Hong Kong culture

Hong Kong should not fear change under China, because even the mainland is changing, too

  • Anson Au says Hongkongers’ worry of losing their separate identity is misplaced, as no culture can be frozen in time, particularly in a globalised world
  • China’s phenomenal transformation over the past 40 years is a lesson in how culture and identity are dynamic and malleable
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2018, 6:34am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2018, 6:39am

Will Hong Kong maintain its unique cultural identity, or will everything that makes us who we are be flattened underneath a political machine steamrollering towards us from Beijing? These questions stir perennial debate. Recent developments aimed apparently at popularising the teaching of Mandarin in Hong Kong schools and the political suppression of the advocacy of Hong Kong independence and self-determination have fuelled a climate of fear in the city.

Some commentators believe an intolerant Beijing is “coming for us” and the end game at hand is the destruction of Hong Kong’s unique identity. This echoes popular fears that the mainland’s brand of strongman politics will come to dominate Hong Kong as we approach 2047.

But these fears are misplaced and lack historical perspective.

First, social research shows that any identity is bound to change over time. At the individual level, identities change as people take on different roles, move to different places, become connected with different people and disconnected from others, and fall under the sway of new technological and social innovations. This is even truer of entire societies, which are made up of ever-changing people and whose cultures constantly adapt to new social forces.

Watch: Hong Kong’s transformation over the past 45 years

Hong Kong is still wet behind the ears at 21 under Chinese rule

Think of the greatest modern transformation in recent history: our induction into the internet age. Suddenly, knowledge became more accessible and the distances that once parted families and severed ties shrank. Connectivity meant networking flourished in new ways and, with it, the flows of finance, people, culture and information were extended across the globe.

Hong Kong will not be the same in 30 years, even if we imagine putting it in a box, left to its own devices and separated from the mainland. There’s no protecting from cultural influences. One recent morning, I woke up in my apartment built by Chinese workers, picked up a local English-language newspaper to read an article by a Singaporean writer, then sat down in a French cafe for a coffee made with beans imported from Brazil. To “protect a unique culture” means to safeguard it against everything else.

Even if Hong Kong can protect itself from the adoption of mainland Chinese culture, how would it safeguard itself from American, French or other cultural influences? Supposing cultural protectionism succeeded, all we’d be left with would be the dregs of a former colony worthy of a footnote in Britain’s history, and a colonial past is nothing to be proud of to begin with.

Who gained the most from Hong Kong’s colonial era: Britain, China or the city?

And just as Hong Kong has changed drastically over time, so too has China, and it will continue to change. Hong Kong will not be bulldozed in 30 years by the China we fear, simply because the China we know today won’t even be the same by that time. China is changing even as we speak, in ways commensurate with the trajectories of social, political, economic and technological growth it’s bound to.

Over the past 40 years, the world has witnessed China undergo the greatest national transformation in modern history. Not so long ago, China was still a closed regime, in many ways worse than contemporary North Korea. Its political apparatus was a secret society of infighting elders jockeying for favour, whose workings were laid bare in the 2009 publication of Zhao Ziyang’s secret journal.

Son of purged reformer Zhao Ziyang tells of China's 'shame', 25 years after Tiananmen

In the late 1970s, Chinese people were reeling from a legacy of genocide that exacted both a human and cultural toll. Centuries of customs and artifacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and, with them, the wisdom of ages past. Education systems and family structures that have been destroyed needed to be rebuilt. Progress was difficult, and set back by the political misstep of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.

China’s economic reform and opening up was little more than a thought experiment, given flesh as Sham Chun (modern-day Shenzhen) was made one of the nation’s first hubs of what would become a global trade in goods and labour. Deng Xiaoping walked the tightrope between openness and being closed as a national policy, ironically grappling with the same fears Hongkongers today have towards mainland China: wondering how much of what makes us unique will get lost amid the new cultural influences coming in.

In the end, openness won out, as economic growth picked up, trade improved and migration increased. As a result, cities got built, infrastructure established, and universities rose in global rankings to beat out even American universities. Through it all, China moved from Third World status to a superpower on the world stage in 40 years without military conquest.

Hongkongers, too, witnessed the nation’s climb to global leadership. I believe that, in the next 30 years, we will see a much more multicultural China, in line with the trend of increasing migration, which will have implications on how the government treats minorities.

Cultural protectionism isn’t going to help. It will only breed civil violence and division that impede the cooperation needed for development. Identity and culture will always be dynamic, malleable things, most of all in a globalised world. Will our Hong Kong identity change in 30 years? Probably. So will Chinese identity. But they’ll change for reasons that have less to do with strongman politics and more to do with our place in a globalised world.

Anson Au is a scholar and writer whose work covers culture, health and politics. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Seoul National University Asia Centre and at Yonsei University, as well as a PhD student in sociology at the University of Toronto