Colonial Experience and “Hong Kongese” Identity

Dennis HK

by Dennis Chan Hong Ming

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “three feet of ice does not result from one day of cold weather.” This proverb is eerily adequate for understanding the relations between China and its most important Special Administrative Region – Hong Kong. However, the icy conflict separating Hong Kong and China did not arise from the cold-weather protests at the end of 2014. Instead, it is a historically-rooted ideological clash that manifests itself politically, economically and culturally.

The second half of 2014 was an interesting time for Hong Kong. A series of rare demonstrations broke out, lasting from September to December. The immediate cause was a set of electoral system reforms proposed for Hong Kong by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) in August. Through the reforms, the NPCSC of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) disallowed civil nominations, whereby a candidate could run for the Hong Kong Legislative Council or Chief Executive if he or she received a signed endorsement from one percent of registered voters. The NPCSC decision stated that a 1200-member Nominating Committee would elect two to three candidates by absolute majority, before the general public gets to vote. Such an arrangement represents a major setback for Region’s democratic tradition. The mass demonstrations also suggest that citizens of Hong Kong have reached a breaking point in their tolerance for the Chinese Communist Party’s political suppression. But what is it that makes the Special Administrative Region so different from China?

Ethnically-speaking, the majority of Hong Kong’s population is Han Chinese, which also composes approximately 92 percent of the population in Mainland China. Linguistically, the most widely-spoken language in Hong Kong is Cantonese, which only differs from other Chinese dialects in its pronunciation. Cantonese is also widely spoken in other regions in Southern China, so this suggests that language is not a unique distinguishing factor. Despite the fact that the two share a strong ethnic and cultural connection, division and contradiction have affected China-Hong Kong relations since the U.K. handover in 1997. Therefore, it seems that their divergent historical paths are the major factor causing the conflict.

Hong Kong’s 155 years of colonial past have an undeniable role to play in the formation of “Hong Kongese identity.” The city was colonized in 1842 by Great Britain. There was a very small number of so-called “Hong Kongese aboriginal inhabitants” back in the early 19th century, so the majority of today’s population are descendants of Chinese immigrants from waves that occurred during the Japanese invasion in 1937-45, during China’s Civil War in 1945-49, and during the Cultural Revolution in 1966-76. These immigrants from China enriched the population of Hong Kong and brought the capital and labour that provided a solid foundation for the city’s economic success. Throughout the 1900s, Hong Kong enjoyed a high degree of freedom and prosperity under British colonial rule and away from the political chaos taking place in China. This British leadership helped transforming Hong Kong from an entrepôt in the early 1900s, to a hub of industrial manufactures in 1970s and 80s, and finally into an international financial centre during the 1990s, making it one of the richest cities in Asia and in the world.

Economic development was accompanied by political democratization, though the city was not always liberal. Before the 1960s, the majority Chinese population of the city was under-represented and the British dominated most high-ranking official posts in government, as well as executive and legislative councils. Additionally, the Chinese ethnic group held a rather undesirable stigma – racial discrimination and corruption becoming a widespread phenomenon. In 1966 and 1967, however, the Hong Kong Chinese held massive protests to urge the colonial government to carry out reforms, marking the beginning of the city’s political liberalization. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the British Government introduced the concept of “representative government,” where the Chinese were increasingly allowed to join all three branches of government. By 1997, when Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred to China, all government bureau heads and the majority of lawmakers were Hong Kong Chinese.

So how has Hong Kong’s colonial experience shaped the identity of its people? And how does this identity contribute to the never-ending China-Hong Kong conflict? The identity of the Hong Kongese didn’t stand out until the 1990s, when the handover of sovereignty back to China was approaching. The increasing panic and anxiety about the approaching Chinese communist rule created waves of outward migration from Hong Kong. It was only then that the Hong Kong people began alienating themselves actively from their counterparts in the North. It is apparent that Hong Kong’s economic and democratic success under British leadership played a large role in distinguishing their ideologies. Furthermore, the historic struggles of the ethnic Chinese have forged a sense of belonging that has unified the city and shaped their common identity. This identity and ideological clash between Hong Kong and the Communist Party’s leadership is best illustrated by the “Umbrella Revolution” in 2014 and suggests that the division might have reached a breaking point. It seems that a people who are united by ethnicity and language have become extremely divided by history and ideology. To mend this division and reunite, the Chinese and Hong Kongese will have to use this umbrella as a reminder that almost two decades-worth of cold weather have accumulated a lot of ice between them.

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