Hong Kong localism and independence

Hongkongers’ post-1997 identity crisis at the heart of youthful mistrust of government

Phil C.W. Chan says it’s possible to be both a ‘localist’, who cares deeply about the city’s social and economic problems, and accept that Hong Kong is part of China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 August, 2016, 11:46am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 August, 2016, 6:18pm

The controversy over the exclusion of “localist” activists from the Legislative Council election brings to the fore the meaning of post-1997 Hong Kong identity, and Hong Kong’s place in China and the world.

The question over the genuineness of a candidate’s allegiance to the Basic Law is entirely misplaced. As the late psychologist Erik Erikson pointed out, struggles in self-identification are a developmental hallmark of adolescence. It might not be coincidental that it is primarily young people who feel left out by post-1997 political and economic developments, and who are the most vocal in demanding greater autonomy, if not independence.

We need to bear in mind that one can, and often does, have multiple identities

I do not condescend to the many young people who have taken to the streets for a better Hong Kong. We need young people’s spirit, energy and ideas.

But we need to bear in mind that one can, and often does, have multiple identities. One can hold a Hong Kong-based, or “localist”, identity while simultaneously embracing an identity in which one accepts that Hong Kong is part of a greater China and an evolving world. This is not political subterfuge, betrayal, surrender or resignation. It is what gives a Hong Kong identity its unique qualities.

A “localist” identity is meaningless if it is merely about shouting platitudes, disregarding the real “localist” concerns of many residents. Despite Hong Kong’s overall ostensible wealth, many endure subsistence hardships in an expensive city. Their concerns consist of better living conditions, higher wages and affordable housing. Candidates in the Legco election should remember they are seeking to represent their constituents and Hongkongers as a whole, not themselves.

One of [former West German chancellor Willy Brandt’s] dictums was, “Now grows together what belongs together”

At the same time, the electoral exclusion of “localist” activists serves to fan the flames from all sides. It perpetuates distrust of government officials as puppets of Beijing, generates louder calls for independence and instigates greater assertions by Beijing of control over the city. The real “localist” concerns are sidelined.

One of the greatest German leaders was Willy Brandt. As mayor of West Berlin, he preserved it from increasing tensions between the Soviet Union and the West that were manifested in the construction of the Berlin Wall. Later, as chancellor, he developed the “Neue Ostpolitik” policy that improved West Germany’s relations with its Soviet-controlled neighbours and with Moscow. In 1989, as Soviet communism collapsed, he advocated immediate reunification with East Germany. One of his dictums was, “Now grows together what belongs together”. It is this sort of “localist” leader that Hong Kong needs.

Phil C.W. Chan is a senior fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm and Chengdu