‘I’ve never felt Chinese in the first place’ – Hong Kong Identity and What Comes Next

From the top of Victoria Peak, you are afforded perhaps the greatest view Hong Kong has to offer. The first thing you notice through the flora is the mass of skyscrapers on the Island itself. It was ceded to the British Empire following the First Opium War in 1842. Turn your gaze northward across Victoria Bay (I’m sure the colonial influence here isn’t lost on you) and you spy the urban sprawl through Kowloon – ceded following the Second Opium War in 1860. Further north still are the New Territories, and turning west or south reveals the Outlying Islands; the tropical beauties of Lantau and Lamma were ceded in 1898 along with the other islands and all land south of the Chinese border at the Sham Chun River. There’s a lot for Hong Kongers to be proud of inside their little territory. Not that they’ve ever been able to own it.

Image courtesy of Toby Emerson © 2015, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Toby Emerson © 2015, some rights reserved.

Perhaps this should be obvious. Hong Kong, once part of China, was seized from the Qing Empire due to British imperial trade needs. In 1997, it was returned to China, the handover marking the end of Britain’s Empire. But this China was different. The Qing Empire, too, had fallen, to be replaced with the Chinese communist regime. And neither were Hong Kong’s residents the same Chinese ‘farmers, fisherfolk, and pirates’[1] that had once inhabited Hong Kong. The consequences of British colonial rule – a capitalist, free market system, basic liberties and freedoms, and rule of law – had changed them. No longer were these people Chinese: they were Hong Kongers. They were distinct from both Britain and China. When Hong Kong was passed from a colonial overlord to a communist authoritarian one, Hong Kongers were left out of the deal.

Here, again, is the sad predicament of unrepresented peoples. Under Hong Kong’s current system, there is little representation for Hong Kongers. Even basic liberties of universal suffrage – promised under Article 45 and 68 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law regarding elections for the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council respectively  – have not been achieved. They don’t look particularly forthcoming either. Beijing’s bill to supposedly fulfil Article 45 allowed only candidates approved by a nominating body  (which just happened to be vastly pro-Beijing) and the failure of this motion thanks to political stunts has allowed Beijing to claim that Hong Kong clearly doesn’t want democracy – never mind that those opposed argued it didn’t fulfil requirements set down in the Basic Law, and that the massive Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests managed to attract hundreds of thousands of participants, with support extending far wider amongst the population.

In 2047, Hong Kong will become a part of China proper, shedding its Special Administrative Region status, and losing any protections secured in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. This should probably be pretty worrying. Given the extent to which China has flouted the terms of the Joint Declaration and the ensuing Basic Law thus far, there is little reason to hope Hong Kong will stay the same post-2047, or that the rights of Hong Kongers will be respected. Polls from HKU show increasing numbers of people identifying as Hong Kongers, whilst those identifying as Chinese are falling – they’re already outstripped by those primarily identifying as ‘Asians’ or ‘global citizens’, with Hong Konger the largest identity[2]. Already Beijing has attempted to dismantle this growing Hong Konger identity, whether this be through increasing Chinese migration, the attempt to impose a ‘patriotic education curriculum’, or through their instance that ‘judges must love China’ – a process which has been dubbed ‘mainlandisation’[3].

Take a stroll down to Tsim Sha Tsui to visit the Hong Kong Story exhibit in the Hong Kong Museum of History and you’ll see a prime example of ‘mainlandisation’. The exhibit – discussing the history of the city – describes in heavy hyperbole the achievements of Mainlanders, who ‘gave their all to make Hong Kong the international metropolis that it is today’, ignoring entirely the efforts of the British and – more significantly – native Hong Kongers. Indeed, in an exhibit dedicated to Hong Kong, not one mention is made of a Hong Kong identity. Instead a ‘them-and-us’ attitude is offered, with Hong Kong firmly depicted as ‘part of…China’, the handover depicted as a return ‘to the motherland’ – never mind again that the ‘motherland’ was distorted beyond recognition when the communists took charge. The entire exhibit – funded by the Hong Kong Government, which, coincidently, is unrepresentatively largely pro-Beijing – ignores the idea of Hong Kong identity. Having a (at least perceived) separate national identity does not necessarily mean that one should have one’s own country. It isn’t enough, but it’s a start. Beijing knows this, and has tried to prevent a Hong Kong national identity from emerging. It knows a precedent here only encourages China’s other ethnic minorities, such as Tibet, to rise up and claim the same.

But Hong Kong is different, and Hong Kongers are different. And perhaps there’s a degree of xenophobia going on here – there’s definitely an anti-Mainlander vibe in Hong Kong, and this is a separate problem – but this is important.

So what are the options? There is a movement for separatism and an independent Hong Kong state. There’s wider support for Hong Kong as an ‘autonomous city-state…merging the British culture with a restored Chinese culture’[4]. A scarcer sight – but one that does exist – is support for a return to British rule, perhaps as an overseas territory; at least Britain supported democracy through Patten’s reforms and the Joint Declaration, even if it did take them 150 years. Of course, all are exceedingly unlikely. The separatist discussion is, itself, illegal[5]. Many Hong Kongers prefer stability to change, especially economic stability – it’s one of the major reasons for end of the Occupy Central protests. Besides, can anyone actually see China allowing any of this?

From prohibiting Hong Kongers’ input into the Joint Declaration[6] to the tear gas used against civilians in the more recent protests, Beijing has made clear its desire to bring Hong Kong back into the fold. The ‘one country, two systems’ principle was not designed to allow for two identities, and under the current trajectory this is going to cause problems. The increasing political awareness and engagement in Hong Kong, in addition to the rising Hong Konger identification, China will have a lot on its plate to get Hong Kong into a place where it can assimilated into the PRC-proper in 2047.

Forgive the literary cliché, but writer Paul Theroux summed it up well when he said that ‘the people of Hong Kong are criticised for only being interested in business, but it’s the only thing they’ve been allowed to do’. Hong Kongers were created out of a unique circumstance, and those driving circumstances have never allowed them to govern for themselves. Maybe it’s time for them to have a go at it.

[1] Carroll, J.M. (2013) A Concise History of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, p.10

[2] HKU POP releases latest survey on Hong Kong people’s ethnic identity, accessed: https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/release/release1150.html

[3] Wong, E. and Wong, A. (2014) ‘Seeking Identity, ‘Hong Kong People’ Look to City, Not State’, The New York Times, 7th October, accessed: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/08/world/asia/hong-kong-people-looking-in-mirror-see-fading-chinese-identity.html?_r=0

[4] Chin, W. (2013) in Chang, P. ‘Will a democratic China harm Hong Kong’, South China Morning Post, 10th June, accessed: http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1256939/will-democratic-china-harm-hong-kong

[5] Lai, C. (2007) Media in Hong Kong: Press Freedom and Political Change, 1967–2005, Taylor & Francis, p.83

[6] Patten, C. (1999) East and West: China, Power, and the Future of Asia, Crown, p.32