A new crop of symbols has emerged in Hong Kong’s protests in recent weeks: swastikas and the term “Chinazi.”
At a demonstration earlier this month, when protesters marched to the US consulate to urge Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a red flag with yellow stars arranged in the shape of a swastika was hung from a bridge, as the flags of Hong Kong and China fluttered overhead.
At another major march a week later (Sep. 15), one of the most widely seen posters was that of the “Chinazi” flag. Local pro-democracy party People Power also set up a small stage at the start of the march, putting up a banner that cast chief executive Carrie Lam as an unmistakable Hitler, giving her a the label “Butcher Carrie” against a backdrop of yellow swastikas.
And this Sunday (Sep. 29)—coinciding with the 80th anniversary of the divvying up of occupied Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union—Hong Kongers are scheduled to host a large protest, alternately dubbed the “Global Anti-Totalitarianism March” and the “Global Anti-Chinazi March,” alongside dozens of cities around the world. Ahead of the march, organizers have shared a series of graphics on the event’s Telegram channel to explain the term “Chinazi,” drawing comparisons between, for example, the Holocaust’s concentration camps and China’s internment camps in Xinjiang.
Making comparisons to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust has long been a sensitive issue. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis committed one of the worst atrocities ever in human history, orchestrating a state-sponsored genocide that led to the murder of millions of Jews.
Yet Nazi comparisons appear to be a growing trend, as people—including heads of state—seem more ready than ever to label an opponent “worse than Hitler” or say something is “like Nazi Germany.” Last month, Chinese state media likened Hong Kong’s protests to the Holocaust, when it shared a post castigating the protesters written in the style of a famous poem by Martin Niemöller, the anti-Nazi German pastor who openly opposed Adolf Hitler and was sent to concentration camps. Chinese state media has also called Hong Kong’s protesters “Blacknazi.”
Comparing China to Nazi Germany in fact predates Hong Kong’s protests, and traces its roots back to a book published last year, titled Nazi China, by the exiled Chinese writer Yu Jie, who is also the author of a biography of the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate and activist Liu Xiaobo.
To some critics, comparing current events to the Nazis and the Holocaust risks diverting focus from present matters.
“…[A]s challenging and troubling as the situation is today for everyone in Hong Kong, thankfully it is not objectively comparable to what occurred under the Nazis, which included the state-planned, mass genocide of 6 million Jews, or approximately two-thirds of all European Jews at the time. Nazi Germany also murdered millions of others, including Roma, Sinti, gay men, the physically and mentally handicapped,” wrote Glen Steinman, co-chairman of the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre, in a statement to Quartz. “Such comparisons can dilute messaging on the very substantial issues Hong Kong must address.”
Steinman added that it would be “much more constructive for everyone on both sides of Hong Kong’s political divide to focus on resolving the major problems at hand through positive action instead of resorting to irrelevant comparisons and dehumanizing descriptions of each other.” Throughout the protests, the police and Chinese state media have called Hong Kong protesters “cockroaches,” and protesters regularly refer to police as “dogs.”
Seeing swastikas around Hong Kong can be an unsettling experience. History professor Noah Shusterman, who is Jewish and a Hong Kong resident, identifies himself as a supporter of the protests and their five demands, but said he was “never comfortable with the ‘Chinazi’ language.”
Others, however, see a time and place for Holocaust comparisons. Writing in the Times of Israel newspaper, Deborah Fripp, president of the Teach the Shoah Foundation, noted that “a well-placed comparison to the Holocaust can be a call-to-action, can help to highlight bias and create change.”
In August, for example, an Australian lawmaker compared the West’s approach to China to France’s failure to hold back Nazi Germany. His comments were condemned by Beijing, and the Australian prime minister attempted to distance himself from the remarks.
Still, many Hong Kong protesters see the Nazi comparisons as necessary. One protester who identified himself as Johnson, and who is an administrator in the public Telegram group for Sunday’s “anti-Chinazi march” said in an interview conducted over the messaging app that he understood concerns over the use of the term “Chinazi,” but that “the atrocities committed by the [Chinese Communist Party] may be greater than you originally thought of.”
“Making this term ‘Chinazi’ is to send a warning to the world: if we do not stop the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), the deaths and the tragedies will probably keep happening,” he said. “The victims may not only be the Chinese people, the Hongkongers, the Taiwanese, but may be you. The history of German Nazi may repeat itself.”
Yet protesters announced at a self-organized press conference yesterday (Sep. 25) that they had decided to drop the term “Chinazi” after receiving feedback from “various Western audiences” that the word is “highly inappropriate,” and “may trigger an immediate negative reaction about the Hong Kong protesters.”
This being a leaderless movement, however, it’s difficult to foresee how widely the announcement will be heeded. As of today (Sept. 26), Nazi imagery was still being deployed, with material featuring swastikas, the Chinazi term, and comparisons between China and the Holocaust still being shared on Telegram groups.