The recent exchange of polemics between two prominent columnists, Chip Tsao and Leung Man-dao, has sparked heated debates among the public over the issue of “national character”.
Amid mounting conflicts between Hong Kong people and mainlanders, it seems those who attribute our social problems to flaws in the national character of the Chinese people can always find an audience among local citizens.
However, the impressions we form about entire groups of people based on limited interactions or media portrayals are so vulnerable to generalization, and can often be misleading.
There is only a fine line between generalizations about national groups and cultural stereotypes. Therefore, any reference to “national character” in public is always easy to come under fire due to its controversial nature.
The conflicts between Hongkongers and mainlanders may have already reached alarming levels, despite the fact that we both share the same cultural origins that date back thousands of years.
In fact, the “alienization” of mainlanders probably has its roots in the escalating socio-political conflicts between Hong Kong and the mainland in recent years, which also give rise to the idea of a “national character”.
However, given that Hong Kong and the mainland are linked by strong cultural and historical bonds, it is hard to convince local citizens that Hong Kong is totally detachable from the Greater China cultural system.
While the idea about “national character” might remain on paper only, the issue of “citizenship” is drawing more and more public attention as social and political conflicts between Hong Kong and the mainland continue to mount.
The issue of citizenship can be examined from two perspectives. First, it’s a matter of how to define a “citizen” and a “non-citizen”.
For example, there are different sorts of visas in the United States, each of which represents a different set of conditions of stay.
Before officially becoming a US citizen, a person must first stay and work in the US for many years in order to obtain a “green card”, after which he or she can then officially apply for US citizenship.
In Singapore, there are also “citizens”, “permanent citizens” and “non-permanent citizens”.
In a sense, the conditions for becoming a citizen of any given country embody one’s commitment to that country, one’s sense of belonging to that country and the amount of contribution he or she has made to that country.
The concept of citizenship has less to do with race, religion and ethnicity, and therefore is less vulnerable to stereotyping and sweeping generalization, since in order to become a citizen of a particular society, all you need to do is to fulfill certain quantifiable conditions laid down by the immigration authorities regardless of your skin color and race.
Another way of looking at citizenship is from the perspective of the distribution of social resources. Citizenship provides a legal foundation on which society can distribute our scarce resources or re-distribute social wealth among our population.
Although the distribution of social resources based on citizenship can also lead to controversies, the subjects of such controversies are mostly limited to technical things such as the definition of being a citizen, or the rights and responsibilities that come with the citizenship, rather than the racial or cultural characteristics inherent to an individual.
Of course, the concept of citizenship itself can sometimes cause disputes as well, such as the issue of multiple citizenships as a result of increased people flows around the globe. Some also argue that citizenship can also be used as a tool to exclude the underprivileged in society.
However, the concept of citizenship can at least facilitate a broader and more open dialogue in society as compared to the ideas of “national character”, which often focus on the racial and cultural characteristics inherent to a person.
The article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 30.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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