Localism is everywhere, especially so in China, and that’s not a problem
Alice Wu says ancestral origin and lineage are a huge part of Chinese identity, and so Hongkongers identifying themselves as such should not be an issue. Inherent differences in identity don’t have to be seen as threatening
The one topic that we, as social beings, are sure to come across in life is identity. What should be an empowering process of self-discovery has become an emotive and political issue. Unfortunately, that has somehow led us to a rather tunnel-visioned discourse that oscillates between seeing identity in black-and-white terms when it’s a complex and sometimes messy construction.
We must, therefore, give Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah credit for the reminder that identities need not be singular or conflicting. His latest visit to his alma mater, La Salle College, inspired him to see how our sense of belonging and being a part of a community can ground people and reinforce a strong sense of pride – a collective spirit that can be a constructive force for growth. And this has perhaps made him see identification as a process. Tsang mapped out his relationship with La Salle, from a student to alumnus, parent and coach. If multiple identities can exist in a meaningful personal experience, they can also be beneficial in a bigger context.
READ MORE: The bright side of localism: Hong Kong’s finance minister sees a constructive sense of pride
“One country, two systems” is exactly that kind of ingenious construct that allows for multiple identities. Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) had the foresight to see several realities including that there are major differences to reconcile between the two systems. Deng gave it 50 years.
Localism exists everywhere, but it’s very “Chinese”. Ancestral origin and lineage are a huge part of Chinese identity. People define themselves at all levels of locality – from province and county to village. So Hongkongers identifying themselves as such isn’t a problem, and it isn’t evidence of our suffering from some sort of identity crisis.
In this sense, most aren’t that different from the rest of the Chinese. Hongkongers identify themselves with their ancestral lineage. Except for the indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories, the majority are of mainland descent, and many Hongkongers also identify themselves as Hakka, Hokkien, Shanghainese, Chiuchow or Cantonese.
One can even argue that localism is designed into Deng’s “one country, two systems” where “Hong Kong people” is a constitutionally protected identity. “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” and our enjoyment of a “high degree of autonomy” are sanctioned under “one country”.
The strained relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing is worrying, but problems do not lie in the fact that Hongkongers identify themselves as such; it is the disconnect Hongkongers feel when it comes to the rest of the nation. Deng’s 50 years to work itself out may not be enough.
Problems arise when we try to wrongly define “Hongkongers” by, for instance, treating them as one homogeneous group. The few nativists who are vocal about their rejection of mainland Chinese rule in the name of “Hongkongers” do not, in fact, speak for most others. Another way is by insisting that “Hongkongers” and other identities are mutually exclusive; Hongkongers, have, in fact, always had multiple identities: immigrants/refugees, ex-colonial subjects, expats, returnees, etc.
Tension and conflict highlight differences, but not enough has been done to recognise inherent differences without perceiving them as threats to one another. One side bills “localism” as the fight against “mainlandisation”. The other counters by calling “localists” advocates for “full autonomy”.
All these efforts to accentuate our differences, to annihilate inherent multiple identities, do us and “one country, two systems” a disservice. Tsang was right to point out the good and bad of localism. How one uses identities is a choice.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA