There were large crowds out in Hong Kong last week, disregarding social-distancing measures and filling the air with their loud chants.
“We are Hong Kong!”
“Hong Kong add oil!”
The anti-government protests of 2019 had not returned. Instead, people of all political persuasions were gathered at shopping malls and sports centres to cheer Hong Kong athletes making history at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Fencing hero Edgar Cheung Ka Long, 24, defeated reigning world champion Daniele Garozzo of Italy to win gold in the men’s individual foil event.
And swimming star Siobhan Haughey, 23, delivered two silver medals in the 100m and 200m freestyle events.
It was the city’s best showing at the Games, and 25 years since windsurfer Lee Lai Shan brought back its only other gold medal.
The euphoria over the two athletes’ successes showed the power of sports to bridge – even momentarily – Hong Kong’s deep political divide, with both sides celebrating the joy of winning together.
Expressions such as “add oil”, a Cantonese cheer of encouragement used frequently by protesters during the unrest of 2019, took on a new meaning.
Haughey used the phrase herself last week when she said: “My achievement, coupled with Cheung Ka Long’s in fencing, can inspire other Hong Kong athletes who are here in Tokyo and add oil to them, and to those swimmers back home – continue to train hard so that you will be the next.”
Observers told the Post the Games appeared to have rekindled Hongkongers’ pride in their identity, injecting a sense of positivity and togetherness after two years of frustration and dejectedness over the city’s political turmoil and the Covid-19 pandemic.
With opposition forces increasingly shut out under the arrival of the national security law and major reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system, they suggested that authorities should allow residents to enjoy cultural freedom as long as they did not challenge the bottom line of the city being part of China.
Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at Chinese University, said last week’s scenes of Hongkongers cheering for their Olympic heroes brought back some positivity, but it also appeared that people were testing what they could do under the national security law “that would not get them to jail”.
The US-born resident, who studies identity issues, said: “When people support and cheer Hong Kong athletes with local slogans, the question they might have in mind is, to what extent can we uphold our freedom of expression?
“It was like telling the central and Hong Kong governments that under the national security law, we accept that politically, Hong Kong is a part of China, but we still want to be allowed a certain degree of being ourselves.”
Mathews said Hong Kong’s identity was not always connected with politics, recalling that in the 1990s, the popularity of Canto-pop and Wong Kar Wai films made the city stand apart from those in mainland China.
Giving Hongkongers more freedom of expression in areas other than politics could help bring people together, he said.
But he added that it remained to be seen if Beijing would allow Hong Kong to develop some sense of non-political identity once the city’s opposition and protesters were gone, and if the local bureaucratic government “would take things to an extreme level” under the security law.
Open anti-mainland sentiment
Something else emerged when Hongkongers rallied to support their star athletes last week – a strong anti-mainland sentiment was present and expressed more openly than during the last Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
As Edgar Cheung stood on the podium to receive his gold medal, some fans in Hong Kong booed when China’s national anthem March of the Volunteers played.
A 40-year-old man was tracked down through security camera footage and arrested under the national anthem law introduced last year for allegedly booing the song at the APM mall in Kwun Tung on Monday (July 26).
He had been seen waving a flag, and police said they found 10 Hong Kong colonial-era flags of different sizes on him during the arrest.
People were also seen clapping when the Chinese women’s volleyball team lost to Turkey, and when Japan defeated China in the mixed doubles final of table tennis.
Online, mean-spirited comments flooded social media after some of the mainland’s top medal hopes suffered setbacks.
It was a far cry from 13 years ago, when tens of thousands of Hongkongers lined the streets to cheer the 2008 Beijing Olympics torch relay.
The city’s residents shared in the pride of China amassing 51 gold medals at the Games that year, surpassing America’s 36.
A study by the Public Opinion Research Institute (Pori) found that more than 51 per cent of Hongkongers identified as Chinese during the Beijing Olympics, the highest level since its survey started in 1997.
This year, that figure was 26 per cent, a slight increase from the low of 22 per cent in 2019.
Pori deputy executive director Chung Kim-wah said that over the years, Hongkongers changed from seeing themselves as being almost a part of China, to having a separate identity from the mainland.
At this point, he added, it would be hard for the authorities to rebuild a sense of Chinese national identity in the city.
Chung recalled that even in 1982, when Hong Kong society was fraught with confusion and anxiety at the news that Beijing would regain control of the city in 1997, locals remained proud of Chinese athletes’ success in international meets.
“There’s no going back,” the social scientist said.
“With the suppression of the new security law, people can only make use of these opportunities to vent their anger. The sense of localism only continues to escalate. It will be hard for Beijing to wipe out the Hong Kong identity at this point.”
Hongkongers’ behaviour in supporting their athletes, while being derisive towards mainland participants in Tokyo, was a way of projecting frustration and negative feelings towards Beijing, he said.
“People are taking the opportunity to channel their anger, no matter if it’s a concert or a sports event, because chanting the same slogans in groups on the street might lead to their arrest,” he said.
Associate Professor Tian Feilong, of Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing, said sports and political expression had always been closely related, and an athlete’s victory or loss would arouse collective emotions.
“Cheering for Hong Kong and chanting ‘Hong Kong add oil’ is perfectly fine, as joining international competitions as a region is allowed under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” he said. “It is also human nature.”
But booing the national anthem was another matter, and displaying such disrespect for the country might have violated the National Anthem Ordinance which took effect in Hong Kong last year, he warned.
Tian said he believed that the anti-government protests of 2019, followed by the implementation of the security law last year and the overhaul of the city’s electoral system this year might explain Hongkongers’ negative sentiment towards China.
It will take time for Hongkongers to “re-recognise” that they are a part of China, according to Tian.
“In the long term, with more connections and interactions between the two sides, the Hong Kong-China relationship should be able to turn better,” he said.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.