HONG KONG — As tensions between China and Japan escalate, anti-Japanese protests have spread to Hong Kong. Pro-democracy activists in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory are taking a surprising lead in the pan-Chinese nationalism movement.
An estimated 5,000 demonstrators marched on the Japanese consulate in Hong Kong Sunday. The demonstration occurred in the build-up to the anniversary this week of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria.
Tokyo enflamed Chinese emotions last week by purchasing contested islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, the Senkaku in Japan, from their private Japanese owners.
Last month, protest organizer Tsang Kin-Shing and a group of Hong Kong residents landed on the islands, located between Okinawa and Taiwan. Tsang accused Japan of acting irresponsibly.
“Japan must apologize not only for the crimes it committed before and during the Second World War. This latest act by the Japanese state, buying the Diaoyu Islands, is an absurdity. It is a challenge to the Chinese people, to the extent that it is almost an act of war.”
An article in the state-owned China Daily newspaper Saturday suggested Hong Kong protesters directing their anger at Japan would simultaneously demonstrate their loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.
But such a notion was rejected by demonstrators and organizers alike. Teacher CK Yeung explains a widely held sentiment. “The Chinese Communist Party has inflicted a lot of pain on its own people. We are all Chinese. It is our country. [But] we do not equate the Chinese Communist Party with the country. We know the difference," he said.
Hong Kong is regularly rocked by protests against Beijing's growing influence in the former British colony, which enjoys social and political freedoms seen nowhere else in China.
The leaders of Hong Kong's pan-Chinese nationalism movement are well-known pro-democracy activists, many of whom have been banned from entering the mainland since the resumption of Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Hong Kong Democratic Party vice chairman, legislator Sin Chung Kai attended the protest. He argues the involvement of the Hong Kong people reflects a moral, not a political stance against Japanese provocation.
“"[We] are angry with the People’s Republic of China - how they handle the pace of [democratic reform] in Hong Kong. But that does not mean we will not support the unity of our sovereign soil. The Diaoyu, since the Ming Dynasty five- or 600 years ago, have been part of China," he said.
Hong Kong protesters insist they have little interest in China’s claims to other territories in the East and South China Seas, including the Spratly and Paracel Islands, over which Vietnam asserts sovereignty.
Hong Kong residents, proud of their Chinese identity, have shown long-running support for the Diaoyu claim, observes Hong Kong University History Professor Priscilla Roberts.
“In the 1990s, the Chinese government tried to damp down [Diaoyu-related] protests. It was Hong Kong people who let their emotions get away with them. So perhaps it is a way of showing one can be Chinese - more Chinese than the Chinese - without necessarily following the Beijing party line," she said.
An expert on the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the Second World War, Rohan Price of the University of Tasmania, says the legacy of the brutal occupation persists, along with demands for reparation.
“To this day, many Hong Kong families have suitcases full of Japanese military script, which was unfortunately de-monetized by the British on their return in 1945. So effectively, all the proceeds of their business and labor during the Occupation became worthless," he said.
While Japanese businesses have been looted and vandalized during protests elsewhere in China, demonstrators vow Japanese property will be respected in Hong Kong. But the Japanese flag was burned outside Japan’s consulate at the conclusion of the march and demonstrators called for a boycott of Japanese companies.