HK-China conflict: The national identity gap

August 05, 2019 13:19
Following the recent events, fewer Hong Kong people want to identify themselves as Chinese, preferring to maintain their distinct identity as Hongkongers, a survey has suggested. Photo: Reuters

As the anti-extradition protests – ostensibly directed at the Hong Kong administration but very much aimed also at the Chinese government -- extend into their third month, repercussions are being felt around the world, with Hong Kong students being confronted by mainland Chinese students on campuses from Canada to Australia and New Zealand.

Inevitably, other parties are drawn into the conflicts. At Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, the board of the student society, which represents 25,000 undergraduates, voted August 1 to stand up to “bullying” and “harassment.”

The previous week, on the other side of the globe, the student union at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia voted to support pro-democracy protestors and to condemn the “subversion of democratic rights and freedoms in both Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China” by their governments.

And in New Zealand, the University of Auckland has launched an investigation into a videoed confrontation between three male mainland Chinese students and a female Hong Kong student, who was shoved and fell to the ground.

Chinese consulates in both Brisbane and Auckland have praised mainland students for their “spontaneous patriotism” but, so far, the consulate in Vancouver has been quiet.

The Hong Kong-Mainland conflict reflects a huge gap in national identity. This can be explained in part on how the nationality of most Hong Kong people was changed in 1997 from British to Chinese.

From China’s standpoint, Hong Kong had always been Chinese soil. Through 150 years of British rule, its people remained Chinese, regardless of British law.

This fitted nicely with Britain’s policy, which was to see to it that the millions of Chinese “British citizens” in Hong Kong could not move to the United Kingdom. Nationality and immigration laws were changed.

Britain created a new category of citizens, called British Dependent Territory Citizens, in the 1980s. This transformed United Kingdom citizens into Hong Kong citizens. When Hong Kong was no longer a British dependent territory, yet another new category was created, British National (Overseas). The holder has no right to live in Britain and the citizenship cannot be passed on to the next generation.

China, too, changed its nationality law to deal with Hong Kong. The Standing Committee of its National People’s Congress in 1996 – the year before the handover – issued “Explanations” of how China’s Nationality Law would be applied in Hong Kong. That is to say, the law would mean different things in different parts of the country, a highly unusual legal situation.

The “Explanations” introduce a concept missing in the nationality law itself, that of “Chinese descent.” Thus, any Hong Kong resident of Chinese descent who was born in Hong Kong or China is a Chinese national, regardless of whether he possesses Canadian, Australian, British or other nationality. That means people who were foreign nationals were transformed into Chinese nationals in 1997.

China – and Britain – wanted the people as well as the territory to be transferred wholesale. The millions of people in Hong Kong were considered nothing but chattel.

Actually, the idea of giving the inhabitants a choice of nationality when the ownership of land is transferred is by no means novel. In fact, it happened on Chinese territory when the Qing dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895 in the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

At the time, Japan gave the inhabitants of Taiwan two years to decide if they wanted to move – presumably to live on Chinese territory – or to stay. If they stayed, two years later, they would assume Japanese nationality.

It would seem that if imperialist Japan was enlightened enough to do this in the 19th century, the People’s Republic of China could have done at least as much in a more enlightened age.

Of course, Britain slammed its door shut. Still, China could have let the people decide whether they wanted to be Chinese nationals.

Even if Britain adamantly refused to admit people who had been told they were British since birth, that wasn’t China’s problem. Hong Kong people could still have chosen to go to other countries, as many of them did eventually, largely to Canada but elsewhere as well.

As it is, China today doesn't recognize the Canadian nationality of Hong Kong Chinese who emigrated there.

If there had been a semblance of choice regarding Chinese nationality, then the sense of resentment today would not be as great. After all, Hongkongers would have voluntarily decided to become citizens of the People’s Republic of China. They would not feel that the nationality had been foisted on them and, consequently, that their freedom was threatened.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.