by Jeremy Ha

Do people from Hong Kong feel proud to be Chinese? Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year celebrations in February 2016 were marred by violence following the Hong Kong government’s prohibition of unlicensed food vendors to sell fish balls. More than 60 people were arrested and many were injured. The incident escalated quickly on social media, along with the hashtag #fishballrevolution. The incident was related to the mistrust of the Hong Kong police forces, as well as to the recent disappearance of booksellers in the city. Tensions between the people of Mainland China and Hong Kong have worsened, as many believe that China is encroaching upon the city’s freedom and judicial independence. This begets the question: is Hong Kong just another Chinese territory? Can there be different nationalistic sentiments in the same country? Can a non-sovereign nation feel nationalistic?

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

After the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, China has retaken control of Hong Kong, a former British colony, under the visionary internationally-recognised constitutional principle “one country, two systems,” as outlined by the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Hong Kong and Macau (a former Portuguese colony), two Special Administrative Regions of China, were able to retain their own capitalist economic and political system, whilst the rest of Mainland China uses the Communist system. The three regions continue to have their own legal, political and socioeconomic affairs; they may also maintain external relations with foreign countries and are externally represented; they continue to participate in International Competitions and events under the name “Macau, China” and “Hong Kong, China.” Hong Kong is allowed to have its own Constitutional identity under the material constitution, the Basic Law, which outlines a horizontal separation of power, judicial autonomy and the protection of basic human rights. This high degree of autonomy allows Hong Kong to thrive as the third largest international financial centre in the world (after New York and London). Moreover, the people of Hong Kong enjoy a very high standard of living with a very high GDP per capita, life expectancy and human development index.

Do the Hongkongers feel Chinese?

Strolling down the streets of Hollywood Road in Hong Kong, you might see a popular T-shirt design with the words, “Hong Kong since 1997,” indicating that after 1997, Hong Kong was considered an independent territorial entity. Despite being autonomous under Chinese rule, Hongkongers have long resisted being known as “Chinese.” Many recent polls and surveys have indicated that most Hongkongers do not identify as Chinese. When travelling abroad, Hongkongers generally will say that they are from “Hong Kong” but not “China, Hong Kong” or “Hong Kong, China.” When interacting with people from mainland China, most Hongkongers will avoid a possible quarrel by conversing in Mandarin Chinese instead of Cantonese. Administratively, when Hongkongers visit China, at the Shenzhen border control, they will comfortably line up in the “Hong Kong and Macau residents” channel, while mainland Chinese visitors will pass through “mainland residents.” The sentiment of patriotism or nationalism towards China is not popular among Hongkongers.

Tensions between Mainland China and Hong Kong

The policies advocated by Hong Kong and the central government encourage mainland residents to visit Hong Kong and economic cooperation between the two regions. Increasingly, these policies have given rise to Hongkongese hostility towards the mainlanders. The Hongkongers begrudge what they perceive as a trend towards assimilation. At the same time, Mainland Chinese have also shown resentment towards Hong Kong’s different political system, socio-economic values and language. Hong Kong has retained many traditional Chinese cultural values, many of which were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao tried to revolutionise China and destroy the “four olds” (old customs, culture, habits and ideas). For example, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and many other southeast Asian countries still use traditional Chinese characters and celebrate hungry ghost festivals. Furthermore, they have very different ways of celebrating the same festival. For example, during Lunar New Year, the Mainland Chinese traditionally eat freshly made dumplings and will usually watch nationally broadcasted television programmes that celebrate the New Year; these shows unite and bring the Chinese people together. However, this is not very common in Hong Kong. The different culture and rituals detach Hong Kong from the Mainland and discourage Chinese nationalism in Hong Kong. Often, nationalism in Hong Kong is thus generated either by a sense of superiority or a sense of intense hatred towards the mainland Chinese. In 2012, a Beijing University professor publicly referred to Hongkongers as dogs. The condemnation sparked a resurgence of nationalism in Hong Kong. The professor’s strong language has prompted protests in Hong Kong and the Hongkongers vigorously began to demonstrate their support of their own cultural and civic Hongkongese identity. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Multiple recent events have marked the deterioration of the relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland China. Recently, Hong Kong residents have vehemently denounced mainland visitors for urinating or defecating in public. (Similar events happened in the MRT of Singapore as well.) On the other hand, to escape the single child policy, many pregnant mainland women seek to give birth in Hong Kong, specifically to benefit from the right of abode. This has sparked a heated public debate, as spaces in Hong Kong’s public hospitals are insufficient to cater to the surge in demand. Hong Kong’s media has called the mainlanders “locusts,” referring to how they take  Hong Kong’s resources away from locals.

Nationalism in action

Since Hong Kong has never been a sovereign entity, historically, nationalism is not particularly prominent in the city. During colonial rule, Hongkongers  generally did not express nationalistic sentiments towards Britain or China; in fact, they generally do not feel patriotic towards any country. However, after the handover, there have been multiple successive attempts that showcase Hongkongese nationalism, namely, Hong Kong’s outcry for democracy during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. In September 2014, thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered in the city centre waiting for their voices to be heard and pleading with Beijing to fulfill its promise of universal suffrage in 2017. But the Hong Kong government’s response to the protesters was seen as a betrayal, as the police attempted to disperse them with teargas and pepper spray. During the protest, on the streets of Causeway Bay, there were graffiti designs saying, “build a Hong Kong state” and “Hong Kong must be independent.” Signs of nationalism began to spark and prevail. When Beijing rejected the proposals, many Hongkongers, especially young students, began to distinguish themselves from Mainland China by producing big posters with messages such as “Hong Kong is not part of China.” The central government’s rejection of a proposed extended electoral college has in effect sparked the first sentiments of genuine Hong Kong nationalism. Recently, during the World Cup game between Hong Kong and China, the Chinese national anthem was played, while it was Hong Kong that won the game. Fans from Hong Kong booed at the anthem immediately and waved slogans such as “support your own people,” “We are Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong is not China.” Advocates for political independence in Hong Kong have since then increased sharply with the rise of different political parties and groups. An example is the Hong Kong Independence Party, founded in 2015, which strives for the independence of Hong Kong and for allowing Hong Kong to join the Commonwealth of Nations. Many even hoped to create a democratic “Republic of Hong Kong.” Patriotic feelings were also generated during another recent event, concerning the use of Chinese characters, which made the Chinese language become a very political issue. The discovery of a document for public consultation regarding Chinese teachings at schools in Hong Kong has prompted indignation on social media and induced anger amongst educators alike, because it stated that pupils should be taught simplified Chinese characters to acquire a wider reading range. In trying to defend its local history and culture from the influence of Mainland China, the society of Hong Kong is now very sensitive to issues of “mainlandisation.” For instance, during the recent global environmental event Earth Hour, all of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers dimmed their lights except a notable exception: the building of China’s People’s Liberation Army. The event was mocked by the mass media of Hong Kong and people were showing disdain towards the Communist Party and its perceived inability to adapt to internationally recognised standards of human and environmental rights. In Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, only traditional Chinese characters are taught. All signage is in traditional Chinese and pupils learn traditional Chinese to read or write, and it is generally very difficult to switch between the two traditional and simplified. The outburst on social media criticising the Hong Kong education bureau’s suggestion showcases Hongkongers’ strong desire to protect their own traditions, which is also an act of a newfound nationalism.

As a Hongkonger, I would say that my identity is conflicted. While my grandparents would often say, “we are Chinese,” I find the word “Chinese” very vague because it has a different connotation in Mainland China. Even during celebrations, we will eat “Chinese food,” but mainlanders do not eat the same food as us. Also, many of my Canadian and American friends tend to confuse Cantonese with Mandarin. This is because during the handover, many Hongkongers immigrated to North America. Particularly in places such as California and Vancouver, Cantonese is the prominent language within the Asian community. Hongkongese immigrants have set up “Chinese restaurants” that serve Cantonese cuisine, and they converse in Cantonese. Foreigners who do not speak the language will assume that they are speaking Mandarin. The notion of being Chinese is therefore more complicated than it seems. Furthermore, studying in a different education system, I have realised that my exposure and values are very different from that of the Mainland Chinese. In general, many Hongkongers are still emotionally attached to the practices and traditions left behind by the UK. For example, there is still a large number of Hong Kong parents who will abandon the competitive and new education system in Hong Kong (The Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education was created 4 years ago to replace the A-level system) and choose to send their children to study in Britain. Someone once told me an analogy to describe the relationship between China and Hong Kong: if China is the parent, Hong Kong is its child, raised by a white family. So, can a child be the same after being brought up in another household? The answer to the question remains to seen. However, above all, I personally do hope that one day our governments will allow our voices to be heard and let the people freely decide their own leadership.

All in all, Britain has arguably preserved the city’s unique heritage, creating a colonial, political, and socio-economic system that stands in stark contrast to Mainland China. Whilst much of the population wants to preserve Hong Kong’s distinct identity and enhance its autonomy from the mainland, many have said that nationalism has lighted the fuse and that the differences between Hong Kong and Mainland China are snowballing—a drastic showdown is on the horizon. Ultimately, although Hong Kong’s nascent nationalism remains on the fringe and is merely partially recognised by the international community, Hong Kong’s distinct history and culture deserves to be respected.

Author bio: Jeremy Ha was born and raised in Hong Kong. He is currently studying at Sciences Po Paris Campus du Havre, majoring in socio-political sciences and law. He is an avid reader, a classical music fan, a passionate foodie and a keen traveller.

Quote: “If China is the parent, Hong Kong is its child, raised by a white family.”