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, why stop traffic for one person? It’s a difference of priorities, but shines light on the differing value structures. There is no way to say for certain, but chances are what happened to Yueyue, the 2-year old girl who was run over in Foshan and ignored by 18 passers-by, wouldn’t happen here.
These aren’t racial differences because most Mainland people and Hong Kong people are Han Chinese. It’s based on socialization and the vastly different development of two regions: the Mainland went through decades of violent political turmoil, followed by decades of rapid social upheaval under an authoritarian government. Hong Kong was brought up British with an emphasis on politeness, English-language ability, adherence to western traditions, celebration of western holidays (like Christmas and Easter), and even Christianity (churches seem to be on nearly every block). Hong Kong did go through its own political turmoil in the 1960s, but it was nothing compared to what the people of the Mainland had to endure, in which much of its traditional culture was wiped out.
This brings us to today, where we have two groups of people who are both Chinese, but who come from vastly different backgrounds, in many cases have vastly different belief systems (not to mention languages, which I’ll save for another day), and have vastly different priorities. At a democracy seminar I attended last year, there was talk of a decline in the popularity of democracy because of the mess in Iraq, political gridlock in the United States and decline of Europe. This, in contrast with the rapid growth of China and Russia under more authoritarian systems. Yet the yearning (and annual marching) for democracy continues here unabated as one of the city’s top civic goals, while it’s much further down the list of priorities among Mainland Chinese people.
I once asked a colleague, prior to National Day 2010, if she would go out and celebrate by watching the fireworks. Her reply: “Being part of China is nothing to celebrate!” Another colleague told me point blank he wished dearly that Hong Kong remained British. He said the British weren’t perfect, but Hong Kong was more “civilized” back then. He fears Hong Kong is being “overrun” by the Mainland, and its culture and uniqueness is being diluted. These are the feelings, circulating just under the surface, that gush forth at the tiniest prick. More than one Hong Konger has told me the D&G controversy has less to do with the retailer, and more to do with pent up anger at Mainland Chinese.
Finally, Hong Kong’s experience with the Mainland and people from the Mainland hasn’t exactly been a bowl of cherries. Without going into too many details, the behaviour of Mainland people is now under a microscope. Videos of kids peeing on the MTR, people yelling, and rude shoppers frequently go viral on popular Hong Kong’s BBSs, with many actually making the news. A kid peeing or defecating on a moving train is just as surprising here as it would be if it happened in Edinburgh, and it heightens prejudices when the kid then speaks Putonghua. Even my girlfriend, who is a born-and-raised Beijinger, often recoils in disgust at what she sees her compatriots do. People on Twitter tell me the same is happening all over the world, in places like New York and Singapore and Paris. I’m sure it is, but as Hong Kong is ultimately a part of China, people here sometimes feel more powerless to do anything about it. (To be fair, China does not have a monopoly on rude tourists, but they do get most of the attention in Hong Kong).
Still, it’s not all bad. Hong Kong’s business community welcomes Mainland shoppers with open arms, our fledgling Disneyland wouldn’t survive without the busloads of tourists from the Huanggang border crossing, and Beijing ultimately treats the city pretty well, designating it as an offshore RMB centre and sending many IPOs our way. But like any culture that witnesses an overwhelming influx of outsiders, people here are getting skittish. They are anxious. They don’t want to lose their identity, their language, their heritage. They don’t feel they have anything in common with the people of Mainland China.
Unfortunately, as the University of Hong Kong survey pointed out, the divide between Hong Kong and the Mainland is growing. Mainland people and Hong Kong people rarely circulate in the same peer groups; Mainland Chinese students ripped June 4 memorial posters off the walls of Hong Kong University in 2009 to the astonishment of Hong Kong students. Hong Kong people believe they have earned their money fair and square in a transparent environment, and feel Mainland people have received it through nefarious means in a shady system.
What can be done about it? Well, a first step would be stop trying to make Hong Kong like the rest of China. I often compare Hong Kong to Quebec in Canada. Both places have “distinct societies”, both places have different historical ties, and both places have different languages. Canada made a decision to preserve the uniqueness that is Quebec; China could do the same with Hong Kong.
Secondly, the Chinese government needs to be a bit more nuanced in its management of the territory. Calling the organizer of the aforementioned survey a “slave of black political funding” isn’t going to win friends and influence people. That kind of language hardly works on the Mainland; it makes Hong Kong people feel nauseous. To Beijing’s chagrin, unlike in Tibet and Xinjiang, where it can publish propaganda ad nauseam because it controls the airwaves, Hong Kong is much more free. The principles of an independent media and free speech are deeply rooted here, making winning over the population by force nearly impossible. The carrot will always work better than the stick. Beijing should strive to show China’s best face and make Hong Kong people proud to be a part of it (as they were during the Olympics, when China put on a spectacular show).
Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done regarding rude tourists, be they from China, Germany, the US or elsewhere. Nonetheless, this will continue to adversely affect the way Hong Kongers see China, and themselves.
Finally, I’m surprised sometimes at what some foreigners in the Mainland tell me: Hong Kong people should be speaking Putonghua, they’d “better get used” to being part of China, or worse. Yes, the die has been cast, and Hong Kong will forever remain a part of the People’s Republic. Not even Hong Kongers talk about separation, despite their anxiety over Chinese rule. But is diluting a culture to be celebrated? Is seeing a language drastically decline a good thing? Does anybody care?
Hong Kong people certainly do, and that is why people here feel the need to assert themselves as different.
Like Tibet, or Taiwan, or Xinjiang, China would do best to win over the population through trust, enlightened governance and respect for differences, not by vitriolic propaganda. It would be a good first step towards making Hong Kong people feel more proud to call themselves “Chinese”.