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Why China should recognize that dissent can be patriotic

When a group of Hong Kong protesters pulled down a Chinese national flag in Shatin recently, the Beijing mouthpiece China Daily called the protests “anti-China in nature.” Not only was the flag desecration the result of “foreign provocation,” the paper claimed, but even worse, it showed a “lack of patriotism among youngsters in the city.”

The Chinese Communist Party rejects the Hong Kong identity of the protesters, which clashes with the strident, uniform nationalism that the party has stoked in recent years. Hong Kong is central to this narrative. While the CCP once relied on violent class struggle to legitimize its authority, in the past three decades the party has increasingly emphasized its role in ending China’s “hundred years of humiliation,” which began when the British defeated China in the First Opium War and took Hong Kong as a colony. Beijing also claims the sole right to determine who is a good and loyal Chinese citizen, casting those with alternative views and complicated identities — like the current protesters — as disloyal and dupes of foreign enemies bent on undermining China itself.

Such a worldview leaves almost no room for loyal dissent or even disagreement. And it is neither new nor unique to the CCP. In fact, the Chinese Nationalist regime, which the Communists defeated in 1949, used the same basic accusations almost a century ago — against Chinese Americans. But the experience of Chinese American emigres in China in the 20th century suggests that narrowly defining Chinese identity to exclude Western ideas and values will backfire, alienate loyal members of the society and galvanize resistance.

Few people today think of the United States as an immigrant-sending nation. But between 1901 and 1940, thousands of Chinese Americans moved to China in search of the economic and social mobility that drew millions of Europeans to the United States in these same years. Most were the children of merchants, one of the few categories of Chinese allowed into the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Birth on U.S. soil gave them American citizenship but little else. Deep and persistent racial discrimination meant that even the most educated Chinese American citizens could rarely find work outside restaurants, laundries and trinket stores. In contrast, China, a failing empire that in 1912 became a struggling republic, appeared to offer them not just a sense of belonging but opportunities unimaginable in the United States. Between 1901 and World War II, between one-third and one-half of all U.S.-born Chinese moved to Asia.

Read entire article at Washington Post