Can Beijing achieve its next big goal for Hong Kong – making people feel more Chinese? 

State leaders have echoed President Xi Jinping’s call for a stronger national identity among Hongkongers at the ongoing parliamentary session, but Beijing’s ‘hardline’ approach to the city isn’t helping, observers say 

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2018, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2018, 10:21pm

If political adviser Shie Tak-chung had his way, the city’s Victoria Park, Queen Victoria Street, and even Victoria Harbour would be renamed.

Shie, one of about 200 Hong Kong delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top political advisory body, said this week that Hongkongers’ love for their motherland should be “nurtured” and “inspired” from young.

Thus, Beijing should tell the Hong Kong government to get rid of British colonial “symbols” such as names of streets and places at an appropriate time, the businessman proffered.

“After the handover, Hongkongers are Chinese citizens,” he said. 

“Under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle’ or even if it was ‘one country, one system’, Hong Kong people are Chinese citizens and should love the country.”

It is anyone’s guess if his suggestion to further “decolonialise” the city would be taken up at the ongoing annual parliamentary session of the CPPCC and the National People’s Congress (NPC) or  lianghui, where about 5,000 delegates have gathered to take stock of the leadership’s priorities and raise policy concerns.

But what is certain is that Shie’s motives are aligned with high-level thinking about guiding Hong Kong deeper into Beijing’s fold. This view, though, remains unpopular on the ground.

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Former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chen Zuoer once attributed protests against the central government to Hongkongers’ failure to shake off their colonial hangover

Last October, President Xi Jinping at the 19th party congress called on Hongkongers to have a stronger sense of Chinese identity, while in recent days the Communist Party’s No 5 official Wang Huning and No 6 official Zhao Leji have repeated this exhortation.

Wang was quoted as saying that Hongkongers needed to understand that the nation’s fate is closely related to them and that the future of the city’s youngsters and the country’s development was inseparable.

So with a new state leader overseeing Hong Kong and Macau affairs set to be appointed, how might he entrench a stronger sense of national identity? 

There has been talk that Li Zhanshu, the Communist Party’s No 3 official, would take over from Zhang Dejiang as head of the NPC and also get the mandate of point man on Hong Kong and Macau, a role once held by Xi and Zeng Qinghong when they were vice-presidents.

Other reports say another possibility – though less likely than Li – is Wang Yang, the No 4 official. He is familiar with Hong Kong as he used to be party boss of Guangdong province.

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China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said Xi’s remarks showed the great importance he attached to Hong Kong matters, especially in light of stirring independence advocacy in the city. He would have the final say on appointing the chief interlocutor to carry out his brief for Hong Kong, he said.

“Li Zhanshu will be 100 per cent loyal in executing Xi’s directions. He may make 200 per cent effort during the process,” Lau, who is based in Hong Kong, said. 

Xi and Li became friends between 1983 and 1985, when they were in their early 30s and were the party chiefs of neighbouring counties in Hebei province in northern China. Li also built ties with members of Xi’s family. In 2000, when Li was a leading official in Shaanxi province, he helped Qi Xin, Xi’s mother, and Xi’s siblings on a fact-finding tour of the province during which they gathered material for a biography of Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun.

“Wang is more familiar with Hong Kong, and he was known for his practical working style when he was in Guangdong,” Lau said. 

“In theory, Wang could be more flexible, especially when it comes to political strategies, though he still cannot depart from Xi’s framework.”

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One of 36 Hong Kong deputies to the NPC, Tam Yiu-chung, said he was familiar with Wang but not Li. 

“I cannot say who would be better. They are just executing policies set by the central government and the Chinese President,” Tam, who formerly led the biggest pro-Beijing political party in Hong Kong, said.

But Tam acknowledged that to avoid provoking discontent in the city, mainland officials may adopt a “soft approach” when making speeches in future.

Indeed, whoever is appointed as head of the central coordination group for Hong Kong and Macau will have to skilfully sway mindsets to achieve Xi’s aim. 

Two months after the party congress, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) released a poll that found almost no young person in the city considered themselves Chinese. Only 0.3 per cent of 18 to 29 year olds picked “Chinese”, compared to 69.7 per cent who chose “Hongkonger”.

Talk less about supreme power, and more on understanding and inclusion
Professor Johannes Chan, on how Beijing should take a soft approach to Hong Kong affairs

Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, former law dean at the HKU, said the findings were more reflective of resentment against the central government rather than an identity crisis.

“It is apparent that the tough and uncompromising approach adopted by the mainland is not well received in Hong Kong … Beijing should try to better understand what people in Hong Kong think. A soft approach will be more acceptable,” he said.

“Talk less about supreme power, and more on understanding and inclusion. The confrontational and hardline approach is only likely to yield further resentment among the young people and may lead to a genuine identity issue.”

Associate professor of law Li Xiaobing at Nankai University said teachers were key in fostering a deeper sense of belonging to China. 

“Textbooks can do the work but it is how the teachers teach them about their identity that is more important. If the teachers do not embrace the motherland and the country’s developments, it does not matter what the textbooks say,” he said. 

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NPC deputy Raymond Tam Chi-yuen said it was pointless to hard sell China to youngsters.

“What we can do is remove obstacles for young Hongkongers to experience life on the mainland,” he said, adding that he intended to propose to Beijing ways to get more youngsters to cross the border, such as launching a high-speed rail youth pass for them to take unlimited rides within a fixed period for less than HK$1,000. 

Then there is also deep-seated anxiety over the fate of Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” governance model, fuelling localism movements rallying against Beijing’s encroaching influence. 

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Last year, it imposed a national anthem law on the city, raising the spectre of prison terms for disrespecting the song or national flag. In 2016, the NPC standing committee issued an interpretation of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, that effectively led to six pro-democracy lawmakers losing their seats in the Legislative Council over an oath-taking saga.

The recent scrapping of presidential term limits allowing Xi to stay on in power, sparked fear in the city’s pro-democracy camp as to whether his uncompromising stance would mean greater emphasis on one country rather than two systems, and intensify restrictions on the rights and freedoms Hongkongers currently enjoy.

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NPC deputy Michael Tien Puk-sun said some members of the electoral committee that voted in Hong Kong deputies to Beijing’s legislature had asked him to raise questions on Liu Xia, widow of late Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, to the NPC. 

The late Liu was jailed for 11 years in 2009 on subversion charges for his involvement in writing Charter 08, a petition advocating political reform in China. His widow has been under house arrest since 2010.

“On the surface, Liu Xia has not committed any crimes,” Tien said, insisting he was not engaging in theatrics to get attention.  

“I just want to ask if she is under house arrest and, if she is, on what basis.”

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Tien’s fellow deputy Bernard Chan, referring to Wang Huning’s comments on Tuesday, said he did not think the propaganda tsar was calling for a “top-down approach” to make people more patriotic.

But the onus was also on Hongkongers to “understand that there’s great potential if we work together for the country’s future,” Chan, the convenor of chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s cabinet said.

“At the end of the day, it’s still entirely up to the Hong Kong people to decide how they feel. We cannot force them to become more patriotic. 

“It has to come from inside, from within.”