What it means to be “Chinese” in Hong Kong
I’ve taken great interest in a couple of stories recently which are exposing well-formed – but for many, unseen – cracks between the Mainland and Hong Kong. The first one is this: luxury retailer Dolce & Gabbana found themselves thrust onto the front pages of Hong Kong (and international) newspapers after refusing to allow Hong Kong customers to take photos of the Hong Kong store, but apparently allowed Mainland shoppers to snap away. The second one is on growing concerns over the increasing number of Mainland women who are coming into Hong Kong and giving birth, thus ensuring their offspring have Hong Kong right-of-abode.
Then there’s this one, reported today in the Washington Post:
Fifteen years after taking back Hong Kong amid a blaze of fireworks and patriotic fervor, China is battling what it sees as a subversive challenge: an academic survey showing that many in this former British colony identify little with China.
The survey, conducted last month by the University of Hong Kong, found that the number of respondents who view themselves as Hong Kongers is more than double the number who see themselves as Chinese and that bonds of shared identity with the mainland have grown weaker since Britain relinquished control in 1997.
Infuriated by the results, Chinese officials have orchestrated a campaign of denunciation — the latest blast in a barrage of verbal and written broadsides against alleged disloyalty in Hong Kong.
Chinese officials are primarily incensed because the trend is going the wrong way. Conventional thinking has always been the longer Hong Kong is part of China, the more Chinese it, and its people, will become. You can’t really blame Chinese officials for reaching such a conclusion. Having spent four years toiling in China’s state-run media machine, I’m well accustomed to ensuring we refer to the territory as “China Hong Kong”, “Chinese Hong Kong”, “Hong Kong SAR”, etc. I’ve been at CCTV when we’ve showed video of the spectacular National Day fireworks over Victoria Harbour, hosts giddy with excitement over how Hong Kong people are elated to once again be part of the motherland.
This propaganda is dangerous, because many Mainland people may believe it. If so, they may come down here expecting to be in, well, Shanghai. It’s just another of China’s glitzy cities where they can speak Putonghua, shop, and eat local treats, right? Maybe not. I won’t be breaking any new ground by saying Hong Kong is different; I’m sure that’s already understood. But I’m not sure people in China – and this goes for locals and expats – realize the degree to which Hong Kong people consider themselves different, and why they do.
It’s not that Hong Kong people don’t feel “Chinese”; in fact, there are some who claim Hong Kong is more Chinese than the Mainland, because it was spared Mao and his destructive Cultural Revolution. There are wedding traditions, funeral customs, and even holidays celebrated here that are no longer part of regular tradition north of the Lo Wu border. In other words, Hong Kong people celebrate their Chineseness and are proud of it, but they don’t like the connotations that come with the phrase “Chinese”. If somebody is “Chinese”, it generally means they come from China, and China isn’t one big monolithic entity. Thus, Hong Kong people feel the need to point out they aren’t just Chinese, but they are Hong Kong Chinese.
Why is this? Let’s start with history. The longer I’ve been in Hong Kong, the more people I’ve met who had ancestors who belonged to the KMT, or fled China at great personal risk during the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. One former colleague’s family lost everything in the 1970s, and that memory is a bitter one. These people came to Hong Kong to be free (relatively, in comparison), make money, and be left alone by the government. What lingers, even decades later, is a deep mistrust of the Mainland and its current regime, which filters down to mistrust of people in China. There are people in Hong Kong who are amazed that I will take a taxi in Shenzhen by myself, lest something untoward happen to me. Part of this is sheer ignorance, but part of it stems from a real fear of China that has been passed down through the generations, through no fault of their own. It’s just not safe there.
Hong Kong’s unique history – and its spectacular achievements as both as a British crown colony and an SAR – has also led to a high degree of well-earned pride. For generations, Cantonese people have gone out and formed China towns around the world with a distinct Hong Kong flair. Hong Kong is free and open, with a free press, fair and transparent institutions, an independent legal system. The World Economic Forum named Hong Kong the most important financial centre in the world in December, the first time an Asian city has received such an honour. Global companies have emerged from this small collection of islands: Shangri-la Hotels, Cathay Pacific, the MTR Corporation, Swire, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Hutchison Port Holdings, and more. This was all done through the disciplined work of a few million people in a city that has never really felt it belonged anywhere.
People here have gotten rich (and many haven’t, which is a topic for another day) and found success. But it’s a different kind of success than China is having. Hong Kong has largely kept its civility intact: corruption here is exceedingly rare (largely thanks to the ICAC), people are generally polite (cha chaan teng wait staff not included), people say sorry if they bump into you, people line up for the metro, I could go on. This is in a city that is much more densely populated, stressed-out, high-strung, and fast-paced than either Beijing or Shanghai. Let me put it another way, based on information from my previous job with Hong Kong’s rail operator: if a person commits suicide in front of an MTR train in Hong Kong, service is stopped and crews try and rescue the person who attempted to take his/her own life. If the same happens in the Mainland, chances are the trains will continue operating normally with no suspension. The attitude in the Mainland is,