Hong Kong: Local Identity and Democratization
By Echo Li

Hong Kong: Local Identity and Democratization

Sep. 26, 2016  |     |  0 comments

On September 5, 2016, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council election saw the non-establishment camp capturing two seats from the pro-establishment camp. Generally speaking, the power distribution of both camps did not change much. However, the big news was the success of the localists, including the victory of five young candidates. Additionally, the voting rate of this election reached a historical high.


As first time candidates, these young people advocated the ideas of localism, democracy, and self-determination, and they eventually won. 23-year-old Nathan Law won with the second highest polls of Hong Kong Island District and became the youngest councilor in history. With 390,000 votes, the victories of the five localist youth are not coincidences. Instead, as the rising power of the localists is differentiated from the traditional establishment or pan-democrats, they represent the rising localist ideology to a certain degree. Indeed, as one of the mainstreams within the political spectrum, the localist groups have different image of the political system in Hong Kong, and “fighting for Hong Kong as a nation” is not their shared opinion. However, all of them insist on the independence of Hong Kong and the superiority of the Hong Kong people. It is also demonstrated in the campaign slogans of the localism camp which focus on democracy and the local identity.


During the democratization process, the Hong Kong people initially were primarily struggling for the reform of political institutions (the election process of their Chief Executive), and at the time did not stress on their local identity. However, the Umbrella Movement was a significant turning point, as it greatly promoted the rising awareness of personal rights and identity. During that time, “xx does not represent me” was one of the most popular sayings. One step further, some questions implied by this statement come naturally: “Who am I?”, “Who can represent me?”


Hong Kong University conducted a semiannual public opinion research on the identity issue. According to the latest survey, only 30.7 percent of Hong Kong people identified themselves as Chinese in a broad sense. And in the youth group aged 18 to 29, this identity was accepted by only 8.5 percent of them. The percentages are significantly sufficient to suggest localized identity even though the participants might interpret the broad definition of Chinese, in terms of politics and culture, differently.


Second, we may gain a better understanding if we consider the identity issue in an international context. In recent years, localism has been practiced worldwide in different contents, such as the exclusiveness in Europe resulting from the refugee crisis, the Scottish independence referendum, and the Brexit referendum. Furthermore, localism is actually based on the localization of identity in different senses. Obviously, globalization has stimulated the regionalization of interests rather than just creating common benefits. This may explain why people more frequently think about self-identity and citizenship in its political, economic and social aspects. In Hong Kong, this phenomenon is significantly prominent. The benefits of the interaction with mainland China have not flowed to the ordinary people, leading to their resistance and negative attitudes towards integration.


Rational thinking and debates seem to fade in the social context and localist groups have even incorporated violence in their confrontations with the current structure.

What is noticeable, however, is that Hong Kong people’s identity has gradually been formed through their interaction with mainland China. Certainly, the most efficient way to defend an identity is to attack another one. The localist groups’ policy orientation has taken up this strategy, which is reflected in all aspects: politically, by insisting the self-determination ideology; economically, by denying the Individual Visit Scheme; and culturally, by disparaging the Simplified Chinese Character writing system. Hong Kong people’s superiority and local identity are strengthened in this process. Therefore, it is easier to understand the rationale behind the tension between Hong Kong and mainland China when reading the symbolic meaning attached to some minor incidents.


When the localized identity is intertwined with the democratic movements, the consequence is the persistent overheating of politicization, which has no way to be cooled down. Hong Kong people’s rejection and emotional response to China’s political system, culture, and people is the product of this combination.


However, the trend of pan-politicization can easily trap people into an ideological argument, without evidence-based reasoning or critical thinking, which definitely can have a negative effect on solving the problem. Those elected from localist groups have disclosed that they will propose Hong Kong’s self-determination in the legislative council, which absolutely will further intensify the politicization process. In such a severe situation, how to cool down the burgeoning localism has become a major question and challenge for the government.


A brief review of the history of disputes between Hong Kong people and the government since the handover of the sovereignty is helpful here. On July 1, 2003, 500,000 people showed their opposition to the legislation of Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23 on the streets, because of their fear of losing their freedom of speech. The protest successfully forced the government to withdraw its legislation draft and also indirectly caused the retirement of the Chief Executive. Moreover, the demonstration against the National Education plan in 2012 compelled the government to lay the plan aside. Because of these successful precedents, the Umbrella Movement intended to use the same approach to bargain with the government but finally failed. At the same time, this failure led to the rise of a number of localist groups. Recent demonstrations have shown an increasingly violent tendency.


Social movements reflect real social needs to a certain degree and provide an outlet for social dissatisfaction. The aforementioned large-scale demonstrations are the consequence of the central government’s interruption of Hong Kong’s autonomy, the most sensitive issue for Hong Kong people. Since 1997, many Hong Kong people have migrated from Hong Kong, in fear of the political institutions (or communism) of mainland China. Actually, such fears and worries have existed all along, so a high degree of autonomy would seem to be a “life-saving straw” for them. However, in recent years, the government has taken an opposite stand against the public, solving problems through repression, which has aroused a larger scale of resistance.


Under the context of pan-politicization, any issue could be easily made relevant or upgraded to a political issue. Rational thinking and debates seem to fade in the social context and localist groups have even incorporated violence in their confrontations with the current structure. Therefore, for the government, political or ideological methods have become more dangerous and less effective in cooling down Hong Kong society than ever before.

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