The Hong Kong Demonstrations and Identity Crisis
Demonstrators link hands on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront in Hong Kong. (Photo: AP)
By Yu Fu

The Hong Kong Demonstrations and Identity Crisis

Aug. 26, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Since July and August 2019, the tense situation in Hong Kong has drawn much attention. Peaceful demonstrations, which were sparked by the government’s attempt to adopt a bill that would have enabled China to request extradition of suspected criminals from Hong Kong, has transformed into large-scale pro-independence clashes with the police. In fact, Hong Kong is not new to protests, witnessing the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the protests for Legislative Council elections in 2016. The Hong Kong people’s identity crisis has contributed to the demonstrations.


Rachel Walker, an expert on Soviet Union study, pointed out that “all societies need to have some sense of collective identity…in the absence of such a general consensus a society is liable to disintegrate into warring factions quickly”. Some people in Hong Kong have difficulties in recognizing themselves as part of China after the return of Hong Kong. A University of Hong Kong survey on identity issues in 2019 showed that only 17 percent of people in Hong Kong identified themselves first as “Chinese citizens”, a new low since 2000.


The reason lies in both historical conditions and modern development. The gap between Hong Kong and mainland China in terms of identity came from the education people in Hong Kong received before 1997 and was reinforced by their political and financial differences. Since the nature of identity is always to distinguish ourselves from others, such differences which make Hong Kong unique and superior are digested as an essential part of the identity perceived by people in Hong Kong. Thus, it is reasonable to see Hong Kong people being sensitive to political issues and some of them becoming fanatic in supporting independence when Hong Kong’s financial uniqueness declines and political uniqueness becomes a decisive factor.  


The current crisis of identity can be traced back to Hong Kong’s colonial period. It began when British occupied the Hong Kong Island in 1841 during the First Opium War. The island was ceded by the Qing dynasty and established as a Crown colony in 1843. The colony expanded to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War and was further extended after Britain obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898. Then it was controlled by Japan from 1941 to 1945 before being occupied by British forces again from 1945 to 1997.


During the rule of Britain, the identity of the Hong Kong people was created with a political purpose. By controlling what kind of education the Hong Kong people received, great influence could be exerted on their self-identification. In fact, this situation is not uncommon in colonies at that time. Carnoy said, “Western formal education in colonies… was consistent with the goals of imperialism: the economic and political control of the people in one country by the dominant class of another”. Kelly and Altbach made it clear that the wish of those who ran schools was to assist in the consolidation of foreign rule.


In the 1940s, textbooks used in Hong Kong’s secondary education, especially those for Chinese culture subjects, were imported from China. Chinese education contributed much to the trade between Hong Kong and mainland China in the early times. Then, amid the Cold War and the rising tide of anticolonialism, Hong Kong became a link in the Western policy of “containment of Communism” and a “window of democracy”. When Communist China was established in 1949, Hong Kong’s colonial status was confronted with a huge challenge since the Chinese regime had the military capacity to overpower the Hong Kong garrison.


Considering that the propagation of Chinese language and culture would give rise to Chinese nationalism, the British government in Hong Kong was particularly jittery regarding the potential ramifications of teaching Chinese history. It initiated a Chinese history curriculum that focused on the ancient period of China’s history. History that might form national identity and stir national feelings were excluded. The education regulations issued by the British government clearly stipulated that teachers and students were not allowed to use words such as “motherland” and “nationality” and teachers were supposed to avoid teaching modern Chinese history. Sensitive topics such as the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong’s relations with the mainland China were also prohibited. Alastair Pennycook concluded that “a curriculum developed then to counter Chinese nationalism in the schools, redeveloped in the 1950s to counter communist influences and still held in place in the 1990s as part of British colonial rule.”

Although Hong Kong is eager to recapture its uniqueness and superiority, the continued unrest, traffic paralysis, decline of retail sales, gloomy tourism and stock market turmoil would only exacerbate the situation.

Such cultural polices separated people in Hong Kong and people in mainland China into two groups. In fact, even if some people in Hong Kong identify themselves as Chinese based on ancient traditional culture, there may still a big gap between them and mainland Chinese people. It is because modern Chinese culture is influenced by the Communist ideology and also detached from ancient Chinese traditions after the Cultural Revolution. The indifference and even hostility showed by young people in Hong Kong today is understandable, since they are born and bred in Hong Kong and are not familiar with the ups and downs of modern China.


Further, such isolation from mainland China is enhanced by the huge economic disparities and political differences between Hong Kong and China. People in Hong Kong are thus adamant that they are different from mainland Chinese people. When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, Hong Kong had two features making it unique and even superior when compared with cities in mainland China. One was its executive-led governing system, a Hong Kong’s style democratic design guaranteed by the “one country, two systems” policy. The other was Hong Kong’s role as one of the world’s top financial centers and commercial ports. Currently, the leading role of Hong Kong in terms of finance seems to have declined with the development of mainland China. Achieving an economic miracle within 30 years, the success of the Chinese mainland has dulled the uniqueness and the superior status of Hong Kong. This has led Hong Kong into a crisis of identity.


When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule more than two decades ago, the city was regarded as a prosperous, modern and international metropolis which China sought to emulate. Before China’s reform and opening-up, Hong Kong undertook most of the import and export trade of the mainland. Its free port policy made Hong Kong a window and bridge for the Chinese mainland to conduct economic and cultural exchanges with the world, thus helping China to break the western blockade. Since the 1990s, Hong Kong’s high-flying financial status has been slowly fading off. After China joined the World Trade Organization, China’s dependency on Hong Kong is on the decline.


Hong Kong’s economy is now overshadowed by the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. Shenzhen’s 2018 gross domestic product surpassed Hong Kong with a year-on-year increase of 7.5 percent and 2.422 trillion yuan in total. From 2008 to 2018, the average annual growth rate of Hong Kong was 3 percent and Shenzhen was 11 percent. It is estimated that Guangzhou would also catch up with Hong Kong soon. Hong Kong’s GDP ranks fourth in China, after Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen.


Furthermore, Hong Kong’s economy has missed the development opportunity of high and new technology. China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, central government agencies and local governments including Beijing and Shenzhen have been increasing funding to facilitate the new Artificial Intelligence boom since 2000. Shenzhen ranked eighth in the number of AI companies in the world in 2016 and defeated Hong Kong in terms of research and development strength, the proportion of research and development expenditure, research personnel density and other indicators. Shenzhen is home to a number of high-tech companies like Tencent, DJ-Innovations, Huawei and Super D. The added value of Shenzhen’s advanced manufacturing and high-tech manufacturing industries accounted for 72.1 percent in 2018.


Although Hong Kong is eager to recapture its uniqueness and superiority, the continued unrest, traffic paralysis, decline of retail sales, gloomy tourism and stock market turmoil would only exacerbate the situation. Hong Kong’s GDP grew at an annual rate of 0.5 percent in the first half of 2019, the lowest since the 2009 recession.


Changes to the education policy may help to promote mutual understanding and respect. In 2017, based on the revised curriculum unveiled by the Education Bureau, Hong Kong’s junior secondary school pupils are supposed to spend less time on ancient Chinese history and more on political, economic and social developments related to modern China and the city. Economically, instead of regarding the “Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area” policy issued by China as a threat, Hong Kong could take it as an opportunity to conduct industrial structural reform and gain new impetus for economic growth.


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