Enduring identity crisis a challenge to resolve

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am


Fifteen years after the handover, as a generation that never knew colonial rule grows up, Hong Kong people still face an identity crisis over their relationship with the Chinese nation.

Are you a Hong Kong citizen first or a Chinese citizen? Or something in between?

The answers vary widely and prevailing views can change, depending on whether events on the mainland are seen as favourable or unfavourable.

Hongkongers are also finding their long-held assumption of superiority over mainlanders eroding as the economic growth of some cities and the wealth of their citizens outstrip Hong Kong. But this doesn't stop the growing number of mainland visitors being dubbed 'locusts'.

One edge Hong Kong still does have is its freedoms, and that contributes to the 'love-hate' relationship that many have with the mainland - especially as some see those freedoms as being eroded.

'I can firmly identify myself as a Chinese. I have a deep feeling for the nation, but it doesn't mean that I have to love the regime at the same time,' says activist Daisy Chan Sin-ying, who was sentenced to three weeks jail for disrupting a consultation forum on Legislative Council by-elections in September.

Chan says she devotes herself to campaigns striving for social justice and democracy because she loves the country. And her love-hate relationship is fuelled by the dark side of mainland society, such as corrupt officials and crackdowns on activists.

'I would not express care towards the country if I didn't love it,' she says.

'But what the government wants is people who will not challenge its authority.'

Evidence of the identity split emerged from a poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong in December. More than a third of respondents identified themselves as 'Hong Kong citizen', a quarter answered 'Chinese Hong Kong citizen' and the rest labelled themselves 'Hong Kong Chinese citizen' and 'Chinese citizen'.

The half-yearly poll, conducted ever since the handover, also illustrates how little has changed in people's attitudes, despite the many other changes in the past 15 years: the latest results were close to those in the first poll in 1997.

There have been swings over the years.

With a boost in national pride during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, only 18 per cent identified as 'Hong Kong citizen', while nearly 40 per cent listed 'Chinese citizen'.

In 1999, when the Hong Kong government sought a reinterpretation of the Basic Law from Beijing to override a judgment on right of abode, 43 per cent identified as 'Hong Kong citizen' and 18 per cent 'Chinese citizen'.

Former Chinese University sociology professor Lau Siu-kai, now head of the Central Policy Unit, wrote in a research paper in 1998 that the answers carried ethnic and historical-cultural meanings. Attitudes towards Beijing and its social and political developments would also shape how people identified themselves.

'As a concept, 'identity' is nebulous and multi-dimensional,' he wrote, adding that one of the factors that had distinguished 'Hongkongers' from 'Chinese' was the 'wide disparity in the levels of development and standards of living [that] generated a sense of superiority among the Hong Kong Chinese'.

This thinking has undergone some changes in recent years with the rise of China as an economic power. Since 2003, the introduction of an individual visit scheme has also brought more than 68 million mainlanders to Hong Kong and has become an important driving force for tourism and retailing.

Paul Yip Kwok-wah, former special adviser to former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, says the changes have made Hongkongers lose self-confidence.

'Hongkongers used to look down at the mainlanders. But the watershed came in 2008 because of the success of the Olympic Games in Beijing and then we suddenly found that we should look up to them,' Yip says.

The boost to the economy also led to a war of words as the locals, fed up with what they see as an invasion - from parents buying up baby formula to filling up beds in the maternity wards - labelled the mainlanders 'locusts'.

'Hongkongers might feel their usual lifestyle has been disturbed by mainlanders,' Yip says. 'But more importantly, the uncomfortable feelings came as Hongkongers found their position as a role model for China's economic modernisation being lost.'

Yip says Hongkongers could regain their self-confidence by achieving full democracy but state leaders might be reluctant to loosen their grip on the process.

He says people should strive for full democracy through dialogue between different political factions and Beijing to demonstrate that they can be a role model of a different sort - political rather than economic.

Chan agrees, adding: 'Hongkongers looked forward to the city's return to the mainland before the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, but the situation has changed since then.

'To rebuild Hongkongers' confidence in the Beijing government, the only solution is to implement democratisation on the mainland and stop the crackdowns on activists.'