27 March 2019
A cultural association provides subsidized mainland trips to Hong Kong students, aiming to promote the message that China is a modern and prosperous country. The trips have been nicknamed 'brainwashing' tours. Photo: internet
A cultural association provides subsidized mainland trips to Hong Kong students, aiming to promote the message that China is a modern and prosperous country. The trips have been nicknamed 'brainwashing' tours. Photo: internet

Why China’s ‘national identity’ card won’t work in HK

The student protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan last year brought into stark relief the trust deficit that Beijing suffers in the eyes of ethnic Chinese youth overseas, and also the cultural gulf that exists between peoples from across the border.

Realizing that the youth are opting to walk away from Chinese national identity, rather than embrace it, mainland authorities are stepping efforts to reinforce awareness of cultural ties and shared history.

The Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports held a work conference recently to discuss the agenda for this year, laying particular emphasis on fostering national identity among the youth of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau through cultural exchanges.

State news agency Xinhua reported that authorities have deemed that previous efforts to promote Chinese culture and identity overseas have yet to achieve the desired results. And officials also admitted that young people are being influenced more by Western culture, ignoring their roots.

For youngsters in Hong Kong and Taiwan, 2014 was a watershed year in terms of their stance toward the Communist regime in China. Student groups in Hong Kong managed to get tens of thousands of people on to the streets and demand more autonomy from Beijing, while activists in Taiwan stalled some legislation that would have led to larger mainland influence in the island’s economic affairs.

Why do the youth from the two places say “No” to China, while apparently embracing nations such as Japan and Korea? The answer lies in deep-rooted suspicions, as Beijing is seen constantly trying to meddle in the internal affairs of Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

While Taiwan people successfully stymied the ruling KMT’s bid for faster economic integration with China, through large-scale demonstrations and the recent local-level elections on the island, Hong Kong youth could only put forth their demands for political reforms and seek some response from Beijing — which, not surprisingly, chose to turn a blind eye, angering the youth further.

Hong Kong’s youth has seen its involvement rise in social activities in the past five years. Youngsters had expressed reservations — and participated in demonstrations — against some policies that were aimed at China-Hong Kong integration, including a cross-border high-speed rail project.

They also resisted proposed “national education” curriculum in local schools, and more recently waged a campaign against mainland tourists, whose influx is blamed for several problems in the city.

China’s state media, meanwhile, have criticized the youth for being “unpatriotic” and failing to have a sense of national identity. The youth were being led astray by some foreign forces to create trouble for China, it was alleged. 

Beijing always lays out the patriotism card to test people’s loyalty to the Communist Party rule at home, and it is now playing the same game in Hong Kong.

What it fails to understand is the locals’ deeply-ingrained values of democracy and liberal thinking. The 79-day Occupy campaign late last year has raised public awareness about how Beijing aims to limit the choice for Hongkongers to choose their own leader and stall the city’s democracy march.

Rather than listen to the grievances, Beijing chose to point fingers at the protesters and accused them of lacking national identity, further widening the chasm between the two sides.

Given this situation, it is difficult to see how Beijing can hope to win the minds of the youth even with a fresh cultural campaign.    

Top leaders in Beijing should realize that the world has changed in the age of the internet and smartphones, and that young people will not be swayed by empty words. 

– Contact us at [email protected]


Having ignoring popular aspirations, Beijing will find it difficult to gain the trust of Hong Kong youth. More cultural exchanges won’t solve the problem. Photo: HKEJ

EJ Insight writer

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe