Society

For Chinese Regime, Suicide In Hong Kong Is An Act Of Terrorism

If someone is unhappy, that's one thing. But if a city is unhappy, that means something very different.

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong

-Analysis-

HONG KONG — On the evening of July 1, outside the Sogo Department Store in Hong Kong, Leung Kin-fai stabbed a police officer from behind with a knife and later killed himself. The incident was described as a "local lone wolf terrorist attack" by authorities. According to Ming Pao, a local newspaper, Leung, a man in his 50s, had no accomplices and wrote a suicide note before the murder, mentioning his dissatisfaction with society and criticizing the brutality of police, who he said harbor criminals and are not subject to checks and balances. Further, he expressed his belief that "freedom has been lost" after the implementation of the Hong Kong National Security Law. The police have not yet released the full contents of the suicide note.

According to the theory of French sociologist David Émile Durkheim, such acts are classified as fatalistic suicides. Durkheim argued that when a society over-regulates individual life and even suffocates people with repression, then there are bound to be suicides as the only outlet to escape this control. But has Hong Kong reached this point of desperation?

Even wearing black clothes is considered a political statement

In the past two years, Hong Kong's government has indeed become increasingly suppressive, and the situation has taken a sharp turn for the worse ever since the enactment of the National Security Law in 2020, with most civil movement leaders either fleeing or being detained as freedom of speech is severely curtailed. This April, pollster Gallup released its Global Happiness Index, which ranked Hong Kong 113th in terms of freedom of choice in life, lower than mainland China or Taiwan; it's worth mentioning that Hong Kong ranked 66th in this index in 2019. In other words, Hong Kongers are becoming more depressed and pessimistic. If someone is unhappy, they could try changing their environment or leaving the source of pain; but if a city is unhappy, is forbidden to speak out and cannot complain, its residents would only die or explode in silence.

This theory might also explain other suicidal attacks in China, with citizens retaliating against government officials for unfair treatment and injustices. The Chinese government is, of course, sensitive to those issues, but hardly counts those incidents as terrorism attacks. In the Chinese understanding of national security, attacks that target government agencies, police and military are defined as terrorist activities.

On the other hand, Chinese state media often combines violent terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism (referred to as the Three Forces) in narratives, so the fight against terrorism is in fact the same as eliminating those three forces. The terrorist attack on July 28, 2014 in Xinjiang is a typical example: A group of armed Uyghurs attacked the government and police stations and burned cars along the way, resulting in 37 civilian deaths. 59 Uyghurs involved in the attack were shot. 215 others were arrested and evidence of "terrorism" including "jihad" flags were seized.

A 2017 anti-terrorism drill in China's Henan Province —Photo: Wang Zirui / SIPA Asia / ZUMA

The separatist movement in Xinjiang has a long history, but it is only recently that it was labeled as terrorism. After 9/11, the Chinese government used the U.S.-initiated international counterterrorism mechanism to officially classify the Xinjiang independence movement as terrorism, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of the crackdown on Xinjinag and reducing external criticism of China's handling of the region. However, from 2001 to 2013, even though there were many attacks orchestrated by Xinjiang independence activists, the Chinese government did not act much to put an end to the independence movement other than just monitoring and handling the attacks. It was not until 2014, when a number of major terrorist attacks took place in various parts of China by such activists, that the government began to establish the Xinjiang Vocational Skills Education and Training Camps.

So how would the Chinese government tackle suicidal attacks like the one in Hong Kong? Take for example the series of self-immolations by Tibetans since 2009. Most of those who set themselves on fire are lamas and nuns, but also quite a few are peasants. Although such incidents are occasionally mentioned in state media, not all were reported or confirmed. The administration has taken a relatively conservative approach to the self-immolations, blaming them on the Dalai clique, but not publicly labeling them as terrorism.

Back in Hong Kong, the context is naturally different from that of Xinjiang and Tibet, but the authorities have already been treating attacks on the government as "local terrorism" and defined its meaning as secession. As a result, all those who support Leung Kin-fai are being recognized as supporters for secession and have become government targets. Officials are now on high-alert for similar attacks on police, with all mourning activities for Leung regarded as support for terrorist activities. Even wearing black clothes is considered a political statement.

In today's context of rule under the National Security Law in Hong Kong, when a tragedy of fatalistic suicide happens, it is undoubtedly the biggest outbreak of conflict between the powerful and the powerless. What is worrisome is that this incident might not be the end of it.

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Society

Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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