a much more measured response in Hong Kong.
It’s not that Hong Kongers have gloried in the title of “Crown Colony” or sought to be dominated from afar. They are sick and tired of being a pawn in someone else’s game. What they are asking is to be let alone: to keep the system of relatively accountable government under law, fairly large freedoms of speech and association, and pluralism in other sectors of life, that they have become accustomed to. They are not eager to join such aspects of the “China Dream” as one-party rule, non-reviewable judicial decisions, broad definitions of sedition and subversion, and integration into the pending system of “social credit.” They would like to elect their own representatives from a genuinely diverse spectrum of opinion and manage their own affairs to a greater degree than either Great Britain or China has ever conceded them.
Guangfu Xianggang turns the Chinese-patriotic slogan around in precisely this way. It means “Let Hongkongers recover Hong Kong for themselves.” A high degree of regional autonomy is absolutely possible under the Basic Law of 1997. It’s even guaranteed by it. Beijing, on the other hand, has an interest in portraying differences of opinion as disloyalty and making them punishable. For if Hong Kong got to expand its envelope of democratic rights, what would happen to the rest of China? Isn’t it unthinkable that Shanghai, Chongqing or Urumqi would enjoy such basic rights?
It’s not unthinkable. But it takes a lot of imagination.