TRENDS: A Red Flag for Participation: The Influence of Chinese Mainlandization on Political Behavior in Hong Kong

Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18ITRy4QfmZy3n/input 957413PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920957413Political Research QuarterlyChan et al.
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(1) 3 –17
TRENDS: A Red Flag for Participation: The © 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
Influence of Chinese Mainlandization
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920957413
on Political Behavior in Hong Kong
Nathan Kar Ming Chan1 , Lev Nachman1,
and Chit Wai John Mok1
This article assesses how contemporary forms of regional assimilation by centralizing states affect the political
behavior of threatened social groups within peripheral polities. Recent mainlandization, “the blurring of the physical,
social, cultural and psychological border between Mainland China and Hong Kong,” has constrained the region’s
autonomy. Here, we consider the political consequences of Chinese mainlandization. How does mainlandization
affect the likelihood of political participation in Hong Kong? Drawing and expanding upon theories of social identity,
we argue that mainlandization increases the political involvement among those who make the choice to identify as
Hong Konger because this is the group under threat by China’s recent actions. Hong Kongers politically mobilize as
a response to mainlandization to combat Chinese threat and to improve the status of their identity group, of which
their own sense of selves is also tied to. Using an original survey experiment, we find support for our theory. Hong
Kongers are influenced by mainlandization to attend contentious protests, recruit others to attend such rallies, and
sign pro-democratic petitions. We conclude by noting implications for China’s increasing attempt to assimilate this
electoral autocracy and discuss how our research informs Hong Kong political activism in 2019 and 2020.
mainlandization, political participation, regional autonomy, identity, Hong Kong, China
this peripheral territory into its centralized state.1 The CCP
is trying to assimilate Hong Kong through a process schol-
When and why do locals within peripheral states resist
ars call mainlandization (Ma 2015). By means of this case
national assimilation from centralizing states, particu-
study, we examine the impact of Chinese regional assimila-
larly when faced with declining regional autonomy?
tion on Hong Kong civil society’s political behavior. We
Smaller peripheral states often exist within the shadow of
add to the literature on assimilation by theorizing and pro-
regional hegemonic powers who attempt to incorporate
viding empirical evidence about the effects of constraining
or centralize their regional autonomy. Centralizing states
regional autonomy via mainlandization on political partici-
may attempt to formally integrate neighboring peripheral
pation in Hong Kong, which has been understudied in the
states and territories into their boundaries (Agnew and
existing literature.
Corbridge 2002). This process of assimilation is even
more likely when historical, cultural, or political claims
by the regional power say that the periphery ought to
Regional Assimilation in
become a part of its national state-building project (Bell
Comparative Perspective
1987). Centralizing states thus use a variety of tactics to
push a new, broader nationalism to replace or stop more
Regional assimilation, declining autonomy, and its con-
local forms of nationalism from growing. However, poli-
nected puzzles are not new for political scientists.
ties on the border of regional powers often resist central-
Contested or semi-autonomous states resist assimilation
izing assimilation (Brubaker 1996).
Today, in Hong Kong, its semi-autonomous status within
1University of California, Irvine, USA
the “One Country Two Systems” framework is changing.
Over time, the territory is enjoying less agency over its own
Corresponding Author:
Nathan Kar Ming Chan, Department of Political Science, University of
political destiny. This is because the Chinese Communist
California, Irvine, 4184-4198 Pereira Drive, Irvine, CA 92617, USA.
Party (CCP) leadership is attempting to formally integrate

Political Research Quarterly 74(1)
all over the world throughout time and space. Often
protests in 2014 broke out because of Yanukovych’s
peripheral states resist assimilation because of clashing
refusal to sign an agreement with The European Union, in
ethnic identities, but as Agnew (2001) points out, desires
order to facilitate further negotiations with Russia (Diuk
for autonomy can also be born out of national, cultural,
2014). This signified another climax of Ukraine’s attempt
regional identities, or a combination thereof. As such, the
to reject russification (Kulyk 2018). Following this,
factors driving conflict between Catalonia and Spain are
Russia responded to the loss of the Yanukovych govern-
different from those in Hong Kong and China, or Puerto
ment by annexing Crimea. Vladimir Putin’s government
Rico and the United States (Rezvani 2014). Ultimately,
then continued the russification project by launching a
assimilation into a centralized power often leads to a con-
“soft power” media campaign to stress historical and cul-
testation over autonomy. Sometimes these new territories
tural connections between Crimea and Russia (Biersack
are granted a high level of autonomy within a state like
and O’Lear 2014).
Quebec. Others are given lower levels of autonomy such
In a similar fashion as Russia, the People’s Republic
as the case with Puerto Rico; or as for Hawaii, the terri-
of China (PRC) has been using a plethora of tactics to
tory is completely incorporated (Ghai and Woodman
secure the political and cultural loyalty of Hong Kongers.
2013). Regardless of what type of autonomy a centraliz-
Like Staliūnas’ (2007) description of russification, the
ing state ends up giving to peripheral territories, policies
PRC has been regulating Hong Kong’s cultural and polit-
are aimed to incorporate locals into becoming citizens of
ical space through a variety of policies. For example, edu-
their new central state. A state teaches its citizens to feel
cation policy has been a primary tool. In 2011 and 2012,
like they are all a part of the same nation (Gellner 1983),
Beijing planned to implement a “moral national educa-
even though the kinds of methods centralizing states use
tion” curriculum in Hong Kong through the Special
to assimilate citizens into their nation can differ.
Administrative Region’s government. Beijing’s goals
As we mentioned, the question of regional autonomy
were to teach morals and values through PRC political
is a global phenomenon. Notable scholarship has ana-
history and directly instill a sense of “I am Chinese” into
lyzed how the Soviet Union government (USSR) histori-
Hong Kongers (Koh 2018). The curriculum also attempted
cally used various nationalistic policies through either
to impose a Chinese-centric view of Hong Kong’s devel-
sovietization or russification to assimilate peripheral
opment (Morris and Vickers 2015).
polities (Silver 1974; Thaden 2014). Whether it was the
For social scientists to understand how regional assimi-
Central Asian states, Baltic states, or Ukraine, all have
lation works in the 21st century, we need to update and
faced a variety of assimilation policies aimed at incorpo-
contextualize new studies of this phenomenon. How the
rating them into the USSR’s state-building project. The
USSR pursued nationalist policies, although theoretically
idea of sovietization was a key tool used for promoting
similar, are in many ways different from how the CCP cur-
nationalism; over time, the USSR pushed different types
rently executes such policies. Also important is how civil
of nationalism, sometimes cultural in nature and others
society reacts to assimilation of these peripheries, which is
more political (Shcherbak 2015). Sovietization, or “the
the focus on this paper. The responses civil society have to
process of modernization and industrialization within the
regional assimilation vary across time and case. Studying
Marxist-Leninist norms of social, economic and political
mainlandization in Hong Kong not only revisits and con-
behavior” was a tool of the USSR. Cultural nationalism
tributes to a classical puzzle and theoretical question of
focused on internationalizing, for example, Russian lan-
regional assimilation but also sheds new light on how citi-
guage, where non-Russians “transformed” into Russians
zens react to these processes in the modern day.
(Kassoff 1968). Yet, as Staliūnas (2007) writes, there was
Similar to how sovietization or russification func-
no singular russification or sovietization policy. Rather,
tioned specifically to the USSR, mainlandization in
these tools varied widely across provinces.
Hong Kong also requires contextualization. Since mass
In Central Asia, russification sometimes meant policy
protests against national security laws in 2003, Beijing
focused on demography, such as mass migration of
has changed its strategy and stepped up its involvement
Russian citizens into newly assimilated border states. For
in Hong Kong’s political matters. There has also been
example, in the 1930s, the Virgin Lands program was
growing economic integration, such as the expansion of
launched. It sent a large number of Russian...

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