17 September 2019
Beijing's "patriotism" exhortations have failed to cut much ice with Hong Kong people, especially the youth. Photo: Reuters
Beijing's "patriotism" exhortations have failed to cut much ice with Hong Kong people, especially the youth. Photo: Reuters

Why China must give up its fixation with national identity in HK

Apart from the concerns over Hong Kong’s constitutional development, what is riling Beijing is the perceived antipathy among a large section of Hongkongers towards the mainland.

Instead of being grateful to the motherland for all the favors dished out by the central government since the 1997 handover, the territory’s citizens display an alarming sense of entitlement and arrogance, the Communist leaders feel.

How can the people demand special identity and insist that they are different from mainlanders, is the question they ask.

Now, putting aside political factors, it is a fact that a majority of Hongkongers do believe that their identity differs substantially from that of the mainland compatriots.

You can call it localism. While the strength of that feeling varies from individual to individual, it is shaped overall by Beijing’s policy towards the special administrative region and political, economic and social developments in the mainland, as well as perceptions related to cross-border interactions.

According to a recent poll by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme, 42 percent of locals regard themselves as “Hongkongers” only, while 24 percent think they are “Hongkongers in China”.

Eighteen percent see themselves as “Chinese” while 15 percent said they are “Chinese in Hong Kong”.

Those who regard themselves as citizens of the People’s Republic of China represent a minority in Hong Kong. Yong people aged between 18 and 29, likely hardcore advocates of democracy, have the least recognition towards their Chinese identity.

In the mainland’s political system, the relationship between central authorities and local governments is like the one between a monarch and his ministers.

Beijing wants to exert suzerainty over Hong Kong in a similar way with the injection of a mainland standard of patriotism. This is one thing that is driving Hong Kong youth further away.

What is the way out?

I think the prescription is not economic sweeteners, policy blessings or brainwashing-style national education.

Rather, Beijing needs to reexamine the way it looks at the issue of national identity.

Since freedom and rule of law are enshrined in and protected by the Basic Law under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, Beijing should recognize that it’s perfectly normal and nothing unpatriotic if locals regard themselves as Hongkongers more than Chinese.

In fact, the harder the push for integration and assimilation, the more Hongkongers — especially the youngsters — will stick to their own identity and become alienated from China.

Beijing should put itself in the shoes of Hongkongers and rebuild the relationship, by accepting and learning to feel comfortable with Hong Kong people’s attachment to the Hongkonger identity.

Beijing also needs to acknowledge that its “favorable” policies are not one-way concessions to Hong Kong, and that they are instead a two-way street aimed at benefiting both sides.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 22.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government