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Fourteen uniformed groups and three local youth organisations take part in the Uniformed Groups cum Youth Development Day 2015 at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. Photo: Felix Wong

Changing Hong Kong people’s traditions won’t make them love China

Vivienne Chow says that a move to change the marching style of uniformed youth groups is just the latest heavy-handed attempt by Beijing and local authorities to instil love for China. Like other attempts, it won’t work

One of the best things I did during my teenage years was joining a uniformed youth group. Throughout my seven years as a member of the Hong Kong Red Cross youth unit, I did not just acquire first-aid skills and cultivate a spirit of community service. I became an enthusiast of the drill practice – weekend training and annual inter-unit drill competition were my favourite after-school activities.

I took pride in carrying forward the tradition of drill practice with my teammates.

Thus it was disturbing to see a political attempt to make an unnecessary change to the heritage of drill practice for uniformed youth groups. To what extent are we willing to ditch the history and tradition that make us who we are today just to demonstrate political allegiance on a superficial level?

According to the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao, Hong Kong’s uniformed youth groups have been asked by Beijing’s liaison office to change their current British-style drill to the Chinese style of “goose-stepping” at a flag-raising ceremony on May 4.

The ceremony, to be held at the historic Golden Bauhinia Square, is meant to commemorate the student-led May Fourth Movement in 1919.

It was also reported that the Hong Kong Army Cadets Association, the only uniformed group in the city that adopts the Chinese style of marching, had previously put forward a similar request for other groups to switch their style, though association chairman Bunny Chan Chung-bun denied this.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor attends the inauguration of the Hong Kong Army Cadets Association Limited building on January 14. The association was set up in 2015 with the support of the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison and the Beijing liaison office in Hong Kong. Photo: EPA-EFE

The rise and fall of Hong Kong’s uniformed youth groups

The fact is, most groups have strong reservations about such a change.

Ever since Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, winning over the hearts in the former British colony has long been a headache for Beijing and local authorities.
According to the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme’s survey on local people’s ethnic identity, conducted in December, 39 per cent of the 1,034 respondents identified themselves as “Hongkongers” and 14 per cent as “Chinese”, out of a choice of four given identities.

The other two identities were “Hongkongers in Chinese” (picked by 29 per cent of the respondents) and “Chinese in Hong Kong” (16 per cent).

In broader terms, 68 per cent of interviewees identified themselves as “Hongkongers”, compared to the 31 per cent who said that they were “Chinese”.

The gap was much wider among young people aged 18 to 29, as a record high 69.7 per cent of this age group identified themselves as “Hongkongers”. Those who agreed that they were “Chinese” only accounted for 0.3 per cent, a record low since the survey began in 1997.

In Hong Kong, animosity towards mainland Chinese can’t be overcome without an open mind

In recent years, the Hong Kong government has taken a top-down approach to introducing policies and measures in the hope of making young people fall in love with China. These included the attempted introduction of a mandatory national education curriculum, teaching Mandarin in schools, and funding cultural exchange programmes for Hong Kong’s young people to visit mainland China.
But a lot of these measures backfired, from the massive student-led protests against the national education curriculum in 2012 to the most recent revolt against the mandatory Mandarin course at Baptist University.

Baptist University Mandarin row boils over

Will forcing Hong Kong’s uniformed groups to adopt the Chinese style of marching win young people’s hearts? The answer is – to borrow former Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s words when he berated a journalist in an infamous rant in 2000 – too simple, sometimes naive.
The drill practice is never political – at least it was not in my days

The drill practice of uniformed youth groups is never about grooming young people’s patriotism. It is about discipline, team-building, cooperation and achieving goals through group effort. It helps to train the minds and bodies of young people.

It is never political – at least it was not in my days when I was a Red Cross youth member.

The commands might have been in English but it did not cross my mind whether the marching style was British or not.

Did it make me a loyal subject of colonial rule? It most certainly did not. All I knew was that it was a tradition passed on from senior schoolmates and I could not let them down. So we worked hard to serve the unit we belonged to.

A child waves Chinese and Hong Kong SAR flags at an exchange session between visiting Olympians from the mainland and Hong Kong youth uniformed groups, in August 2016. Photo: Dickson Lee

Hong Kong’s lost youth need help to see themselves in China’s future

A top-down approach that disrupts traditions, heritage and our way of life will never win the hearts of Hong Kong people. It requires a much softer approach, creating an environment that gives young people hope for the future living in the city.

Vivienne Chow is a journalist and critic based in Hong Kong. She is the founder of the non-profit educational initiative Cultural Journalism Campus

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Changing our traditions won’t make us love Beijing