In search of this generation's Lion Rock spirit

Larry Au says if we are to agree on the right policies and direction for our society, in a time of dispiriting division, we must first seek some answers to what being a Hongkonger means

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 September, 2014, 3:40am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 September, 2014, 3:40am

Of the seven students from Hong Kong who graduated from Brown University, my alma mater, in May, only one will be returning to the city for full-time employment after this summer. For the most part, the rest will either be in New York or San Francisco.

As a recent college graduate who has spent the better part of my adult years abroad, the choice of whether to return to Hong Kong is one that many my age with similar experience face. According to government statistics released in 2011, there were some 75,000 students overseas. While concerns about job opportunities and the cost of living feature prominently in conversations with my peers, we often return to the question of whether we can still call Hong Kong home.

But what does it mean to belong in Hong Kong? This, it seems, is a conversation that we as a community have yet to have. Only in recent years, as we confronted the right of abode controversies and argued over the anti-national education movement, have we begun to realise the limits and contradictions of our understanding of belonging.

These moments, however, are reactive. In other words, we can only say what being part of Hong Kong is not, but not what it is.

Paradoxically, this failure to substantively define "Hongkongness" occurs in spite of the recent rise of "nativist" movements and the record-breaking levels of local identification as reported by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme.

In contrast, any Frenchman or American will be able to tell you what being a member of French or American society entails. Their answers will be coloured by culture and history, of course. To be French is to embrace liberté, égalité, fraternité, while being American is to relish life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The implications of these foundational principles are far-reaching. In France, poverty is constructed as a rupture of the social fabric, thereby compelling the state to intervene and justifying the sky-high tax rates on the elite. Meanwhile, the American social contract is based on individualism, making welfare politics particularly unpalatable.

As such, we in Hong Kong must tackle these questions head-on: Is being a Chinese citizen synonymous with being ethnically Chinese? What are the duties of a permanent resident of Hong Kong to the rest of China? How does one become part of Hong Kong?

The answers to these fundamental questions will have a bearing on a wide range of issues in policymaking, including the allocation of public resources to ethnic minorities and the proper relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing.

It is also because of the absence of a shared cultural code that we find dialogue across the political divide so difficult in our attempt to implement electoral reform for 2017. Thus, when we talk about the chief executive being "patriotic", we disagree vehemently at a very basic level about the need and direction of this allegiance.

And when we talk about democracy, we are unable to agree on the place of "international" or "Western" standards in a "Chinese" society.

While I cannot foresee how this conversation on belonging will take shape, there are several issues that this dialogue must address if it is to result in a durable conclusion.

First, we must reassess our trans-national history and multicultural reality. This includes recovering the vital role that Hong Kong played in European, Southeast Asian and Pacific trade networks from even before the British, as well as reevaluating the experience of our city under colonialism and the end of this inherently unjust system. The contributions of "foreigners" to Hong Kong, from the Court of Final Appeal's non-permanent judges to domestic workers, must also be taken into account.

Second, we must reconcile the generational divide with regard to how belonging is viewed. The centrality of the "Lion Rock spirit" in the pivotal decades of the 1960s and 1970s in Hong Kong cannot be understated. But the same opportunities that were offered to our parents' generation, and once drew thousands of migrants fleeing from turbulence on the mainland, are now restricted to a privileged few. This stagnation of economic mobility, embodied by growing inequality, must be addressed.

Finally, we must recognise the limits of a coherent Hong Kong identity within the national rubric of China. The discourse on Hong Kong's "core values" is one that seems contradictory to the political reality of the country. Those dreaming of a more liberal definition must rein in their ambitions and concentrate on the immediate.

Yet if Hong Kong is to retain the talent of its youth abroad, it must articulate a clear vision of belonging that is both open and inclusive. Only then can we appeal for their return, and will we be proud to call Hong Kong home. After all, the personal is political.

But at the end of the day, this conversation on belonging is one that we must have if Hong Kong is to emerge intact in the decades to come. As such, this conversation is as much about the past and present as it is about the future.

Larry Au is a graduate student in sociology at the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford