Hong Kong's history at the root of identity crisis

A recent University of Hong Kong survey on identity issues shows that only 17per cent of people polled identified themselves first as 'Chinese citizens', a new low since 2000. At the same time, the identity index of being a 'Hong Kong citizen' reached a 10-year high, at 8.23 on a 10-point scale.

Surveys on Hong Kong people's identity are nothing new; they were first conducted shortly after the handover. In the 14-year period, the proportion of Hongkongers identifying themselves as 'Chinese citizens' rose from an abysmally low level to an all-time high of almost 40per cent in 2008. That percentage has been sliding since then, to the latest low since 2000.

To be honest, Hong Kong people have long suffered an identity crisis. It was first noticed in the 1980s when China and Britain were negotiating over the future of Hong Kong. At that time, prominent academic Helen Siu wrote numerous columns to analyse and discuss the identity issues of Hong Kong people.

Overall, Hong Kong people have multiple identities, variously seeing themselves as Hong Kong people, Hong Kong Chinese people, Chinese people or Chinese Hong Kong people. The reasons are, of course, closely related to the history of Hong Kong. The city was ruled by the British colonial government for more than 100 years and, during that time, especially after the 1970s, colonial Hong Kong established a unique social and cultural value system as well as rules and regulations.

In the old days, due to political and economic reasons, many Hongkongers were immigrants from mainland China. These new arrivals quickly developed a sense of belonging, established a strong connection to the city and identified themselves as Hong Kong people.

In fact, the 1967 riots were a turning point. They aroused a pluralistic sense of identity as well as a sense of belonging in Hong Kong. The riots made many Hongkongers understand that they couldn't and wouldn't want to leave Hong Kong. From then on, they have identified Hong Kong as their home. Over the years, citizens have become increasingly proud of their local identity.

This unique sense of identity was further bolstered at a number of critical points in time, such as during the uncertainty over Hong Kong's future in 1997 and around the time of the June 4 crackdown in 1989, both of which accentuated the identity crisis of Hong Kong people, driving a wedge between the different identities.

The late Deng Xiaoping knew about this social conflict and understood the problem long before everyone else. That is why he came up with the concept of 'one country, two systems' and advocated the idea of 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong'.

He also pledged that Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years in order to instil a sense of confidence in Hong Kong to ensure a stable transition. History has proved Deng's policy to be spot on.

In light of all these factors, Hao Tiechuan, of the central government's liaison office, was being divisive when he criticised the survey as 'unscientific' and 'illogical' simply because he wasn't happy with the outcome. Hao should have looked deeper at the implications and reasons rather than attacking the academic behind the survey, Robert Chung Ting-yiu, suggesting that he was politically motivated.

I don't think Hao was trying to interfere with our academic freedom; his problem was he didn't understand that the identity issue had nothing to do with politics. Attacking the survey will only widen the emotional gap between Hong Kong people and the motherland.

Only through understanding and an accommodating attitude can we fully appreciate the ethos of 'one country, two systems' and bring eventual benefits to the policy of 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong'.

This latest incident has highlighted the fact that there is a genuine cultural gap between people in Hong Kong and on the mainland, something that cannot be immediately resolved.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]