China, Hong Kong, and Identity

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Conflict, identity and values are all things that come into contention as a British Chinese migrant. As a first generation British Chinese migrant, I have felt all too heavily the obligations to my heritage, ethnicity and culture conflict with the expected norms of the country I reside in. Not least in my year abroad in Nanjing, China during my undergraduate year, firstly I identified myself as an overseas Chinese, secondly when asked about my parents’ origins, I would say they were from Hong Kong, the local Chinese populous would often respond with ‘Hong Kong? Well they’re Chinese then, Hong Kong is a part of China’, this idea of ‘Hong Kong otherness’ was culturally embedded in my upbringing, in that Hong Kong citizens have never considered themselves to be British nor Chinese, just proudly  ‘Hong Kong’.[1] Hong Kong citizens are proud to be identified as ethnically Chinese, however many don’t feel any particular loyalty or towards the Chinese flag or the Chinese Communist party.

After the handover of Hong Kong from British sovereignty to China in 1997, Hong Kong was granted status as a Special Administration Region (SAR), which grants the region relative autonomy in with its ‘One country, Two systems’ policy. The SAR status will remain intact for 50 years, expiring in 2047.[2] However, 17 years since the hand over, Hong Kong’s identity, politically, economically and culturally has been heavily shaped by its 155 year British rule. Hong Kong today is a land of towering skyscrapers, a Blade Runner-esque fusion of new and old. British Hong Kong was cultivated into a financial hub, a port in the east and a bridge between east and west, heavily populated with expats in Hong Kong Island and seen as a beacon of cosmopolitanism. Hong Kong has weathered numerous storms including, the Asian financial crisis and the SARS epidemic. Despite all of this Hong Kong has remained staunchly robust and stable.

The Hong Kong people’s trust in the Chinese government has ebbed and waned since the late 1980s. Following the Tiananmen Protests in 1989 and in the run up to the handover in 1997, many from Hong Kong mass migrated to the safer political climes of Canada, US and Australia.[3] In the years after the handover, Hong Kong’s political environment was as promised, relatively autonomous. However in recent years a number of issues have come to surface; Hong Kong’s prominence as a financial center is being slowly stripped away. The mainland government hopes to turn Shanghai into a global business hub, centralizing control and regulations within the mainland.[4] However industry experts and analysts have noted that Shanghai lacks the infrastructure, expertise and financial sector maturity to manage such a role by 2017, all of which are well established in Hong Kong. Hong Kong also has the advantage of freer markets and unrestricted internet access, as well established controls for business related legislature. Despite the fact that China is fast closing these gaps, until China undergoes serious political reform, Hong Kong will be safe as a financial business hub in the East.

The slow identity stripping and Sinicizing of Hong Kong continues in the administrative and bureaucratic realm.  A recent article on the Hong Kong Education Bureau website stated that “Cantonese is not an official language”.[5] The article only further fueled tensions about the autonomy of Hong Kong’s Administration. It should be noted that Cantonese is the spoken language in Hong Kong and neighboring Guangdong region and Mandarin is the official language. Both are mutually unintelligible, but share a largely common written form. The article was not inaccurate about what the official language was, but it explicitly defined the fact that Cantonese was not a recognized language, further undermining the identity of Hong Kong culture. After the handover, Cantonese was phased out of the education system, slowly replaced by the official use of Mandarin and English in the classroom.  Many citizens have felt the official assertions as cultural Sinicizing, an attempt to quell the cultural heritage of Hong Kong citizens.

Another growing issue is the fear that Hong Kong is increasingly becoming a playground for the mainland nouveau riche.[6] Many Chinese mainlanders come to experience Hong Kong purely for the low tax luxury shopping. However, others come to Hong Kong for ‘grocery shopping’, buying up everyday staples such as baby milk powder and rice, items that have come under fire for poor production standards and contamination in recent years, Hong Kong’s stringent food and import standards have protected its population and is now a main attraction for grocery tourists.[7] Despite this, the increased tourism has cultivated job creation; however these jobs are at the lower end of the pay scale and are relatively unskilled jobs in retail and hospitality. Hong Kong locals complain that unregulated and uncapped numbers of mainland tourists increase strain on the existing transport infrastructure, especially during rush hour.

One of the most important legacies left by British occupation was the freedom of press allowed by the former administration, something that has carried on to an extent. The most recent report by ‘Reporters without Borders’ has seen a steadying drop in Hong Kong’s freedom of press, dropping from 18th in 2002 to 61st in 2014.[8] This level of rights infringement has been one of the biggest criticisms of the Chinese Communists Party’s as many locals now believe that Hong Kong press engages in self-censorship.[9]

One of the growing failures of the ‘One country, Two systems’ policy is the Chinese Communists Party’s denial that any allowance of suffrage or granting of full fledge democracy in Hong Kong.[10] This denial only further reinforces pre-handover fears about the extent of subjugation the Hong Kong administration would be under from the mainland administration. Enacting this promise of democracy would be perceived by the mainland administration as secession; however Hong Kong citizens see the increasing control on Hong Kong as an infringement of the autonomy policy that was proposed post-handover.

As a gateway to the east, Hong Kong is slowly losing its prominent foothold as a key player in China’s great plan. However there is no denying the legacy of the British rule has been ingrained and adopted into the fabric of Hong Kong’s politics, economic outlook and culture. Hong Kong is still defining its new role since the handover, it is hoped that by 2047, when the SARS policy ends, China will have closed and narrowed the gap to Hong Kong’s political distance and culture. All in all little understanding from both sides would help the transition in this post-handover era and quell the perceived threats Hong Kong’s people perceive.


Written by Yan Yee Chan, Edited by David Jeffrey

[1]Mathews, Gordon, and Dale Lü. Consuming Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2001. Print pp 356