Why the place-of-birth debate is misplaced in HK localism

March 08, 2016 16:21
Edward Leung's admission that he was born in the mainland has prompted critics to question the politics of the Hong Kong Indigenous activist. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong is a land of immigrants, with people having come here from different places over the years and making the city their home.

While most locals can trace their ancestral roots to mainland China, there has also been an influx of people from other parts of the world in recent times.

Given this situation, who can call himself a "genuine" Hongkonger? 

Can a person who has his origins elsewhere have any right to wage a "localist" fight against new immigrants?  

And, is it not hypocrisy if someone who was born outside Hong Kong seeks to identify himself with a so-called indigenous group?  

Well, these are the questions that Edward Leung Tin-kei of the radical group Hong Kong Indigenous is facing now following revelations over the weekend about the activist's background. 

Leung, who contested in the Legislative Council by-election last month and took a respectable third place with more than 60,000 votes, admitted on Saturday that he was born in the mainland, and not in Hong Kong.

The comments, which were made as Leung made a trip to New Territories East to thank voters, came after he acknowledged earlier that his mother had been an immigrant from China.

The news prompted intense debates and sharp criticism in online forums, with people wondering if Leung had any right to take the "localist" position given his place of birth and family background. 

Critics mocked him for spearheading pro-hawker protests in Mong Kong last month and for organizing fierce demonstrations last year against the so-called parallel traders.

Leung's politics flies in the face of his actual background, netizens jeered, questioning his claims of Hong Kong identity.

Meanwhile, some people were interested in knowing how traditional localists will now deal with Leung.

Civic Passion, a radical localist group that has close ties with lawmaker Wong Yuk-man and Lingnan University professor Horace Chin, had been among the groups that had been quite firm in recent months on the issue of immigrants from China.

Those groups had been the first in Hong Kong to use the word "locusts" to describe new immigrants, accusing them of unfairly tapping into the city's social welfare resources.

Chin had also stirred a controversy by suggesting that Chinese women settled in Hong Kong were taking orders from the Communist Party to monitor local men.

Interestingly, after Leung's background was revealed, the groups suddenly stopped railing against new immigrants.

Instead, they said that they welcome the immigrants, but the migrants should pass tests on Cantonese and Hong Kong culture to show their loyalty and commitment to the city.

The change in stance suggests that Civic Passion realizes that it may have gone wrong previously in targeting all new immigrants.

Immigrants should also have the freedom to embrace localism, and one cannot determine a person's loyalties by just looking at his place of birth, the thinking goes.

"CY Leung was born in Hong Kong, but is he a true Hongkonger?" -- a member of Civic Passion wondered aloud, calling for new mindset on the issue of localism.

The rise of localism has triggered a debate on Hong Kong identity in the recent past.

According to the Basic Law, anyone who lives in Hong Kong for seven consecutive years will qualify for permanent resident status. Such people are entitled social welfare benefits from the government.

But since the 1997 handover, there has a new term called "New Hong Kong people", which is defined as new immigrants from China who moved to Hong Kong via the single-trip visa mechanism.

Such visas were granted by the Chinese government to its people, to enable family reunions in Hong Kong, at the rate of up to 150 visas per day.

Due to the flow of immigrants since 1997, such immigrants account for about 12 percent of Hong Kong's population as of now.

The localist groups in Hong Kong have slammed the 150-visa-quota by Beijing as another way of colonialism.

China is trying to change the character of Hong Kong by moving hundreds of thousands of mainland people to the special administrative region, localists argued, accusing Beijing of seeking to extend the Communist Party's influence.

Against this backdrop, social conflicts between old Hong Kong residents and new immigrants have been widening.

Locals have been griping as more and more new immigrants were being allowed to apply for government subsidies as well as public housing despite not fulfilling the 7-year stay requirement.

Taxpayers say their money should be used on Hong Kong people, rather than helping the new immigrants.

Some have even said that new immigrants should be made to move back to China if they fail to adopt the Hong Kong way of life.

Despite all these arguments, there is growing acceptance among people now that one shouldn't automatically view immigrants with suspicion and discriminate against them.

One can't assume that the people are moving due to political reasons, or that the new immigrants won't embrace the Hong Kong way of life.

If people are willing to embrace core Hong Kong values, learn Cantonese and English, and stand with Hong Kong people in their fight for the city's future, there is no reason for localist groups to target the immigrants.

It's worth noting that new immigrants from China will play a key role in deciding the outcome of many seats in the upcoming LegCo election in September.

The rise of localism will no doubt will be a key agenda in the election as traditional democrats, radical groups and some from the so-called neutral camp will all try to play the "local" card to win public support.

But one should remember that the place of birth is not the determining factor as to whether a person is a genuine Hongkonger.

The more important aspect is a person's belief in the core values of Hong Kong, and their pride in being Hongkongers.

Rather than quibble about a person's identity, it will be good if all Hong Kong people stand united in safeguarding the city's freedoms and autonomy.

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EJ Insight writer