Housing, pregnant mainlanders and milk powder rifts have shaped Hongkongers’ national identity. A Chinese history centre won’t change that
Alice Wu says the unveiling of the new national history education centre implies that Hongkongers’ lack of identification with China can be fixed with ‘basic knowledge’. However, it fails to address much deeper resentment caused by the competition for goods and services – especially housing
Can national identity be taught? I don’t profess to have the answer. There are plenty of others who do seem to know, however, For those who have founded and set up “national education” institutions or programmes, the answer is obvious.
Increasingly, China’s leaders have become fixated on Hongkongers’ supposed “sense of identity”. Arguably, during the first decade after the 1997 handover, Beijing adopted quite a tolerant attitude towards Hong Kong identity.
There had always been talk about integration – mainly economic and cultural – for building the groundwork of better mutual understanding, which in itself is a recognition of the existence of differences.
A lot has happened since then: Hongkongers’ identity is now considered something of a crisis that needs to be dealt with. President Xi Jinping has spoken on many occasions of the need to strengthen our national identities. And, hence, we’re seeing more projects like the newly established Centre of National History Education (Hong Kong).
The director of the new centre, Ho Hon-kuen said that “our only mission is to make sure citizens have a basic knowledge about their own country”. There is no harm in that, just as there’s every reason to also have a basic knowledge about other countries as well, since no one is an island. But, is the underlying assumption – that Hongkongers lack this basic knowledge of their own country – correct?
National identity is constructed socially much more than it is learned through some sort of top-down curriculum. Knowledge and information about the nation are learned through many channels. People are informed not only by the views of their “teachers”, but also by the views held by peers and family members.
And all of them make daily judgments – consciously or unconsciously – about whether to adopt and/or identify with the values, assumptions and expectations considered to be their “national identity”.
Rather, it is the kind of knowledge we find, and how we filter and process it, that shapes our individual sense of “nation”. I don’t believe for a second that Hong Kong youths lack a basic knowledge of the country.
They, like others, are deeply affected by how the nation is viewed on the global stage, how our leaders interact with others, and how this affects the way Chinese people are viewed and treated around the world.
There’s also the local context to consider in how identification comes about and evolves. And for Hong Kong – even if we simply ignore our history before the handover – there has been much to shape our national consciousness.
The fights with our cross-border brethren over milk powder and maternity wards are not so distant a memory; competition for the provision of goods and public services brought identity issues and differences to the fore.
Watch: Soaring house prices in Hong Kong force young professionals into micro flats
Perhaps most influential in the youth’s formation of their “national psyche” are the staggering and increasingly unaffordable home prices, attributed to buyers from the mainland. Being literally squeezed out of their space widens the gulf and strengthens the notion of mutual exclusiveness.
These cruel facts do not invoke a sense of cohesion, or inspire any sense of commonality, let alone shared identity or destiny. Instead, they feed a sense of coercion, antagonism and provocation which accentuate the differences.
Ho said the new centre aims “to pass on the history and culture of China, build up a national identity and allow the next generation to uphold warmth and respect for the nation”. Unfortunately, these aims lack any real meaning, given the blatant disconnect with current realities.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA