20 March 2019
Hong Kong has charted a path of its own throughout its brief history, and even after the handover. The shared "cultural DNA" and ideology have made its people different from mainlanders. Photo: Jerry Crimson Mann
Hong Kong has charted a path of its own throughout its brief history, and even after the handover. The shared "cultural DNA" and ideology have made its people different from mainlanders. Photo: Jerry Crimson Mann

Cultural DNA: Hongkongers’ blood is different from mainlanders’

The simmering antipathy on both sides of the border has fueled discussions about national character and cultural differences, and involved such concepts as politics, sociology, psychology, genetics, anthropology and evolutionism.

Sitting on the edge of the Chinese continent, Hong Kong in so many times in its history has followed a path that is different from, and sometimes opposite to, that taken by China.

Examples are when the territory was ceded in 1842, when the mainland fell to the communists in 1949, and when Mao Zedong kicked off the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

All these have shaped Hongkongers’ own identity vis-à-vis that of the mainlanders, as well as the distinct connotations the two identities have.

The personal experience of a mainland student studying at Columbia University provides an interesting perspective to such differences.

The female student was arrested by New York police and spent a night at a detention center in April 2015 after a mass protest in support of a black young man who died in police custody in Baltimore.

The student of Columbia’s school of social work shared what she saw and thought in a post widely circulated by netizens back home.

At the very end of the post, she said: “I was shocked to see that three major newspapers carried photos of my arrest and initially I felt rather ashamed.

“I have to admit that I still think and feel in the old Chinese way that if you are arrested, you should feel ashamed of yourself.

“My friends from China also reacted in a similar way. They said they were so worried about me and hoped my US visa wouldn’t be affected.

“That was in sharp contrast to how my US professors and classmates thought: They said they felt very proud of me and a professor asked if I was maltreated by the police and applauded me as a heroine.”

Hongkongers, after the Occupy movement, may not be strangers to such contradictory reactions.

The first kind is very Chinese, and such a trait has been in existence since the ancient times.

Famed scholar Lin Yutang (林語堂) wrote in 1935 that one common national trait was “not to meddle with public affairs” – and apparently it has taken hold among Chinese today.

The second kind is very western, as the right to protest and object as well as individual liberty have long been the essence of the prevailing culture.

How Hongkongers may respond, when someone they know is arrested as a protester, can be somewhere in between, and I am pretty sure that youngsters will think and feel more like their peers in the United States.

Taiwan and Hong Kong are perhaps the only two places with a predominant ethnic Chinese population where protesting for a just cause is seen as a great honor.

Macau and Singapore will trail behind if there is a list of the public’s acceptance of protests and other forms of civil disobedience, and China, still an autocracy, will for sure be at the very bottom.

Another example is Japan. US scholars have had insightful studies into the Japanese national character.

American anthropologist Ruth Benedict was commissioned by the US government to interpret the Japanese traditional culture when World War II was nearing its end and Washington was preparing to occupy Japan.

Benedict wrote The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a masterpiece in Japan studies.

She found the Japanese culture is of the shame-based type, contrary to the western world’s sin-based values and way of thinking that originate from Christianity.

Thus her policy recommendation to Harry Truman was that the Emperor of Japan should not be made to abdicate his rule because, otherwise, it would be a national shame to all Japanese.

Rather, the emperor and other members of the imperial family should be treated with courtesies.

The Allied Powers’ occupation of Japan after the war was largely smooth and ended in 1952.

Does DNA have anything to do with cultural differences? For now it’s still a philosophical question. But some researches have suggested the new concept of “cultural DNA”.

Political and economic systems vary from one society to another and those who succeed in a society or system will become elites and rulers.

The ideology, personality and psychology of elites and rulers in different societies also differ substantially just like intelligence is always diversified.

These differences can perhaps be traced to the DNA level.

The national character of a certain society is indeed the shared characteristics of the elites therein, and ordinary people all have to follow their example.

When a revolution replaces the existing political hierarchy with a new one, the national character may also change with the new elites and rulers.

By the same token I wonder if Communist Party cadres can share the same “DNA” with Hong Kong elites, just like a chief executive picked through a “small circle” election can never see eye to eye with a leader chosen by people in a genuine free vote.

Perhaps the differences between Hongkongers and mainlanders, in particular those under the party’s rule after 1949, can be traced back to their different “cultural DNA”.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 2, 2015.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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