Thursday, October 9, 2014

Seeking identity, ‘Hong Kong people’ look to city, not state


OCTOBER 9, 2014

HONG KONG — If there is one phrase that has come to define the protests that have swept across Hong Kong in the past week-and-a-half, appearing on handwritten billboards and T-shirts and heard in rally speeches and on radio shows, it is this: Hong Kong people.

“I wouldn’t say I reject my identity as Chinese, because I’ve never felt Chinese in the first place,” said Mr Yeung Hoi-kiu, 20, who sat in the protest zone at the government offices. “The younger generations don’t think they’re Chinese.”

More than 90 per cent of Hong Kong residents are ethnically Chinese. However, ask them how they see themselves in the national sense and many will say Hongkonger first — or even Asian or world citizen — before mentioning China.

The issue of identity is one that the Chinese Communist Party has grappled with since Britain turned over control of this global financial capital to China 17 years ago. But what the student-led protests show is that Beijing’s efforts have backfired, helping to turn the issue into an occasionally explosive problem as members of an entire generation act on their sense of alienation from China and its values.

Officials in Beijing began recognising the problem years ago and tried in 2012 to impose a patriotic education curriculum in schools. By then, it was too late. Mr Yeung and his peers saw the move as China mounting another assault on Hong Kong, a city of 7.2 million. They took to the streets in a prelude to the movement known as the Umbrella Revolution, the biggest challenge to the party’s authority in years.

There is a growing sense in Hong Kong, especially among the young, that the city is being “mainlandised”, whether through the migration of Chinese or the party’s insistence that judges must love China. Many of those who were proud to see 156 years of British colonial rule end in 1997 as Hong Kong returned to China now say they prefer to identify with the mother city rather than the motherland.

“We don’t want to associate ourselves with Communist China,” said Mr Euler Cheung, 38, as he stood one night in the main protest tent in Mong Kok, surrounded by police officers and shadowy, hostile men. “They destroyed the Chinese culture.”

The spark of the Umbrella Revolution was political: Demonstrators wanted Beijing to grant Hong Kong a free and direct election of its Chief Executive in 2017. But the passions that have driven people into the streets are rooted in the desire to preserve a distinct identity from China — in areas such as rule of law, freedom of speech and of the press, financial infrastructure, anti-corruption institutions, education, Cantonese language and Western influence.

Many of these values and institutions are derided as subversive by the Communist Party and not tolerated. It is an increasingly untenable contradiction that arises from the “one country, two systems” principle created to guide Beijing’s governance after 1997, when Hong Kong was labelled a special administrative region.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, many Hong Kong residents, to their alarm, witnessed the party growing more hostile to the values they embrace.

“People used to not care so much about politics and they used to not think so much of Hong Kong as home before 1997,” said Mr Dennis Kwok, 36, a Hong Kong-born lawyer and lawmaker who returned in 2000 and renounced his Canadian citizenship. “But since 1997, the younger people want to have a greater say in public affairs and they think of Hong Kong as home.”


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