How Identity Politics Overshadowed Hong Kong

Over a decade ago, when I attended a small-group seminar on China in Seoul, the speaker politely insisted that all attendees identify their “country of origin.” One young man paused for around five seconds before affirming that he is from China, but later “clarified” that he is from Hong Kong. A few months later, one of my students claimed in an after-class discussion session that she is from Hong Kong, where people speak a different language and belong to a different culture, compared to “China.”

Both of these individuals seemed to be born in the mid-to-late 1980s, which means they would have more personal, thus more realistic, memories of Hong Kong after the handover to China in 1997, compared to what they may recall from their early childhood about Hong Kong before the handover. What made them feel and insist that they are so “different” from China?

It’s been over a decade since then. In that time, “identity politics” has created more estrangements and disputes worldwide, and the Hong Kong issue has become even more acute. As Heritage Foundation senior fellow Mike Gonzalez put it, “Identity politics is all around us. Whether you know it or not, we are all bathing in it.”

Luckily, I had a chance to talk to Wong Tsz Yuen, a senior reporter at Phoenix TV and a member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong & Macao Studies, who was born in Hong Kong in the 1980s. She explained to me “how identity politics may have overshadowed the legend of Hong Kong.” Here are some excerpts from that interview:

Jin Kai: According to a poll conducted by Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) in early June 2020, 12.6 percent of the respondents identify themselves as “Chinese,” a steep drop from about 40 percent in 2008. By contrast, 75.4 percent of the respondents identify themselves as “Hong Konger + Hong Konger in China,” a significant rise from 47.3 percent in 2008. To what extent do you think we can trust the outcomes of these polls, and what do you think is the primary stimulus behind the drop and rise in polls since 2008?

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Wong Tsz Yuen: I think the result is much related to the poll questions. According to one of the poll questions, it used a dichotomy of “Hong Konger” versus “Chinese” identity and ask interviewees to make a choice among four identities, namely, “Hong Kongers,” “Chinese,” “Chinese in Hong Kong,” and “Hong Kongers in China.” As a result, roughly 50 percent identified themselves as “Hong Kongers,” 13 percent as “Chinese,” 11 percent as “Chinese in Hong Kong” and 25 percent as “Hong Kongers in China.” PORI then concluded that 75 percent identified themselves as “Hong Kongers” in a broad sense (i.e. either as “Hong Kongers” or “Hong Kongers in China”), 24 percent identified themselves as “Chinese” in a broad sense (i.e. either as “Chinese” or “Chinese in Hong Kong”).

However, the identities of “Hong Kongers” and “Chinese” are not opposites and should be considered dual in nature. The questions set in the poll are not professional and rigorous enough. Even if the interviewee has chosen that he is a “Hong Konger,” it does not mean that he doesn’t agree that he is a “Chinese,” so this result is a bit misleading.

If you analyze the result and break it down by ages, the younger the respondents, the more they identify themselves as “Hong Kongers,” and the older the respondents, the higher the rate of identifying themselves as “Chinese.” This is related to the growth background of different age groups and changes in the social environment. Many of the older generations of Hong Kong people were born and raised in mainland China and immigrated to Hong Kong from the mainland, so they will have a stronger national concept. But most of the young respondents were born and raised in Hong Kong, and some have never been to the mainland, so for them, they tend to identify themselves as “Hong Kongers.”

Also, identity recognition is not just cognition of objective facts, but also includes emotional choices and feelings. There are many influencing factors, including where you were born and raised, where you were educated, cultural and language differences, what collective memories and shared values ​​you have, and of course, the effect of social movements, etc. The fear of losing “Hong Kongers’ identity” is making people even more sensitive throughout the past year, and the backlash that followed has even widened divisions among Hong Kong people. But I believe that this feeling may change with time and social environment, so it is a rather abstract concept.

You had participated in many youth exchange programs between Hong Kong and the mainland during your university studies. How would that help to shape the perception of your “identity” regarding cultural recognition — or maybe cultural shock?

Like many of my classmates and friends, I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and before attending those youth exchange programs, I had a lot of misunderstandings and perceptions about the mainland. And since Hong Kong was a city where identity was rooted in worldliness and prosperity, in the past, we tended to have a sense of superiority towards the mainland.

Our generation, or of course the younger ones, tended to take an outsider’s view of China, and sometimes even has degenerated into an “us-against-them” attitude. For examples, some Hong Kongers see Chinese from the mainland as corrupt and dirty, perceiving that they flock to Hong Kong to snap up everything precious, notably hospital beds and apartments. As mainlanders buy apartments in Hong Kong, prices have become difficult to afford, so the conflict is about schools, jobs, then housing, and then life. It is only when you learn together, play together, and make friends with the mainland students from different backgrounds that you try to understand their cultures and change your mind.

Mainland exchange programs provide us with experiential learning opportunities of cultural exchange and short-term class at universities in the mainland China, and these exchanges between Hong Kong and different cities of the mainland have become closer and richer, forming an all-dimensional and wide-ranging communication pattern. These programs also have enhanced our recognition of the country and Chinese culture.

For generations, Hong Kong has been a legendary city in the eyes of many people in the mainland, praising its openness as an international metropolis, prosperity as a world-class trade and finance center, and stunning fashion as a vibrant hub for the entertainment industry. Although Hong Kong is still a vibrant city, the economic achievements of mainland cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen seem to have at least partially overshadowed its original brilliance. Even the local film industry has faced continuous chills as many directors and iconic people in the business have moved to the mainland for more opportunities. As a native and senior reporter in a major media in Hong Kong who constantly travels to the mainland, what are your observation and perception of (the change or evolution of) Hong Kong’s legendary role in people’s eyes from both sides?

Well, mutual perception is always important. On one hand, since economic upheaval and a surge of immigration from the mainland put Hong Kong’s traditional identity under tremendous pressure, many Hong Kongers developed an identity that is more strongly felt as well as narrower and more combative. The identities of Hong Kongers and Chinese, which are complementary, suddenly came to feel exclusive. Besides, one in seven Hong Kong residents is a mainlander who arrived after 1997, and as mainland tourists have multiplied, local Hong Kongers are growing more distrustful of cultural outsiders and scuffles break out easily.

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On the other hand, Hong Kong had a lot of “relative advantages” and “absolute advantages” over the mainland in the past, and mainlanders kind of “looked up” to Hong Kong people. However, economic growth in developed countries and cities are usually slower, and with the rapid economic development of the mainland in recent years, Hong Kong’s “relative advantages” have decreased a lot, and mainlanders’ “looking up” toward Hong Kong has become “looking equally” or even “looking down.” Whether Hong Kongers or mainlanders, people re-shape their identities and politics around a sense of us-versus-them.

Yet, Hong Kong still has a number of advantages over other mainland cities, and I believe it will remain so in the foreseeable future. For examples, a free press, the free flow of information, low taxes and a simple taxation system, a pool of managerial talent with international experience, and ease of access, etc. And most importantly, the legal system, which is trusted, tried, and tested by international business. All these are not easily replaceable by other cities.

In chapter 4 of your newly published book titled “I Grew Up in Identity Perplexity” (《我在身分迷失中成長》), you recalled how people talked and debated over “what has changed and remained unchanged since the return” as the city celebrated the 20th anniversary of its return in 2017. How would you update and comment on the same topic against the background of more recent changes in Hong Kong?

I think most of Hong Kong’s advantages still remain the same. But after the anti-government protests that overwhelmed the city last year, many people are worried, including Hong Kong independence advocates, and wonder where the “two systems” under the “one country, two systems” could remain unchanged after the 50th anniversary of the HKSAR.

Hong Kong used to be an economic city, where people didn’t talk much about politics, but now it is becoming more and more politicized, and Hong Kongers’ identity is becoming a more and more sensitive issue. As a result, “identity crisis” occurs.

Of course, to answer the question of whether “one country, two systems” would remain, we need to know the rationale behind the decision to keep it unchanged for 50 years and whether this rationale has changed, and hence, the real question is with Hong Kong itself. If some people attempt to get rid of “one country” and only keep the “two systems,” with separatists conspiring openly to undermine the mainland’s socialist system, it would be extremely hard to maintain “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong for 50 years.

Let’s look forward. At the end of the day, Hong Kong is a special administrative region, i.e., a part of China. As a “grown-up” despite various concerns and confusion over “identity,” what would be your suggestion for the younger generation (including dissident street demonstrators) in Hong Kong, many of whom are quite pessimistic regarding this city’s future?

Identity crises often start with a loss of status, and strong implicit bias is the result. In Hong Kong, some young people feel that their identities are under threat, and hence they tend to divide the world into “in-groups” and “out-groups.” Also, beyond the immediate triggers, economic issues are driving Hong Kong younger generations’ despair and desperation.

Hong Kong’s young generation should be seen in a global context. First, many challenges they are facing in Hong Kong are not unique problems in this city, but also in many other countries and cities. Secondly, they should always bear in mind that, even if all Chinese cities have their own characteristics, Hong Kong is still very different from any other part of China.

Hong Kongers should make good use of this city’s advantages and capitalize on the opportunities brought about by the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. How loudly a statement is said has nothing to do with whether or not a statement is true. In the long run, the truth will prevail.

Wong Tsz Yuen (黃芷淵) currently serves as Hong Kong Phoenix TV’s senior bilingual reporter, member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong & Macao Studies, and vice chairman of Senstrat Think Tank. She is a senior journalist, columnist, commentator and host, and has published several books, including “I Grew Up in Identity Perplexity” (《我在身分迷失中成長》) and “We Are On the Scene”(《我們在現場》).

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