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Hong Kong localism and independence

Beijing ‘confuses Hong Kong localism with being anti-China’

City University researchers say top-down demands for patriotism by central government could push more Hongkongers to reject national identity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 8:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 11:28am

Researchers at City University have warned that Hongkongers are being pushed into rejecting their national identity because the local and Beijing governments are “misdiagnosing” the problem by equating localism with being unpatriotic.

Citing their latest study, a team of political scientists questioned the common conception that a rise in localism was making people feel “less Chinese” and “more Hongkonger”.

The researchers concluded it was Hongkongers’ mistrust in the Beijing government, rather than a lack of broader Chinese identity, that prompted them to resist the motherland.

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The findings came against the backdrop of recently stepped up official rhetoric against localists for “colluding with external forces” to advocate self-determination or independence for the city. 

At a seminar on Sunday, Wang Zhimin, the head of Beijing’s liaison office in the city, identified the lack of national security legislation in Hong Kong as a “major weakness”.    

However, research leader Professor Linda Li Che-lan said: “There seems to be a common prejudice in the policy circles that local and national identities are in a zero-sum relationship. 

“Critics often equate localism with being unpatriotic. And some think people would love China more if localism could be eliminated. This is very wrong.”

Li warned Beijing against being bogged down by “misconception” and “misdiagnosis”, and that top-down demands for patriotism could risk pushing more Hongkongers into rejecting their national identity.

The conclusions were based on fresh analysis of data collected between 1997 and 2017 through tracking polls on “Hong Kong people’s ethnic identity” by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme. 

Some think people would love China more if localism could be eliminated. This is very wrong 
Professor Linda Li, research head 

Li warned Beijing against being bogged down by “misconception” and “misdiagnosis”, and that top-down demands for patriotism could risk pushing more Hongkongers into rejecting their national identity.

The conclusions were based on fresh analysis of data collected between 1997 and 2017 through tracking polls on “Hong Kong people’s ethnic identity” by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme. 

Respondents were asked to rate, among other indicators, how strongly they identify themselves as “Hongkonger” or “Chinese” on a scale of 0 to 10.

The City University analysis found the scores for local Hong Kong identity hovered around 8 since Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese sovereignty. 

Even during the Occupy campaign for greater democracy in 2014 and the surge in localist sentiment in 2015 and 2016, Hong Kong people “did not become remarkably or more strongly attached to Hong Kong”, they noted.

Hongkongers less likely to identify as Chinese: poll

Hongkongers’ “Chinese” identity scores remained at around 7 during the early post-handover period. It topped 8 in the first half of 2008 before a steady drop to 6.8 points last year.

‘Hongkonger’ and ‘Chinese’ identities are not an ‘either-or’ thing
Professor Linda Li, City University

“Despite the changes, the two identities maintained a largely positive relationship,” Li said. “That is, a stronger ‘Hongkonger’ identity also goes with a stronger “Chinese” identity and vice versa. ‘Hongkonger’ and ‘Chinese’ identities are not an ‘either-or’ thing.”

Employing what is known as regression analysis, based on data drawn from related surveys by the public opinion programme, Li’s team found that “trust in Beijing”, or the lack of it, was the biggest factor in the weakening of people’s “Chinese” identity in recent years. 

“This very strong association suggests that … feeling Chinese and trusting the central government in Beijing has taken on an almost synonymous connotation for many Hong Kong citizens,” the research paper stated.

Li urged the central government to rethink its policy on Hong Kong, saying: “Rather than stressing its overall control over the city or instilling nationalism, it should try to restore Hong Kong people’s confidence in it.”

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Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank based in Beijing, was convinced that localism and national identity should not be treated as being mutually exclusive.

“But if some localists go so far as to promote independence or self-determination, that is another story, and we must appreciate Beijing’s worry and tough response,” said Lau, who was among the city’s first academics to conduct studies on Hongkongers’ sense of identity in the 1980s.

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“In politics, sometimes things can easily get entangled and it is not easier to tell which actually has led to which,” Lau added. 

He cited the controversy over HKU law scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s remarks about Hong Kong independence, which has prompted the government to accuse him of advocating separatism.

“Tai has become a ‘separatist’ in the eyes of Beijing. Before that, he was only seen as a pro-democracy activist,” Lau said.