Hong Kong in China: Trends, Explanations and Policy Options
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By H. Christoph Steinhardt & Linda Chelan Li

Hong Kong in China: Trends, Explanations and Policy Options

Feb. 19, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The smoke of the localist surge after the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong has cleared by now. Nonetheless, recent disputes over independence banners and Chinese language requirements in universities, or the booing of the national anthem by football supporters, are reminders of underlying strains in the sense of belonging to China. For the Chinese authorities, being so publicly rejected is an embarrassing sting in the side of their national rejuvenation project. It is also a reminder of the threat to national security they fear could arise from the Special Administrative Region (SAR).1 Although a large majority of Hong Kong people does not support independence from China, feelings of unease about the Mainland are widespread. Given these lingering tensions, it is necessary to provide clearer answers to the following questions: how and when have Hong Kong peoples’ political identities shifted? Do we observe rising localism, a diminishing sense of nationhood, or both? How can we explain the shift? What can be done?2

The Trend Since 1997

Following pioneering studies by Lau Siu-kai and Kuan Hsin-chi,3 the most often used survey instrument to measure Hong Kongers’ political identity is a single categorical survey item that asks respondents to choose between the options “Hong Konger” or “Chinese” (and some middle categories such as, “Hong Konger in China” or “Chinese from Hong Kong”). Yet, identity research has indicated that the measurement of “nested identities” with such an instrument is problematic. It implies that identities are opposing poles of the same attitude, produces flawed statistical findings when this is not the case and does not permit examining how identities are related.4 We found evidence that the assumption of a uni-dimensionality of “Hong Konger” or “Chinese” identities indeed does not hold.5

When we examined the trend between 1997 and 2017 with preferable identity strength scales (asking respondents separately how strong they identify as “Hong Konger” and “Chinese” from 0-10), we found that the mean strength of local Hong Kong identity has hardly budged (Figure 1). Although it dipped slightly in the late-1990s and early-2000s, it has hovered closely around 8 points throughout the period. Even during the tumultuous Occupy Central movement in 2014 and the period of bourgeoning localism in 2015 and 2016, Hong Kong citizens did not become remarkably more strongly attached to Hong Kong.

Figure 1: Mean Hong Konger and Chinese identity strength, 1997-2013

Notes: Data based on surveys by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme (HKU POP). Semi-annual average values were calculated when more than one survey was available. The left axis displays national and local identity strengths. The right axis displays the correlation coefficient between the two items. Note that this analysis was done without survey weights, leading to minuscule differences with population means published on the HKU POP website.

What did change, however, was “Chinese” identity strength. After a mean of 7 points in 1999, it increased and stabilized at around 7.5 points during 2002–2005, and then continued to rise to just over 8 points in the first half of 2008. A weakening set in from the second half of 2008 onwards. Until mid-2013, mean “Chinese” identity strength dropped 17 percent to 6.9 points. The gradual downward trend has since continued, albeit at a slower and unsteady pace, to 6.6 points by mid-2015 and 6.8 by mid-2017. We also found that the correlation between national and local identity was robustly positive at around 0.3 until 2008. Those with strong “Chinese” identity tended to report strong “Hong Konger” identity and vice versa. Since 2008, however, the correlation has been on an unsteady downward trend. Notably, in mid-2016 it has veered into the negative for the first time since 1997.

These simple descriptive findings provide three important insights: first, if a much-discussed “rise of localism” in Hong Kong would imply that people identify more strongly with being a “Hong Konger,” the evidence does not provide much support for such a reading. The identity shift in Hong Kong over recent years is primarily characterized by a diminishing sense of nationhood. Second, Hong Kong citizens are, however, not destined to rejecting their national identity. Quite to the contrary, over the first decade after the handover it became increasingly normal to identify both as “Chinese” and a “Hong Konger.” Third, contrary to widespread beliefs and the assumption of the categorical survey item, “Chinese” and “Hong Konger” identities have for the most part not been in a zero-sum, but in a positive-sum relationship.

Explaining Identity Strength

Trying to explain the strength of national identity, we tested three sets of explanations: 1) the structural account, stressing socio-structural variables such as class, education and age; 2) the grievance argument, stressing the impact of dissatisfaction with various livelihood issues; and 3) the trust account, emphasizing the role of confidence in the nation’s highest political authority for fostering a sense of belonging to the nation.

We found that “trust in the central government in Beijing” is a highly significant factor to statistically account for “Chinese” identity strength. Peoples’ livelihood concerns, measured as the extent of dissatisfaction with “present livelihood conditions in Hong Kong,” also exerts an impact in the expected direction — more dissatisfaction leading to a weaker national identity — but it becomes insignificant once political trust is controlled for. Class and education also have no independent effect. Only the youngest cohort of 18–29-years show a significantly weaker national identity in comparison to those 60 and older, the age-group with the strongest national identity. Thus, political trust and age emerge as the most salient explanations for the strength of Hong Kongers’ “Chinese” identity.

When we further investigated these effects, we found that although the gap between Chinese identity strength of the youngest and oldest groups appeared large at 2.62 points in 2013, it shrinks to 1.06 points when other variables are controlled for. Around 39 percent of the age-identity-gap is due to age-differences in political trust. In contrast, the discrepancy in national identity strength along degrees of political trust is much larger and highly stable. Even when controlling for all other variables, it stood at a whopping 4.19 points (on the 0 to 10 identity strength scale, 5.15 for the lowest and 9.34 and the highest trust levels).


Figure 2: “Chinese” identity strength and trust in the central government, 1997-2013

Notes: Data based on surveys by HKU POP. Semi-annual average values have been calculated when more than one survey was available. The left axis displays national identity strength. The right axis displays trust in the central government.

Although our cross-sectional data did not permit us to directly examine the cause behind changes in “Chinese” identity over time, comparing the over-time trajectories of trust in the central government and national identity supports the impression that trust is an important driver of the trend (Figure 2): like national identity, political trust (from 1 to 5) gradually increased from 2.81 in 1997 to 3.53 in the first half of 2008. Subsequently, it also went on a decline back to 2.81 in late 2012. Moreover, the correlation between trust and national identity has gradually increased, reaching an all-time high of 0.51 in 2013.

Notably, when we applied our explanatory model to “Hong Konger” identity, we found that trust in the central government plays no role whatsoever. Overall, the factors considered do not help much to explain local identity strength and the correlates further confirm that “Hong Konger” identity is not simply the opposite of “Chinese” identity.

The explanatory analysis thus provided three further insights: first, two prominent explanations of the identity shift in Hong Kong — discontent with livelihood problems and young age — appear to be much less important than often assumed. Second, Chinese identity is politicized along views over Beijing’s politics. Indeed, feeling “Chinese” and trusting “the central government” has taken on an almost synonymous connotation in Hong Kong. Third, contrasting common assumptions, local identity is not politicized and much more consensual than previously thought.

What Can Be Done?

A robust identification with China among Hong Kongers is a prerequisite for the effective functioning of the “One Country, Two Systems” model. At the same time, local identity will remain a stable feature of political identities in Hong Kong. Our analysis shows clearly that the two are distinct attitudes which have been compatible with each other. There is no inherent zero-sum relationship between the two. And as the first decade after the handover has showcased, Hong Kongers are not destined to snubbing their Chinese identity but have identified both as “Chinese” and a “Hong Konger.” The weakening of Chinese identity (post-2008) is an empirical contingency rather than a result of an inevitable trend.

Public policy in the SAR and Beijing needs to start from these premises and adopt an approach which embraces both national and local identities. Decision-makers should thus ponder two inter-related questions: how can they foster a form of patriotism in Hong Kong that remains compatible with local identity? What constitutes the best approach to encourage Hong Kong people to re-embrace their Chinese identity, as they did prior to 2008?

While livelihood concerns do not have a direct impact on individuals’ identity perception, as our analysis suggests, they are closely connected to incidences of social tensions and may well contribute to the inclination to be mobilized into street protests. Improving socio-economic well-being is the “bread and butter” of governance in all societies, and the bedrock of a well-balanced social psyche and strong socio-political entity. The SAR Government has started moves in this direction. The challenge is how to sustain the efforts and improve further.

The findings that trust in the Chinese central government and national identity are closely linked requires thinking on how Hong Kongers’ confidence can be improved. What do people have in mind when they evaluate the trustworthiness of the central government? Our explorations of survey data and anecdotal evidence suggest that concerns over Hong Kong’s autonomy within the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement have a strong impact on trust in the central government. While more research is needed to figure out the nuts and bolts of this link, there is reason to believe that widespread perceptions that Beijing is increasingly curtailing autonomy and reneging on promises of democratization are key drivers of political distrust which, in turn, is critical for Hong Kongers’ declining embrace of Chinese identity.

Dissensions over autonomy and political development seem set to remain an unavoidable feature of Hong Kong-Mainland relations in the near term. For trust to form, however, the communication and perception of policies is at least as important as the policies themselves. Provocations should be avoided from all sides, and especially from government and officials, and people in “responsible positions.” There is much merit in encouraging a deeper knowledge of the ideas, considerations, worries and aspirations of each party of the others, to agree to “bracket” disagreements and allow emotions to cool off, especially after explicit clashes of views in society occur from time to time.

Our finding that Chinese identity in Hong Kong has become increasingly politicized along perceptions of the central government is perhaps not surprising given that the Chinese authorities have long promoted linking patriotism with support for the Communist Party, and that this discourse had an increasing influence on Hong Kong. Based on our analysis, we believe that the politicization of Chinese identity has contributed to its weakening among those Hong Kongers who do not support some policies by the central government and contributed to its decreasing compatibility with the less political “Hong Konger” identity. Both trends do not bode well for Hong Kong’s integration into China.

That is why the best way to strengthen national identity in Hong Kong is to allow room for less politicization. Surveys have continuously shown that Hong Kong people are more open to the cultural and historical components of China.6 In policy as well as education, these aspects should be emphasized. Another way to practically demonstrate an inclusive approach would be to cease treating members of the Pan-democrats as if they were categorically unpatriotic by, for instance, ceasing the practice of banning most of them from entering the Mainland. Lately there have been occasional moves in that direction, which should be consolidated with enhanced persistence for better effects.

When Deng Xiaoping, the architect of “One Country, Two Systems,” explained Beijing’s expectations of patriots in Hong Kong, he conveyed: “We don’t demand that they be in favor of China’s socialist system. We only ask them to love the motherland and Hong Kong.” Today’s decision-makers could take inspiration from that vision again.


1. Nathan, Andrew J., and Andrew Scobell. China’s Search for Security. Columbia University Press, 2012, pp. 208-212.

2. Our answers will draw on insights we have gained in a recently published study. See, Steinhardt, H. Christoph, Linda Chelan Li, and Yihong Jiang. “The Identity Shift in Hong Kong since 1997: Measurement and Explanation.” Journal of Contemporary China, forthcoming.

3. Lau, Siu-kai, and Hsin-chi Kuan. The Ethos of the Hong Kong Chinese. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1988.

4. Lee, Francis L. F., and Joseph Man Chan Chan. “Political Attitudes, Political Participation, and Hong Kong Identities After 1997.” Issues & Studies 41, no. 2 (2005): 1–35.

5. For details, see, Steinhardt, Li, and Jiang, The Identity Shift in Hong Kong since 1997.”

6. See, e.g., Chan, Chi Kit. “China as ‘Other’: Resistance to and Ambivalence toward National Identity in Hong Kong.” China Perspectives, no. 1 (2014): 25-34.

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