Confronting HK Localism with a Unified Social Citizenship
By Zhuoyi Wen

Confronting HK Localism with a Unified Social Citizenship

Sep. 21, 2016  |     |  0 comments

One year ago, many people believed that Hong Kong independence was a totally false concept. One year later, because of different parties’ political manipulations, the issue of independence has been formally included in the public agenda in Hong Kong. There is no doubt that the Central and Hong Kong governments can make political decisions to distinguish friends (“loving the country, loving Hong Kong”) from enemies (localists and separatists), in their “struggle for overall jurisdiction” in Hong Kong. However, in Hong Kong’s open society, at least at the current stage, it is impossible to stop the growing discussion on localism, separatism, and independence within the community.

In fact, pressure from the government has made the localist voice louder: a record high turnout rate in the Legislative Council Election held on September 4, 2016. 58 percent or nearly 2.2 million voters cast their votes for 70 seats. The pro-localists won six seats with the support from nearly 20 percent or over 400,000 voters. Among these six newly-elected lawmakers, Eddie Chu Hoi-dick gathered 84,121 votes to become the “king of votes” in the election. This 38-year-old social activist who advocates democratic self-determination for Hong Kong is an independent candidate without major party backing. His votes were totally mobilized by a bottom-up campaign.

The election result indicates the increasing fragmentation, polarization, and radicalization in the city. Confronting localism and separatism from the fringes to the mainstream, the Central and Hong Kong governments have to compete for the hearts and minds of Hong Kong residents who hold these “radical thoughts.” It is time for Beijing and Hong Kong policymakers to unite Hong Kong residents, those working and living in mainland China particularly, with social rights and social citizenship.

Separation and Integration under "One Country, Two Systems"

The original idea of “One Country, Two Systems” seeks to maintain Hong Kong’s colonial-established institutions for at least 50 years, and to keep capitalist Hong Kong apart from socialist mainland China (Lui, 2014). Before and after the handover in 1997, the Chinese government had always used the term “compatriots” (tongbao) to describe Hong Kong residents in their official documents. The term “compatriots” in Chinese implies that Hong Kong residents (as well as the people of Macau and Taiwan) are different from residents in mainland China. It seems that Hong Kong residents are not complete insiders (zijiren). The institutional arrangement and official term partly explain why “the hearts of Hong Kong residents have not yet returned to the motherland”.

It’s a good time to include Hong Kong residents on the mainland into China’s social safety network.

After the rise of China, economic and social integration in terms of Hong Kong residents working, living, and studying across the border have become the new normal. These people have the need for mainland Chinese services and benefits in their daily life. However, without local household registration and the social rights attached to it, Hong Kong residents, from Hong Kong born children whose parents are non-permanent residents of Hong Kong (shuangfei ertong), college students and labor force, to the senior citizens who have chosen to retire on the mainland, can hardly enjoy any local social benefits in mainland China (Huang, 2016). Thus, most Hong Kong residents do not have a sense of being nationals of China even if they live in mainland China. To be more specific, a solid collective material basis for nation-building among Hong Kong residents is absent.

A Unified Social Citizenship: Material Basis for National Identity

Social citizenship consists of social rights and identities. The former is about the status of social citizenship, in terms of collective benefits and social protection. The latter is the feeling of citizenship, the affiliation to particular nation-states and solidarity with fellow citizens (Osler and Starkey, 2005). Collective benefits and social protection address citizens’ needs and generate social belongings. Thus, social citizenship is a way of imagining connections between the state and citizens by reinforcing a sense of affiliation to the larger polity (Lewis 1998). For example, “Social Europe” is a typical case of creating a European citizenship and identity through social policy and social regulation (Habermas, 1992).

In the past decade, the Chinese government has proactively expanded social policy to set up a unified social protection system and a universal social policy regime within China. The development of social policy intends to transcend the constraints of the household registration system, labor market status, and territorial inequality, and develop a “Social China” based on a unified and inclusive national social citizenship (Ngok 2016; Shi 2012). It’s a good time to include Hong Kong residents on the mainland into China’s social safety network. Similar to Prof. Zheng Yongnian’s (2016) suggestion, the policy initiatives and social citizenship will create the sense of affiliation, and “eventually achieve national unity in the long run.”

The social protection issue is particularly important for the Hong Kong youth who are the die-hard supporters for localism and separatism. Hong Kong’s younger generation is strongly advised to seize the “China opportunities” of demand for talent (Lui, 2014). However, given the soaring housing prices and healthcare costs, few Hong Kong youth have the strong will and commitment for challenging careers across the border without sufficient social protection.

The past 15 years have witnessed rising China’s growing influence on Hong Kong. “Economic China” has expanded the gap between the rich and the poor in Hong Kong through the influx of capital. “Political China” has interrupted Hong Kong’s democratization and high degree of autonomy. While “Economic China” and “Political China” have made Hong Kong residents frightened and indignant, “Social China,” which promotes the quality of life and social wellbeing, may be a feasible way to compete with localism and separatism.


Habermas, J. (1992). Citizenship and national identity: Some reflections on the future of Europe. Citizenship: Critical Concepts, 341-358.

Huang, P. (2016). “One Country, Two Systems”, needs and social rights: A study of the citizenship of Hong Kong people in Mainland China. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, School of Government, Sun Yat-sen University.

Lewis, G. (1998). Citizenship. In G. Hughes (ed.), Imagining Welfare Futures. London: Routledge/Open University Press, pp. 103-150.

Lui, T. (2014). Fading opportunities: Hong Kong in the context of regional integration. China Perspectives, 1, 35-42.

Ngok, K. (2016). Modern Chinese welfare achievements and challenges ahead. In Ngok, K. and Chan, C. (eds.), China’s Social Policy: Transformation and Challenges. London: Routledge.

Osler, A. and Starkey, H. (2005). Changing Citizenship: Democracy and Inclusion in Education. New York: Open University Press.

Shi, S. (2012). Towards inclusive social citizenship? Rethinking China’s social security in the trend towards urban-rural harmonization. Journal of Social Policy, 41(4), 789-810.

Zheng, Y. (2016). Creating a South China common market to address Hong Kong and Taiwan issues. IPP Review. Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *