False nostalgia for Hong Kong identity holds us back
Lau Nai-keung says the focus should be on building a great Chinese city
What is a Hongkonger? I was born and raised here, received my education, and built my career and family here. My wife gave up her US green card, and my two children were born, raised and educated here. I am supposed to know what makes a Hongkonger, but I don't.
In the early 1990s when we were drafting the Basic Law, trying to define Hong Kong identity under "one country, two systems", there was a serious discussion about the so-called indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories. To Beijing, there is no such distinction, as all "indigenous inhabitants" were simply Chinese people when the British colonialists arrived about a century ago.
Today, over 95 per cent of Hong Kong residents are ethnic Chinese; many are born here, and many have ancestors who came to Hong Kong at different times over the years. The city has a young history, with newcomers entering at different times, from different parts of the country and with various degrees of ties back to the mainland.
Before 1951, the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen was totally open, with farmers on both sides daily crossing the Shenzhen River to do their chores, and people just came and went in search of job opportunities.
After that, there was a continuous influx of mainlanders, and only after the late 1970s was a ceiling set at 50,000 a year, roughly about the same number of babies born locally. Since then, we have had more than 1.5 million mainlanders becoming Hongkongers. Counting their offspring, they now make up as much as one third of the current population. Objectively speaking, there is no such thing as a "Hongkonger", and that is probably why it is not an official English word.
In a young, migrant community like Hong Kong, the proclamation of a collective memory is either fabrication or cultural hegemony of some of the native born. The old Queen's Pier in Central is a glaring example. Very few Hong Kong citizens ever went there, not to mention used its facilities. Yet some spin doctors elevated it to an icon of Hongkongers' collective memory, and that mobilised a movement to preserve it at its original site.
Some insist that Hongkongers are indeed different from mainlanders. To that extent, one can always find subtle differences between, say, the citizens of Guangzhou and those of Shenzhen. For one thing, the former are mostly Cantonese speakers and the latter tend to use Putonghua in general communication.
To me, the more visible differences between Hongkongers and mainlanders are narrowing fast. Only a decade ago, you could easily tell them apart just by the way they were dressed. Now you cannot tell the difference even from their speech, as the general level of Putonghua proficiency of our children is catching up fast. Today, it is extremely difficult to tell a mainlander from a Hongkonger on the street.
This is exactly what causes the anxiety among some Hongkongers. These people hold the irrational fear that, before long, they will lose their idiosyncrasies and Hong Kong will become "just another Chinese city".
Shanghai and Beijing, and for that matter our next-door neighbour Shenzhen, are individually "just another Chinese city", but that does not prevent them being great, or unique. Moreover, if Hong Kong is not "just another Chinese city", but an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, without a doubt it will not have a place on the world map. The fear of becoming Chinese is not only artificial, it is also unfounded; it reflects people's secret belief in their own incompetence and fear of competition with mainlanders.
Hong Kong will always be unique. To put it another way, Hong Kong's uniqueness is worth preserving only because it makes this city great. All Hongkongers who truly love Hong Kong should pay more attention to building the city instead of harbouring a morbid nostalgic pleasure. To this end, we should immediately stop all unnecessary infighting, and stop discriminating against mainlanders and dissociating ourselves from China.
Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development