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  • Oct 31, 2014
  • Updated: 3:14pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Hong Kong identity caught between political reality and insecurity

April Zhang looks at the struggles amid fears of a mainland 'invasion'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 3:13am

When many Hong Kong people are abroad and are asked where they are from, their answer is usually "Hong Kong". They consciously avoid answering "China". This small thing reflects Hong Kong people's effort to mark themselves apart from their mainland counterparts, and shows that Hong Kong people regard Hong Kong as an entity, sufficiently well known to grant them a unique identity.

But if we press further for answers, we find many complexities. First, Hong Kong is not a sovereign city state, like Singapore. Second, it is no longer a British colony. Third, is Hong Kong part of China? The political answer is "yes". As for what people truly feel, Hong Kong's social conflicts offer clues.

Aware of the politically correct answer to the question of identity, Hong Kong people tend to reject it. One way they do so is through protests, of which we've seen numerous of late.

One issue underlines this rebellion: Hong Kong people's increasing feeling of helplessness about their shrinking superiority over mainlanders. Protests against Dolce & Gabbana were about mainland tourists having more privileges than locals. Protests against pregnant mainlanders were because locals felt entitled to maternity beds and mainland mothers were taking away this privilege. Protesters against mainland drivers claimed they are more prone to causing accidents, implying that their driving is substandard. Protests against the national education curriculum were about rejecting a mainland programme that is seen as biased and aimed at brainwashing Hong Kong children.

All these protests aimed to protect Hong Kong from being overcome by mainland China; that is, at fighting for Hong Kong not to be part of China. They were negative expressions of Hong Kong people's "Chineseness", and also expressions of an undercurrent of insecurity and fear of being devoured by a mightier entity.

But some issues can help Hongkongers forget such insecurities, at least temporarily.

The dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands has seen some Hong Kong people joining protests against Japan's nationalisation of the islands. The local protests were peaceful, as opposed to the violence seen on the mainland; nevertheless, protesters in this case embraced being Chinese.

All the protests have been organic and spontaneous. And they have elicited direct responses or actions. As such, they are a good barometer of people's feelings.

For a long time, Hong Kong people were separated from mainland China. Although they escaped the terrors of various political movements on the mainland, they had to go through different kinds of problems. Hong Kong people were suppressed by the British colonisers, and were badly mistreated by the Japanese invaders. Such a historical background can distort people's sense of being; Hong Kong people are now struggling with the feeling of being both "colonised" by mainland China and "invaded" by mainlanders, whether they be tourists, mothers-to-be or drivers.

However, they cannot eradicate their ethnic Chinese roots, and they cannot sever long-shared Chinese traditions. It is within these intricate and subtle positions that the protests manifest themselves; and probably more will follow.

Are these protests only a small part of a long-term consolidation process, which many Hong Kong people so fear; a process that will see Hong Kong's uniqueness erased? Will, ultimately, the answer to "where are you from?" eventually be "China"? At this stage, we can only wonder.

April Zhang is an entrepreneur and a teacher of Putonghua as a second language

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This article is now closed to comments

ramesses
There is a no better example of the perils of receiving a mainland national education than April Zhang. If I had not seen it here, I would have dismissed it as a low grade communist propaganda.
Hubristic minds reject things that they secretly desire but unattainable at home. April regards local people defending themselves against discrimination by foreign luxury retailers, and asserting their right of access to maternity services as acts of rebellion. She feels sorry that we had been subjected to British suppression using concepts like rule of law and freedom of speech. How alien? You can speak your mind and challenge your government without consequences? Now that Hong Kong is part of China, you should ideally shut up. Civility, humility and politeness towards your fellow citizens? Mainlanders do not practice these things in China. Why should they embrace such inconveniences when they are here?
I am rightly proud to be born and brought up in a free society, speak Cantonese and write proper Chinese - not some crippled degenerate scripts. April is right that our sense of superiority has shrunken. It will continue to fall. The system we inherited from the “horrible” British is being contaminated by an alien culture, linked only by blood.
Given her language skills perhaps April might consider learning some Cantonese? I am sure if she speaks it fluently, (preferably without an accent, and oh, localize her name too), she will feel much less insecure in Hong Kong.
ckofhk
I can't wait to read Ms Zhang's in-depth followup analysis on pregnant Chinese women feeling insecure about putting a Born in China label on their babies.
It's an insult to question someone's identity. We have never denied who we are and where we're from. We have always referred ourselves as from Hong Kong and proud of it. It doesn't matter if Hong Kong is a Chinese territory or British colony. Why are we being accused of being insecure when, in fact, we are very secure about our identity as Chinese from Hong Kong?
Is Ms. Zhang feeling insecure about her Chinese name? When did Si-Yue become April? I'm sure Ms. Zhang's Chinese name sounds beautifully in Putonghua. It's ironic that we are accused of feeling insecure by someone feeling insecure about her "Chineseness".
williechow
Hong Kong suffers from hangover from colonial days. It is also very difficult for Hong Kong people to accept the fact that people from mainland China is now wealthier and Hong Kong needs mainland China more than mainland China needs Hong Kong.
anotherhker
It seems that sometimes people assume that Hong Kong people are the same and equal to mainland Chinese people because of their shared Chinese ethnicity. However, no matter how much "Chinese blood" the majority of Hong Kong people may have running through their veins, Hong Kong people do not call themselves "Chinese" because then they will be associated with the Communist People's Republic of China. As many Hong Kong people disapprove of and detest the corruption, censorship, and overall government of the People's Republic of China, they refuse to be primarily associated with it, as they reign from the Special Administrative Region that unlike the mainland, has been introduced to ideas of democracy and freedom.
Hong Kong ethnic-Chinese citizen, yes. Citizen of the People's Republic of China, no.
mattakc
If I ask April where she is from? She will reply she is from China. This tells why this article so biased and from China/Mainland perspective. Instead of exploring the real reasons for HK people's resentment, she is using the growing "insecurity" of HK people.Gosh....We really want to refrain from being a Chinese becuase of the darkness and absurdity happened and happening in China.
In fact, April is not in an appropriate position to write this article as she is from China and she has not experiencd the colonial HK.
If she eexperienced the colonial HK, she would understand and be sympathetic about our resentment.
spunkyjj
It is very hard for Hongkong people to feel proud of being part of a country that's governed by people who are blatantly corrupt and show no respect for justice and rule of law. Making matters worse is that we are being dictated to what a "Chinese" ought to be, and we have no part to play defining this identity that some people say "should be" ours. Analyze all you want and keep telling Hong Kong people that they have no choice but to accept their "roots" if you want. The truth is no one can govern people's inner feeling. This is why we begin to see people carrying the colonial-time Hong Kong flag. Isn't it natural that people miss what they consider to be the better times? Hong Kong people were "suppressed" by the British? Let's be honest here. The British never imposed their "national identity" on Hongkongers. The British National Anthem was played at 12 midnight, while the Chinese National Anthem are now played at 6:30pm. The British encouraged the establishment of a Hong Kong identity by running the Hong Kong Festival. The British eradicated corruption and started the public housing project that provided many Hong Kong people with the dignity of having a home. You can't really blame Hong Kong people for reacting strongly against China's attempt to turn Hong Kong into another obedient Chinese city. They are defending their home. For me, I shall continue to tell people that I'm from Hong Kong and do that with pride and pleasure.
xiaoblueleaf
Ethnically we are Chinese, but identity-wise we are "HKers". We love China, but not necessarily its politics and system. For good or bad, many of us were brought up in the colonial era when for many there is the tradition of "liberalism", compassion (for many) and individual freedom which we value. Wa are hopeful China will change - and is changing - that one day we will fully embrace China - and her values. Hong Kong, like Taiwan, may serve as the beacon of pilot light to what China can and should be. There is nothing to be ashamed of being HKers, and not Chinese Chinese.
keresearch
why don't you look at Michael DeGolyer's Transition Project for facts before babbling on with your own psuedo analysis
ckofhk
The author is correct that Hong Kong is no longer a British colony. Hong Kong is now a Chinese territory, but Hong Kong is not China. Hong Kong people do not hold Chinese passports. Hong Kong people are NOT Chinese citizens; that's the universal way to define where a person is from. It has nothing to do with D & G or pregnant Chinese women. I think the author might have jumped the gun here. If you ask any Chinese citizen where a Hong Kong person is from, they will tell you the Hong Kong person is from Hong Kong. Even a Chinese citizen will not grant a Hong Kong person the honor to claim to be from China.
We don't and can't claim to be something we are not. We are not from China because we are not Chinese citizens. We can't claim we are from China until the day when there's no longer a border between China and Hong Kong.
The real political reality is that Hong Kong people are not Chinese citizens.
shouken
The author's claim that Hongkongers suffer "increasing feeling of helplessness about their shrinking superiority over mainlanders." If you ask a New Yorker or a Shanghainese where they come from, their first answers also tend to be "New York" or "Shanghai", rather than "America" or "China." People in Shanghai, Beijing, or Xi'an, too, feel superior towards outsiders, considering them uncouth and uncivilized, "peasants". The difference with HKer is one of degree (slight) and not in kind. That arrogance is not likely to go away. On a personal level, nobody is that different from anybody. Singaporeans are known to litter heavily on Malaysian streets once they cross the border.
You ship a group of self-righteous and "civilized" HKers (or Americans for that matter) to Beijing and let them run this big country of 1.4 billion people. Chances are that they will not do a much better job than the CPC. Perhaps they could create an India or Philippines, but I doubt anything much better.

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