China's emergence on the world stage has fuelled a new sense of patriotism. It is to be found not just in China but in Chinese communities around the world, and has been highlighted by the nationalistic sentiment aroused by the international Beijing Olympic torch relay and the Sichuan earthquake disaster. This reflects a common bond of heritage, culture and shared values among Chinese everywhere.
Two things set Hong Kong apart, however. It is an international Chinese city where other nationalities have always had a strong presence, and many Hong Kong Chinese themselves hold other nationalities. There is no evidence, though, that these differences have inhibited the rise of patriotism. Care should be taken therefore not to confuse nationality with nationalism or patriotism.
That is far from an academic point, as evidenced by the results of an SCMP/TNS survey published today. It was commissioned in the wake of the nationality row sparked by the appointment of deputy ministers who hold foreign citizenship. It showed that more than 60 per cent of the respondents thought the deputies should not have foreign citizenship and should renounce it, and that 63 per cent thought the Basic Law should be amended to extend the nationality requirement for principal officials to deputy ministers. With the controversy still fresh in the mind, the results are probably not all that surprising. However, in terms of Hong Kong's recent past and its future, they are worrying. They call for a strong note of caution.
It is easy now to forget that post-colonial Hong Kong emerged from a tumultuous transitional period only a little over a decade ago. Fear and uncertainty about the future have, thankfully, given way to stability, confidence and optimism. But there was a time when many felt genuine reasons to acquire foreign nationality so they and their families had somewhere else to go in case things went wrong. Developments since have wrought a sweeping change in public sentiment. China has changed almost beyond recognition. Hong Kong has prospered with the success of the 'one country, two systems' policy. Sympathy with foreign passport holders has been overtaken by pride in Chinese nationality.
But for all that, no good reason has been advanced why the deputies should give up their foreign citizenship overnight to prove their loyalty. Popular sentiment cannot brush over historical facts. Such intolerance now would surely be seen as an unfair test of the loyalty of those who have committed themselves to Hong Kong and dedicated themselves to public service. Moreover, it does not resonate with a rather more flexible and sensible stance towards nationality adopted by Beijing, which generally regards foreign passports as no more than travel documents.
The emergence of a growing national identity in Hong Kong is to be welcomed. But we should be very wary of making loyalty an issue of foreign citizenship. Pushed too far in a multicultural society, it could raise the spectre of xenophobia. Hong Kong is, after all, a city with its own government, not a nation. To talk of a possible sellout if senior officials hold foreign passports is an exaggeration.
Nonetheless, patriotism will remain an emotive topic. For the sake of Hong Kong's unique status and character, it should not be allowed to divide society. Notwithstanding fashionable sentiment, the government should make it clear that it will not be seeking to tighten the law. Political parties should be alert to the dangers of whipping up a xenophobic fever. Under 'one country, two systems', that would be a very dangerous game to play.