Is the rise of localism a threat to Hong Kong's cosmopolitan values?

Many cheer the rise of localism as a means to protect Hong Kong's core values - others sense the city's cosmopolitan image is in danger

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2015, 2:57am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 12:13pm

Hong Kong may be gripped by the issue of political reform but the fate of a 12-year-old undocumented boy from the mainland is also the talk of the town. At the core, both are linked inextricably to Hong Kong's identity vis-à-vis the mainland.

The case of Siu Yau-wai, smuggled here from Shenzhen by his grandmother at age three, has sparked a divisive public debate. Shortly after his case came to light on May 21, the Immigration Department granted him temporary papers.

But anti-mainland groups surrounded the office of Federation of Trade Union lawmaker Chan Yuen-han to protest against her role in helping the boy. They accused the veteran unionist and Beijing loyalist of betraying Hongkongers by setting a precedent and opening the floodgates to illegal immigrants from mainland.

The protesters then went a step further and besieged the Confucian Tai Shing Primary School in Wong Tai Sin, whose principal had earlier voiced interest in offering the boy a place after finding out he had never gone to school. Posters with the words "traitors" and "my classmate is an illegal immigrant" were plastered on the school's doors.

Images of a schoolgirl bursting into tears because of the incident sparked condemnation among many who felt the boy was being treated with such derision because he was a mainlander.

Online, views have been equally split. While some expressed reservations about the protests and called for all children to be given access to education, others posted hateful comments online, demanding the boy be deported to avoid setting a precedent for illegal immigrants. They wanted him back on the mainland even though he has no relatives there.

"Yau-wai is an illegal immigrant and he should be sent back to the mainland immediately. China has its own social protection system and there's no need for Hong Kong to take care of him with its generosity," says Danny Chan Tsz-chun, a member of Hong Kong Blue Righteous Revolt, a pro-independence group.

"It's not a matter of sympathy, but whether we can take care of ourselves. If I had a bowl of rice, I would definitely share half of it with Yau-wai. But how could I do so if I had only half a bowl of it?"

Chan says Hongkongers have had enough and no longer want to share their resources with outsiders.

Groups like Righteous Revolt are becoming a small but vocal minority causing a headache even for pan-democrats. The roots of such movements, dubbed "localism", are not political. The first wave emerged in 2006 when activists set up groups such as Local Action to campaign to save the Star Ferry Pier and Queen's Pier from demolition in a bid to preserve the city's heritage and identity.

But localism has taken on an edgy political dimension over the past few years, says Dr Law Wing-sang, a cultural studies scholar at Lingnan University.

And this is where the case of the undocumented mainland boy intersects with politics.

Law cites two trends: the growing tendency of Hongkongers to distinguish themselves from mainlanders and the mounting calls for independence, which intensified in the wake of the 79-day Occupy pro-democracy sit-ins last year.

Indeed, such sentiments fuelled a series of radicalised and escalated protests in February and March, when protesters overran shopping malls in Tuen Mun, Yuen Long and Sha Tin to vent anger towards mainland tourists and cross-border traders for affecting their daily lives.

Increasingly, the appeal of localism has fanned out onto school and university campuses.

The Federation of Students - the city's oldest and most politically influential student group which co-led the Occupy movement - has for the first time this year decided to avoid the June 4 candlelight vigil that marks the Tiananmen Square crackdown 26 years ago. Their reason is the slogan: "Build a democratic China".

The chant - inoffensive since 1989 - has touched on the nerves of Baptist University's student union, a former member of the federation.

"Building a democratic China should not be the responsibility of Hongkongers," says Sunny Cheung Kwan-yang, external vice-chairman of the union. "We Hongkongers have only one responsibility: to protect Hong Kong."

Law says localism stems from Hongkongers' strong love of the city they call home - as reflected during the Occupy protests. But it is their "sense of crisis" because of the political impasse that offers the oxygen for radical - or right-wing - beliefs to thrive.

"Such relatively right-wing localism emerges because some Hongkongers think that many things in their city have been challenged," he says. "Thus xenophobia becomes one of the options."

The challenges here refer not only to the city's freedoms and rights, but also the resources - be it baby formula or school places - which Hongkongers have accused mainlanders of snapping up.

But Law, who specialises in Hong Kong cultural formation and citizenship, fears the city may pay a huge price for letting the right take the lead in the localism movement.

By setting themselves as being deliberately against all mainlanders, they damage the core values of a city long known for being cosmopolitan, Law laments.

He says the tactics adopted by right-wing activists make them sound similar to the very forces they despise on the mainland, with their nationalistic and populist overtones. "Many Hongkongers dislike the political culture of the mainland … but then you copy that to attack your 'enemies'," he says. "What's the difference between Hong Kong and the mainland then? You're both unreasonable."

But more politicians may be betting on localism as a potential vote-winner. Back in 2012, the Civic Party's Claudia Mo Man-ching and NeoDemocrat Gary Fan Kwok-wai were the only candidates who ran for Legco under the flag of localism.

Mo adopted a controversial "anti-mainlandisation" slogan in the West Kowloon constituency, home to many mainland immigrants, to emphasise the need to preserve the city's core values. Fan said Hongkongers should come first in allocating resources.

The duo - who formed the group Hong Kong First after they entered the legislature - did not win much applause from their pan-democratic allies back then.

Labour Party lawmaker Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung in 2013 refused to sign a petition initiated by the pair and activists to express their discontent at the flood of mainland tourists and immigrants, which they said had disrupted order in the city and put heavy pressure on housing. Cheung said the activists should not put all the blame on new immigrants but should focus on the city's unfair policies.

But today, ironically, the two key parties in the camp - Democratic Party and Civic Party - are mulling over a plan to incorporate some elements of localism into their declarations, albeit in a very careful way.

It would be an especially significant move for the Democratic Party, the city's oldest pan-democratic grouping, as many of its members joined the movement in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The Democrats have long advocated the belief that the city and mainland China are closely related and that people have a responsibility to care about the country and assist in its democratisation. This position stands in stark contrast with the localism of the youth of today.

But it is time for a change, says Democrats' vice-chairman Lo Kin-hei, one of the young advocates who want the party to place more emphasis on Hongkongers' interests. Though Lo does not envision cutting off the city's connection with the mainland, he wants the party to push harder on policies that protect Hongkongers' core values and interests.

"As a party rooted in Hong Kong, we should make relevant reform amid the change in social atmosphere," he says. "The thing Hongkongers care about the most is their daily lives - which they now think are being affected by the likes of mainland tourists. If you don't touch on such issues, no one will listen to the party." Lo believes the party should put forward a clearer position on the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland.

Former Democrats chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan - who chairs the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which hosts the June 4 candlelight vigil - is non-committal for the time being.

He says he has yet to decide whether he backs the idea of incorporating localism into the party's basic beliefs as "it all depends how it is drafted".

But he stresses that the Democratic Party has long been working on protecting Hongkongers' interests.

"It is a local party - what else should we do if we are not protecting locals' interests?" he asks. "The Democratic Party was not founded to build a democratic China."

Ensuring the autonomy of Hong Kong is also a local topic, he says.

Ho, however, makes a distinction between putting Hong Kong first and advocating xenophobia, to which he is opposed.

"We would not attack mainland tourists. That is wrong and we would condemn such acts," he says. Instead, on policy terms, the Democrats have been calling for an amendment to the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution, to deny children born to mainland parents the right of abode.

It is understood that the Democrats flirted with the idea of developing localism in 2012.

But they rejected the move after members feared the party would sound like Gary Fan - an ex-colleague whom some said had been winning votes by stirring up hatred and discrimination in society.

Lo admits they have to be extra cautious in taking this line.

"We should never lose our humanity in protecting Hongkongers' interests," he says, citing the recent example of the undocumented 12-year-old boy.

Law says localism need not necessarily be xenophobic, and the participation of pan-democratic parties may cause a healthy turn given the current situation as it would be better than letting the extreme right wing lead the movement.

A co-founder of the Occupy movement, Dr Chan Kin-man, a Chinese University sociologist who specialises in social movements, also says the pursuit of localism - a school of thought which he disagrees with and says could be dangerous - should be guided by universal values.

"It's completely fine for you not to identify yourselves as Chinese but Hongkongers," he says. "But without compassion … localism could turn into fascism."


2006-07: Activists set up advocacy group Local Action in the wake of Star Ferry Pier demolition. They later occupy Queen's Pier for three months to protest against government's decision to pull it down, to no avail

2010: Activists - mostly people born after 1980 and environmentalists - besiege Legislative Council to oppose building of express railway to Guangzhou, which will cost homes of Tsoi Yuen Tsuen villagers in Yuen Long

2011: Lingnan University scholar Dr Horace Chin Wan-kan publishes Hong Kong as a City-state - a book that later wins an award and is widely seen as laying fundamental and theoretical foundation of today's localism. It advocates the belief, "forget China, Hong Kong comes first", suggesting city differentiate itself from mainland and protect its own interests

January 2012: Hundreds gather outside Dolce & Gabbana in Tsim Sha Tsui to protest against sales staff for allegedly preventing Hongkongers - but not mainlanders or foreigners - from taking photos of shop

February: Internet users raise HK$100,000 in less than a week to finance full-page, "anti-locust" Apple Daily advertisement, entitled "Hongkongers have had enough", pouring sarcasm on mainlanders' use of city's resources. Tensions reach boiling point with mainland mothers and children accused of hogging public hospitals and schools

July: Protesters wave city's colonial flag at July 1 pro-democracy march, saying flag symbolises "good old days" when British were in charge

May 2013: Localism activists call for boycott of June 4 candlelight vigil because of organisers' slogan, "love the country and its people"

February 2014: About 100 activists revive "anti-locust" protest in Tsim Sha Tsui, chanting "reclaim Hong Kong" and urging mainland tourists to "go back to China".

January 2015: Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying accuses University of Hong Kong's student magazine Undergrad of "putting forward fallacies" about nationalism and self-determination

February-March: Protests break out in Tuen Mun, Sheung Shui and Sha Tin against parallel-goods traders

May: Student unions of HKU and Baptist University pull out of June 4 vigil for first time because of its slogan, "build a democratic China"

May 31: Fewer young people show up at Tiananmen commemorative march. Members of Localism Power protest against march participants, chanting "Hongkongers have no responsibility to build a democratic China"