How ethnic identity can be hijacked for politics
Danny Chan says though Hong Kong is largely free of ethnic frictions, despite its colonial past, we must be aware of the fault lines that exist
Ethnicity has always been a precarious concept. On the surface, it is the basis for imagining identity and culture through similarities and differences in language, food and fashion. Sometimes what we say and eat can be emblematic of a community, especially in a globalised world in which tourism is booming.
However, ethnicity is powerful not just in the way it brands a community or nation, but also in its ability to influence social upheaval.
Post-colonial Asia offers many examples. When ethnicity is manipulated for political purposes, we usually end up with scapegoating.
Take the anti-government rally in Malaysia last month. It was originally a protest against Prime Minister Najib Razak amid allegations of corruption, alongside public demands for political transparency and economic recovery, but the campaign has taken on ethnic overtones, and is now being seen as a confrontation between the ruling, native Malays and the rest of the population, particularly Chinese Malaysians.
In times of peace, ethnic diversity is celebrated. During upheavals, however, ethnicity can easily become a lightning rod for people's frustrations, and pit one community against another.
Colonial governments typically play up ethnicity as a "divide and rule" strategy so as to manipulate the colonised. After all, if antagonism between different ethnic groups can be handily invoked for political manoeuvring, people will have less energy to take on the colonial regime.
What about Hong Kong? After 18 years of re-nationalisation, has the city freed itself from the clutches of a colonial mindset? In this place where "East meets West", this "Asia's world city", the issue of ethnic integration in the community is rarely addressed.
One may argue that Hong Kong is different from its Southeast Asian neighbours as ethnicity has never been an issue here; the majority of Hongkongers are ethnic Chinese, and new or different members of the community have long been viewed through the hierarchical stereotype of their profession.
While many people still see Chungking Mansions as the only symbol of Hong Kong's ethnic diversity within the heart of the city, it is only because the city's newcomers have practically nowhere else to go that offers affordable accommodations and a place to hang out. Good fences make good neighbours, as the saying goes.
Unlike our Southeast Asian neighbours, Hong Kong is less susceptible to ethnically charged politics. But what remains unseen does not mean it won't haunt us in the future.
Danny W. K. Chan teaches communication and language at Hong Kong Community College, Polytechnic University