Hong Kong's Enduring Identity Crisis

16 years after the territory reverted to Chinese sovereignty, its residents feel increasingly uneasy with Beijing's rule.
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People rest at a waterfront in Kowloon peninsula, opposite Hong Kong island. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, expectations were high—in Beijing and among the pro-mainland forces in Hong Kong—that identification with the Chinese nation would slowly but surely strengthen among the local population, especially among the younger generations, eventually solving the problem of Hong Kong’s full integration into China. Once the colonial education system ceased poisoning young minds, it was thought, future generations would embrace the worldview and politics favored in Beijing. However, 16 years later the situation is very different. It is precisely the younger generations, the ones educated after the handover, who are most hostile to the mainland and its local advocates. A June 2013 poll, the latest in a series released every six months, shows that identification with Hong Kong has even increased since the handover: today, 62 percent of the population identify primarily with Hong Kong and 38 percent exclusively. More surprisingly, the proportion is 84.3 percent among the 18 to 29 group (of which 55.8 percent identify exclusively with Hong Kong).

While supporters of political independence remain a tiny minority, for an overwhelming fraction of younger Hongkongers identification with the nation (even the “cultural nation”) is less significant than it is for the colonial generation, and an absolute majority of young people identify exclusively with Hong Kong. Such an evolution does not bode well for Beijing’s “trust” that Hongkongers will cast the “correct” ballot if granted universal suffrage. Indeed, a series of events that took place around the commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown suggests the current evolution may be even more deep-reaching.

The new generation may be growing more aware of a contradiction between patriotic and democratic values.

The connection between Hong Kong and the 1989 popular uprising in China has always been a strong and complex one, rich in meaning for both Hong Kong and mainland China. The inception of student and worker protests in the spring of 1989 in Beijing and other cities provided a much-needed chance for Hongkongers to identify with a political ideal shared with mainland “compatriots” (as Hong Kong “leftists” like to call them). For Hong Kong, eight years before its handover to Chinese sovereignty, it briefly suggested the possibility of a harmonious decolonization in which both China and Hong Kong might finally gain democratic institutions together.

Conversely, the bloody repression of the movement marked the beginning of the crisis of confidence between Hong Kong and the mainland government, which entailed an ongoing population exodus from Hong Kong throughout the 1990s and paved the way to the protest movements of 2003 (when half a million people took to the streets against National Security legislation proposed by Beijing), a turning point for the emancipation of civil society in Hong Kong. June 4 is therefore a kind of foundational day in Hong Kong, religiously commemorated by a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park every year, during which patriotic songs are sung (including several rather bloodthirsty ones such as “Xueran de Fengcai,” or “Blood-Stained Grandeur,” originally a People’s Liberation Army song to commemorate the 1979 war with Vietnam) and a form of pan-Chinese communion takes place, complete with video links to 1989 student leaders like Wang Dan (in recent years broadcasting from Taipei), and Ding Zilin (a retired professor whose son died in the crackdown and who organized and leads an informal group of other relatives of victims known as the Tiananmen Mothers). It is of course the only place on Chinese soil where such a vigil can take place, since Tiananmen remains a taboo topic in the People’s Republic of China—the government designates the protests as anti-revolutionary “turmoil” manipulated by “black hands” bent on overthrowing the government. In Hong Kong, however, support for the protesters has always been expressed in patriotic vocabulary. Hongkongers thus make an implicit claim to a different type of “patriotism”—different from the “patriotic education” increasingly incentivized in mainland schools after 1989—as a shared value in China and its Chinese-speaking periphery.

While the number of participants in the Hong Kong vigil has skyrocketed since the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Protests in 2009, including growing numbers of young students, the controversy that erupted this year around the slogan proposed by the organizers is significant of a tide change in Hong Kong, and perhaps to an extent in China. The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic Patriotic Movements of China, which organizes the vigils every year, proposed as this year’s slogan “Love the country, love the people; the Hong Kong spirit.” This initiative was probably a reaction to 

recent debates in Hong Kong on “patriotism”: in the current debate on whether Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive is finally to be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, Beijing has made “patriotism” a vetting criterion for candidates (the idea, voiced by National People’s Congress official Qiao Xiaoyang, is ultimately derived from Deng Xiaoping’s formula ai guo ai Gang (愛國愛港), “love the country, love Hong Kong,” in which love of country comes before love of Hong Kong). The wording chosen by the Alliance was supposed to highlight once more that opposing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and commemorating the dead students, workers, and Beijing citizens of 1989 was just as, or more patriotic than, the official denial the Party still clings to.

However, this year, for the first time, the very idea of patriotism was publicly disputed by increasingly vocal “nativist” or “localist” groups usually referred to as bentupai (“home-soil faction”). Their most vocal proponent, the pro-autonomy cultural commentator and academic who goes by the pen-name Chan Wan (also known by the official English transliteration of his name, Horace Chin Wan-kan) berated the organizers for their blind patriotism. Splinter supporters (though not Chan himself) called for a separate vigil in Kowloon. When the Alliance sought support for their slogan from Ding Zilin—representing the Tiananmen Mothers—she chastised the “autonomists” but called the term “patriotism” inappropriate, noting that the Tiananmen mothers do not use it. Ding criticized the Alliance for misunderstanding the situation in China. Understanding how politically unwise it was to cling to this term, the Alliance rapidly dropped the slogan and apologized to Ding. In the end, the effect on the turnout was minimal (a slight decline in participants was probably due to a violent rainstorm). The separate event in Kowloon was only attended by a few hundred people; Chan Wan wrathfully lashed out at the “altar of demons” in Victoria Park. Ding’s reply raises questions about the status of patriotism (or the identification with the Chinese nation-state) in current political controversies both in Hong Kong and in mainland China. Does the questioning of patriotic dogma point to a shift in the political identity of Hong Kong? Can it portend a greater diversity of voices within China?

One obvious reason why the Alliance’s slogan, designed to inflect patriotism toward the “people” and away from the state, proved controversial this year, is the anti-National Education protests that took place in Hong Kong in the Summer of 2012 (see Karita Kan’s essay in China Perspectives, 2012/4). Anti-mainland populist rhetoric had proliferated in Hong Kong throughout the Spring of 2012, focusing on the “invasion” of unruly mainland tourist-shoppers and on pregnant mothers unlawfully giving birth in Hong Kong to obtain rights of permanent Hong Kong residency for their children. These frustrations were amusingly captured in the viral clip “Who’s Stolen Our Dreams?” (a spoof of the government-sponsored video “Believe in Our Dreams”). Protests escalated after the founding of Scholarism, a non-partisan group led by high-school students and their parents, who organized a widely attended protest march on July 29, 2012 opposing “brainwashing.” This in turn prompted particularly unfortunate comments on the personal blog of the Central Liaison Office (C.L.O.—Beijing’s official representation in Hong Kong) official Hao Tiechuan, to the effect that brains, like dirty laundry, sometimes needed washing, and that such “brainwashing” was widely practiced in other countries. The C.L.O. may represent Beijing in Hong Kong, but is not supposed to intervene in local politics. Hao’s remarks, intervening directly in a question of school curricula, were therefore seen by pan-democrats but also a wide swath of the general public as a renewed breach of this institutional separation guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law (its mini-constitution). The government unconditionally withdrew the project on the eve of Hong Kong’s legislative elections, in which pro-Beijing forces scored a limited success.

The anti-National Education movement was the culmination of deeper shifts in Hong Kong society. Despite how Beijing might have expected a policy like this one to play out in a post-colonial Hong Kong, its escalation of patriotic rhetoric produced a backlash among the generations born in the 1980s and 1990s, who are increasingly critical of or even hostile to mainland China.

While the nativist faction has been gaining traction over the last five years, its political branch, the Hong Kong City-State Autonomy Movement (H.K.A.M.—which circulated a Petition for the Independence of Hong Kong), came to the fore only in the wake of the anti-National Education movement. Chan Wan, originally an obscure academic specializing in Cantonese folklore, emerged as the cultural guru of these “autonomists.” Calling themselves the “right wing” of the localist movement, they use strong anti-mainland rhetoric targeted at Chinese tourists and simplified characters (the simplified writing system introduced in the mainland in 1958, rejected by many in Hong Kong and Taiwan, who maintain the older Chinese characters), and wave an adapted version of Hong Kong’s colonial flag (without the Union Jack background).

For Chan Wan, Cantonese culture represents the essence of a Chinese-ness that he feels has been corrupted by CCP rule on the mainland. In many respects, Chan Wan can himself be seen as a nationalist. His attacks on mainland-Chinese, whom he calls “strong-country people” (強國人) are tinged with xenophobia. In an interview with i-Sun Affairs, he underscores his interest in Daoism, martial arts, and Mao’s guerrilla tactics, and his long-standing diffidence toward Western democracy despite his hostility to communism (his father fled China during the Anti-Rightist movement). He is attached to the Greater Chinese traditions he sees as being preserved in Hong Kong, including a more pure Chinese language. After six months in the Hong Kong civil service, he resigned because of a directive to use the vernacular, rather than classical Chinese, in written correspondence. As Lewis Dada, a blogger of the post-80s generation, points out in the iSun Affairs article, Chan Wan is still a prisoner of the old patriotic rhetoric devised by the colonial generation.

While one should not over-estimate the political traction of groups counting at most a few thousands members, the sympathy they arouse among the post-80s and post-90s is changing the political landscape in Hong Kong. There are parallels with the evolution of Taiwan and the rise of a “native soil” faction on the island in the 1980s, in conjunction with the anti-Kuomintang (KMT) democracy movement. In Taiwan, too, the push for democratization after Chiang Kai-shek’s death came together with a strong critique of the “central Chinese culture” imposed by the KMT when it retreated to the island after 1949, incarnated by the elites who monopolized economic resources and political power.

Hong Kong’s tycoons, too, remain generally anchored on the pro-Beijing wing of the political spectrum (though some do not support the current Chief Executive). Many of them belong to families with old ties to the mainland (namely Shanghai and Guangdong), just as the pro-mainland faction in Taiwan remains driven by an alliance of businessmen with interests in China and by descendents of KMT families from the mainland. Hostility to these pro-Chinese tycoons and their monopoly of Hong Kong real estate has further fuelled nativism. The localist movement thus also has a “left-wing” branch, which emphasizes a utopian, anti-capitalist return to the rural origins of Hong Kong and opposes anti-mainland rhetoric. Both Scholarism and the newer Occupy Central (a movement founded by two professors and a Catholic priest advocating civil disobedience to press for Universal Suffrage in 2017) highlight the link between Hong Kong’s specific history—rather than its cultural characteristics—and its aspiration to democracy, not rejecting its connection with China but seeking to redefine it within a democratic, universal framework.

Opinion polls underscore this shift in Hongkongers’ perceptions of their identity. The Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme at Hong Kong University has been exploring the question of how Hongkongers have self-identifed since the 1997 handover. Although the ratio between those who define themselves primarily as “Hongkongers” (Hong Kong person/香港人 or Chinese Hong Kong person/中國的香港人) and those who identify mainly as “Chinese” (Chinese/中國人 or Hong Kong Chinese person/香港的中國人) has fluctuated quite strongly in line with current events, primary identification with Hong Kong rose throughout 2011, which prompted more vicious attacks from C.L.O. official Hao TiechuanChina Daily, which translated Hao’s remarks in December 2011, called the idea of asking Hong Kongers about their identity “illogical” and “unscientific”:

As Mr Hao put it flatly, the apparent objective of this survey was to play “identity politics” by paralleling Hong Kong people and Chinese citizens. Since it is a false proposition, the concomitant findings are therefore pointless and totally worthless. The reason is clear: Hong Kong is an integral part of China since the 1997 handover. The city is China’s special administrative region rather than an independent political entity. So Hong Kongers are without doubt Chinese. If Chung still has any more doubt about whether Hong Kongers are Chinese, he may ask himself a question like this one: do you think you are a Chinese or a British national after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty?

But primary identification as Hongkongers vs as Chinese hit another all-time high in June 2012 at 68 percent to 30 percent, compared with 60 percent to 39 percent at the time of the handover and 47 percent to 52 percent in June 2008 just before the Olympics, although it has slightly receded since. While Beijing may choose to close its eyes to it, the shift in Hongkongers’ self-understanding (which mirrors what took place in Taiwan) is real. The end of the resistance to colonialism may have paradoxically weakened the feeling of cultural belonging to the Chinese nation. Simultaneously, a new resistance to Beijing’s fixation on patriotism emerged. Most importantly, however, the new generation may be growing more aware of a contradiction between patriotic and democratic values. Throughout the twentieth century, democratic aspirations have repeatedly been linked in China with support for local identities and critiques of a centralized, monolithic (usually authoritarian) Chinese nation.

During the National Education protests in Hong Kong, this resulted in much discussion in citizen forums of Juergen Habermas’ notion of constitutional patriotism (verfassungspatriotismus)—the idea that one should be loyal not to one’s nation on the basis of ethnicity or belonging, but to universal values enshrined in its constitution—and whether it is possible to take pride in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Similarly, in an article entitled “Reflecting on Chen Duxiu in the midst of the patriotism controversy,” local academic An Tu proposed a distinction between “ethnic patriotism” based on the collective, and “constitutional patriotism” based on the individual. Opponents to the “ai guo ai min” slogan proposed by the Alliance can accordingly be divided between those who oppose commemorating June 4 in the name of de-Sinicization (qu Zhongguo hua, 去中國化), or nativists, and those who oppose patriotic rhetoric because they connect June 4 to “universal values” (pushi jiazhi, 普世價值). Unsurprisingly, Chan Wan can be grouped with the former, having come out with a strong critique of universal values. For An Tu, on the other hand, the 1989 democracy movement exemplifies individual-based “constitutional patriotism.” In a different but related vein, in a comment entitled “Stick to commemorating June 4, but also desinicize,” Hung Ho-fung called to reflect on the “loyal vassal” (zhongchen, 忠臣) mentality associated with “patriotism” and valued in Chinese tradition, which also appeared in 1989 when students knelt on the steps of the People’s Hall to present a petition. The increasingly individualistic values expressed in the massive July 1 marches in Hong Kong (several hundred thousand protesters this year) similarly point to a more critical type of citizenship. While the march, which takes place on the day commemorating the handover, began as a protest against repressive National Security legislation in 2003, it has evolved towards a forum for the expression of identity protests ranging from the status of domestic workers, LGBT-rights, student groups, anti-capitalist splinter parties, cultural movements, etc. For Hong Kong, these trends all seem to point to a trajectory diverging from mainland China.

To what extent then can these trends nonetheless be connected with developments on the mainland? After 30 years of stepped-up patriotic education in China, how developed is the critique of the “loyal vassal” mentality beyond Hong Kong? Returning to the June 4 vigil, the growing numbers of mainland students from Hong Kong, but also Chinese universities across the border taking part in the commemoration, as well as Ding Zilin’s spirited critique of the Alliance, suggest the evidence is mixed. While the central government has been continually stepping up “patriotic education” since 1989, a fraction of the post-80s are undeniably challenging this discourse within China itself, not least on Weibo.

This was recently demonstrated by Yuan Yulai’s viral endorsement of the idea that criticism of one’s country is patriotic and by Han Han’s attacks on anti-Japanese vandalism. A particularly interesting essay by a mainland student was widely circulated during the anti-National Education protests, which drove home the significance of Hong Kong’s movement for China. The student, who describes herself as an ordinary person without money, power, or connections, argues that although Chinese students have long stopped believing in their national education classes, mouthing the words and seeing their teachers mouth the words has bred a culture of bowing to power and vested interests, of “living in lies”:

As soon as we entered school, we could see from the teacher’s sheer presence that, for the sake of the power vested in national education, it was permissible to abandon reality, to abandon truth, to abandon one’s conscience, to speak falsehoods as one chose, and to take pride in them, to use them as a way of obtaining advantages… When we look at present-day Chinese society, in which, in order to obtain money or power, it is permissible to sell your conscience, in which there are no moral red lines, in which anything goes, we may think that perhaps, it stems not only from the inexhaustible pursuit of profit brought about by the marketization of the economy, but also has some kind of connection to this “national education” that we brush off as sheer nonsense, or as ridiculous, some connection with the feeling it has instilled in us that telling lies is of no consequence whatsoever.
At the end, the author expresses emotion at seeing the words “cries in an iron house” on a banner at the demonstrations in front of Hong Kong government headquarters. The expression refers to a preface written in 1923 by Lu Xun, China's most famous early-20th-century writer, in which he says that literature’s effect on society is akin to shouting to wake people who are asleep in an iron box. It can make its readers aware of their plight, but it can’t free them. Today, the student concludes, Chinese people are no longer asleep and numb, but, worse, pretend to be asleep to ignore the cries.
National education classes produce not slaves of the Party, but slaves of power and profit. National education classes shape not the deep sleepers in the iron house, but people who pretend to be asleep. One always finds a way to awaken deep sleepers. But, there is no way that you can ever hope to awaken people pretending to be asleep!
This reference to Lu Xun brings us back to May 4 times and Chen Duxiu’s early doubts about nationalism, discussed more recently by Chinese intellectuals like Xu Jilin. As Chang Ping wrote during the protests in “Resistance As National Education,” it also reminds us that the nationalism that can be observed at the surface of Chinese society may hide deeper undercurrents of discontent, in which the acts of resistance define new forms of identification and of collective organization.

This post first appeared at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.

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Sebastian Veg is a Research Professor (Directeur d’Études) at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Science, Paris. 

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