Written by Wai-man Lam.

Upon being returned to China in 1997, Hong Kong was given special administrative region status directly under Beijing on the principle of “one country, two systems”. Evaluations of the success of these arrangements depends on one’s political position. Some emphasize integration with the motherland as the ultimate goal of this political experiment, while others stress the importance of its political autonomy. None would disagree that in a postcolonial context it is important for China to build a patriotic discourse and achieve nation building. In this ideological reshaping process, the Chinese authorities have undertaken various measures, including setting hegemonic standards of patriotism, branding alternative views, and reconstructing the local identity. In the process, the local identity is however often reconstituted or relegated to secondary importance, resulting in a scene of identity politics that works against the state’s original goal of nation building.

In the area of formal education, for instance, national education has become the focus of civic education, and the values of human rights replaced by five paramount values, including national identity, a positive spirit, perseverance, respect for others, and commitment to society and nation. In 2012, the government’s proposal to introduce moral and national education as a compulsory subject however suffered a major setback with 90,000 protestors went onto the street. Meanwhile, patriotism is propagated at the wider societal level, highlighting China’s advancements in technologies and international status. In the heated debates on universal suffrage for 2017, patriotism has been redefined and restated by the Chinese authorities as a criterion for choosing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, a clause not found in the Basic Law though.

Along with setting hegemonic standards of patriotism, certain alternative views were denounced for their potential for subversion. For example, the  “de facto referendum” in the campaign for genuine universal suffrage in 2010 was branded as attempts to seek political independence from China, and the term “uprising” used by the democrats was framed as connoting military uprising. Another war of words arose in the academia in 2011 as Hao Tiechuan at the Central People Government’s Liaison Office openly criticized the HKUPOP polls on the development of Hong Kong people’s ethnic identification led by Robert Chung as unscientific and illogical. Similarly, despite the fact that “Hong Kong independence” is no more than an empty slogan, its development in 2012 invoked sharp criticisms from Chinese officials. Chen Zuoer, who was formerly in charge of Hong Kong affairs, warned that the rise of a pro-independence force in Hong Kong has spread like a virus and must be firmly dealt with.

Regardless of other core political values and aspirations, Hong Kong has been re-emphasized as an economic city by Chinese officials. Economic integration with China is said to be the only way out for Hong Kong lest it become marginalized under global economic competition. On the whole, it is not uncommon for Hong Kong people to be depicted by pro-China media as pathetically nostalgic for the colonial past, ungrateful to the economic gifts and water supply from China, and discriminating against Mainlanders while also jealous of their success.

So, how has the identity in Hong Kong fared? Poll findings from HKUPOP show that respondents who claimed themselves “Hongkonger” or “Hongkonger in China”, in juxtaposing with those of “Chinese” or “Chinese in Hong Kong”, have remained around or above 65% since 2011. Indeed, as the state structures how the locals see themselves and are seen by others, the latter may resist and challenge the perceived oppression by exploring and reshaping their identity through activism to reassert their self-respect. Although the Hong Kong populace is increasingly dependent on the central government for economic benefits and political decisions, the growing sense of alienation of individuals has incited mainly activism and protectionism, and even separatism.

Activism, local efforts to explore and foster their political identity and beliefs, has been on a surge. From the demonstration against the national security bill (2003) to the local heritages preservation movements (2006 and 2007), the anti-express rail protest (2009), the de facto referendum campaign (2010), the protest against national education (2012) and the Occupy Central Plan (2014), there witnessed an increasing amount of participants, civic groups and new media agents of varied backgrounds involved in the rising tide of politicization. Meanwhile, campaigning strategies on specific issues have become more action-oriented, confrontational, diverse and massive, and demanding ultimately for a truly democratic government.

The spirit of protectionism that distinguishes Hong Kong from the Mainland has coupled the rising concerns that Mainlanders are challenging the locals for public services and goods, and causing shortages of maternity beds, powdered milk, and inflation of local property prices. The government is left with little choice but to introduce a series of policies that run contrary to the authorities’ aim of integration, such as banning Mainland women from delivering at local public hospitals.

The separatist trend in Hong Kong does not, as yet, constitute a movement. Rather, it represents demands varying from simple angry calls for “Mainlanders get out of Hong Kong” in the campaign of Sheung Shui (a locality close to China’s border seriously affected by cross-border trading activities) retrocession, to opposition to an integrated northeast Hong Kong with Shenzhen, to self-rule, e.g. Hong Kong City-state Autonomy Movement, and to political independence, eg., Hong Konger Front, and Hongkongers Come First.

To sum up, amidst the drama of identity politics, instead of achieving nation building and constructing a hegemonic patriotic discourse, Hong Kong has become more polarized and detached from the state than ever. The antipathy to state intervention in Hong Kong has fueled the growth of different “isms”, and the rhetoric of “one country, two systems” in such a context sounds a note of discordance.

Wai-man Lam is Honorary Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, The University of Hong Kong. Her current research interests include identity politics, political culture and political participation, democratization and social movements, civil society, civic engagement, and state-society relations.

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