Battle lines

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 January, 2012, 12:00am


A dichotomy seems to have emerged over the past months - played out in the media, in speeches by politicians and public stakeholders, and reinforced in a broad spectrum of discussions about public policy. It drew on current local events, yet its subtext has remained the same: the distinction between 'locals' and 'foreigners'.

A recent University of Hong Kong survey on identity in Hong Kong suggests that more people now view themselves as 'Hong Kong citizens', and the number of people who view themselves as 'Chinese Hong Kong citizens' has also increased significantly. Meanwhile, much has been made of the fact that there has been an apparent decline in the number of people viewing themselves as 'Chinese citizens'.

An increased sense of local identity also implies an increased awareness of foreignness. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the news: a shocking number of mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong hospitals, the uncertain future of the English Schools Foundation, protests outside a Dolce & Gabbana store, priority housing to Hong Kong residents. These stories have compounded a distinction between 'locals' and 'foreigners', and the surrounding debate has shed light on some rather unfortunate opinions.

It is worth taking a moment, therefore, to consider what distinguishes the local from the foreigner.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a foreigner as 'a person born in a foreign country; one from abroad or of another nation; an alien', whereas a local is defined as 'a person who is attached by his occupation, function, etc. to some particular place or district'.

But where does foreignness end and locality begin? Is one really a local simply by virtue of birth? Such a characterisation would render anyone born outside Hong Kong - even if they immediately moved back - a foreigner; and, for that matter, anyone who immediately left Hong Kong after being born, a local.

Is being local a matter of the right of abode or nationality? In which case, distinguishing local from foreign becomes strictly a legal concern and a matter of documents, bureaucracy and passports.

Some characterisations of 'local' have implicitly suggested that this is a matter of race and ethnicity - so, depending on the colour of your skin, you might always be regarded as a foreigner.

Or, is being a Hong Kong local a matter of language, culture and mannerisms? In which case, does one only become a true local by mastering Cantonese? Or is Putonghua sufficient? It would seem that language is a necessary prerequisite for full integration in society - yet it is possible to get by in Hong Kong for years with only a passing knowledge of the local language.

Perhaps one only really becomes local through citizenship in the proper sense of possessing certain rights, privileges and obligations and in active engagement with the civic and political life of Hong Kong?

It is difficult to construct a reasonable threshold between locality and foreignness. Hong Kong's colonial past, its diversity and its cosmopolitan outlook only compound this difficulty. Yet the distinction of 'us' and 'them' is being drawn again and again.

Rachel Tsang is a PhD candidate and has taught political theory at the London School of Economics