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The struggle between local consciousness and national identity gathers pace

By Natalie Tsoi and Jeffrey Wong

A man walks into Mong Kok East railway station pulling a trolley loaded with heavy cardboard boxes. When he tries to pass through the turnstile, a group of angry people immediately surround him, waving blue flags and swearing. The man is trapped. He cannot move until he has proven that his boxes contain fluorescent lights, not milk powder or other grey goods destined for sale across the border.

This incident is merely a tip of the iceberg. Tensions have been simmering between Hong Kong people and those from the Mainland for years and came to a head at the beginning of 2012. The flashpoint was when a security guard from the luxury fashion retailer, Dolce & Gabbana, forbade locals from taking photos outside their flagship store at Tsim Sha Tsui and said that only Mainlanders could do so.

Shortly after that, a video showing a dispute between Hong Kongers and mainland tourists over the tourists eating food on an MTR train went viral. Then, in a television discussion about the video, a Peking University professor called Hong Kong people dogs.

Tensions were stoked further when a group of Hong Kong netizens fought back against the insult. They raised money from donations to place an advertisement in the newspapers, calling mainland Chinese “locusts” swarming the city.

The advertisement fed into the discontent many people in the city felt that  mainlanders were coming to Hong Kong to give birth to children who could then claim right of abode here, competing with existing local families for hospital resources and primary school places. The rampant parallel trading activities that have affected the daily lives of Hong Kong people have further driven a wedge between Hong Kong and the Mainland.

The protests, such as those outside Mong Kok East and Sheung Shui stations may seem to be about a battle for resources or a reaction to changes in Hong Kong people’s way of life. Outsider observers might even see them as an expression of discrimination against the “other”. But as the more than 100,000 people who turned up to protest against the government’s proposed national education curriculum for schools showed, the battle for resources masks an ideological struggle. There is a brewing war between local consciousness and nationalism.

In the most recent findings from the “Identity and National Identification of Hong Kong People” survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 23 per cent of the respondents chose “Hongkongese” as their answer to the question “How do you identify yourself?”. This was the highest percentage since 2006. At the other end, 12 per cent picked “Chinese”, the lowest figure since the biannual survey was started 17 years ago.

Professor Eric Ma Kit-wai, who has conducted the survey from the beginning, says the results show how citizens have changed their minds. Ma says the initial projected outcome was that local identity would gradually diminish while national identity would rise. For the most part, the results seemed to confirm this but he began to witness a change in the trend in 2010.

Ma says the frequent disputes over resources between Hong Kong and the Mainland are some of the reasons for the change. Hong Kongpeople feel their own way of living is being eroded bit by bit. Also, Hong Kong media are producing more detailed news reports that reveal the negative side of China, like the mysterious “suicide” and death of activist Li Wangyang and the constant food scares. Ma says these have led to a worsening general impression of the country. At the same time, it has made Hong Kongpeople treasure their local identity more, in order to differentiate and distance themselves from what they see as the undesirable behaviour and culture of mainlanders.

The survey sparked an angry rebuke from Beijing. The Global Times, a mainland tabloid that is under the auspices of the official People’s Daily, published a commentary attacking the survey, and criticising the research as “unscientific”.

Although Ma says he will not let the allegations weigh on him, he agrees that there has been a change in the mainland government’s attitude towards Hong Kong. “[They] want to prevent Hong Kong people from having an overwhelming local consciousness, which is not beneficial to the [China-Hong Kong] integration,” he says.

However, contrary to Beijing’s hopes, this “overwhelming local consciousness” is gathering steam. Ma explains local consciousness can be understood as a sense of belonging and pride that derives from the lifestyles, values and culture of the place where one lives.

It was noticeable during the campaign to save the Star Ferry Pier in Central in November 2006. In the campaign, activists appealed to local people’s collective memory and sense of belonging. The idea of being a Hong Konger was transformed from a cultural affinity to a more political one.

This has become more assertive and visible in recent years. Colonial flags and the “Dragon Lion Flag”, which is a modified version of the former, have become a common sight at local protests; and cries for autonomy and independence are now heard from some sections of the crowd.

“Nobody takes the [Special Administrative] Regional flag to protest…because nobody thinks it is representing us,” says Stanley Ng, a member of the Hong Kong City-State Autonomy Movement (HKAM), gazing at the Dragon Lion flag. Ng says they use the Dragon Lion flag because it can remind Hong Kong people of the values they used to enjoy in colonial times, such as freedom and the rule of law. HKAM believes the Hong Kong colonial coat of arms could act as a common symbol to help wake up the local consciousness of Hong Kong people.

The movement started when netizens gathered to form a group on Facebook to show their support for Dr Chin Wan-kan and his book Hong Kong as a City-state, which advocates the idea of claiming autonomy and re-orienting Hong Kong into a city-state. The group now has over 6,000 likes, and is an active organiser and participant in various protests on Hong Kong-Mainland issues.

Chin, more commonly known by his pen-name Chin Wan, is the mastermind of the movement and is revered almost like a spiritual leader. He says the aim of the group is to uphold the values guaranteed by the Basic Law and, ultimately, to improve Hong Kong and China. “If I do nothing, Hong Kong will perish. When Hong Kong perishes, China will perish too,” says Chin.

The group insists autonomy has to be implemented under the constitutional framework of the Basic Law. Under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, all matters apart from defence and foreign relations areHong Kong’s internal affairs. Chin says the Basic Law, if fully implemented, would make Hong Kong close to being a de facto sovereign state. “The Communist Party actually knows…once there is universal suffrage, the local consciousness and people’s care for their [city] will be awakened,” says Chin.

But even though members of the group repeatedly stress they are not an independence movement, the mere appearance of a flag derived from the colonial one has been enough to provoke the irritation and outright wrath of pro-establishment camps and mainland officials.

“If you tell me that it [waving the colonial flag] is not about independence, nor alluding a detachment from the Central (People’s Government), I won’t believe it,” said Holden Chow Ho-ding, chairman of the Young Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Although he admits that he knows little about HKAM, he believes they have a hidden agenda to make Hong Kong an independent entity, even though they only talk about autonomy in public.

Chow’s views echo those of Chen Zuo’er, a former deputy director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO). Chen said to the media that it is heartbreaking to see Hong Kong people waving the flag of a foreign country, meaning the colonial Hong Kong flag that bears the Union Jack.

Lu Ping, a former director of the HKMAO also wrote to a local newspaper and expressed his dismay about people who advocated Hong Kong independence. “Deprived of support from the mainland, Hong Kong will be a dead city,” he wrote.

Ip Iam-chong, one of the activists in the campaign to save Queen’s Pier and now a senior teaching fellow of the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, says Hong Kong can expect more explicit interference from Beijing. Ip was among the earliest group of people to talk about the “local discourse” in the wake of the social movements.

Ip says autonomy and independence is a sensitive topic for every country in the world and, for Hong Kong, it is a taboo in the context of “One Country, Two Systems”.

“[The central government thinks] independence is separatist and you cannot discuss it. But does that mean it [the problem] doesn’t exist? Of course not,” he says.

Yet Ip thinks it is normal and healthy to talk about autonomy and independence, especially as the Basic Law guarantees Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy”. What he does find worrying is what he sees as an increasing tendency to put issues into a binary opposition and the attitude of rebuking and labelling others as enemies simply by taking the superficial meaning of what they have said. “It is like if you do not talk like me, then you must have a problem,” says Ip.

Without cooler heads, Ip thinks it is hard to see how there can be rational discussions on the issue. The war of words has spilled over from the internet to the streets and even rages in the chamber of the Legislative Council. Denunciations of those who advocate Hong Kong autonomy as traitors, running dogs of imperialism and worse are frequently found on social media sites and heard at public events. Similarly, those who identify with China can be automatically labelled as communist-loving traitors and lap-dogs of Beijing.

Even those who support local consciousness but urge tolerance and respect for mainlanders, such as Ip Iam-chong, are attacked as left-wing facilitators of the Chinese Communist Party and accused of selling out the interests of Hong Kong people.

The conflict between localism and nationalism extends beyond tensions and confrontation between Hong Kongers and mainlanders. It also divides Hong Kongers themselves and some fear the war or words may yet turn into something more.

Edited by Ian Cheng

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