“What it means to be “Chinese” in Hong Kong”

Zhongnanhai Blog is back to writing about China, which is a good thing:

Chinese officials are primarily incensed because the trend is going the wrong way. Conventional thinking has always been the longer Hong Kong is part of China, the more Chinese it, and its people, will become. You can’t really blame Chinese officials for reaching such a conclusion. Having spent four years toiling in China’s state-run media machine, I’m well accustomed to ensuring we refer to the territory as “China Hong Kong”, “Chinese Hong Kong”, “Hong Kong SAR”, etc. I’ve been at CCTV when we’ve showed video of the spectacular National Day fireworks over Victoria Harbour, hosts giddy with excitement over how Hong Kong people are elated to once again be part of the motherland.

This propaganda is dangerous, because many Mainland people may believe it. If so, they may come down here expecting to be in, well, Shanghai. It’s just another of China’s glitzy cities where they can speak Putonghua, shop, and eat local treats, right? Maybe not. I won’t be breaking any new ground by saying Hong Kong is different; I’m sure that’s already understood. But I’m not sure people in China – and this goes for locals and expats – realize the degree to which Hong Kong people consider themselves different, and why they do.

It’s not that Hong Kong people don’t feel “Chinese”; in fact, there are some who claim Hong Kong is more Chinese than the Mainland, because it was spared Mao and his destructive Cultural Revolution. There are wedding traditions, funeral customs, and even holidays celebrated here that are no longer part of regular tradition north of the Lo Wu border. In other words, Hong Kong people celebrate their Chineseness and are proud of it, but they don’t like the connotations that come with the phrase “Chinese”. If somebody is “Chinese”, it generally means they come from China, and China isn’t one big monolithic entity. Thus, Hong Kong people feel the need to point out they aren’t just Chinese, but they are Hong Kong Chinese.

People here have gotten rich (and many haven’t, which is a topic for another day) and found success. But it’s a different kind of success than China is having. Hong Kong has largely kept its civility intact: corruption here is exceedingly rare (largely thanks to the ICAC), people are generally polite (cha chaan teng wait staff not included), people say sorry if they bump into you, people line up for the metro, I could go on. This is in a city that is much more densely populated, stressed-out, high-strung, and fast-paced than either Beijing or Shanghai.

I once asked a colleague, prior to National Day 2010, if she would go out and celebrate by watching the fireworks. Her reply: “Being part of China is nothing to celebrate!” Another colleague told me point blank he wished dearly that Hong Kong remained British. He said the British weren’t perfect, but Hong Kong was more “civilized” back then. He fears Hong Kong is being “overrun” by the Mainland, and its culture and uniqueness is being diluted. These are the feelings, circulating just under the surface, that gush forth at the tiniest prick. More than one Hong Konger has told me the D&G controversy has less to do with the retailer, and more to do with pent up anger at Mainland Chinese.

Finally, Hong Kong’s experience with the Mainland and people from the Mainland hasn’t exactly been a bowl of cherries. Without going into too many details, the behaviour of Mainland people is now under a microscope. Videos of kids peeing on the MTR, people yelling, and rude shoppers frequently go viral on popular Hong Kong’s BBSs, with many actually making the news. A kid peeing or defecating on a moving train is just as surprising here as it would be if it happened in Edinburgh, and it heightens prejudices when the kid then speaks Putonghua. Even my girlfriend, who is a born-and-raised Beijinger, often recoils in disgust at what she sees her compatriots do.

Unfortunately, as the University of Hong Kong survey pointed out, the divide between Hong Kong and the Mainland is growing. Mainland people and Hong Kong people rarely circulate in the same peer groups; Mainland Chinese students ripped June 4 memorial posters off the walls of Hong Kong University in 2009 to the astonishment of Hong Kong students. Hong Kong people believe they have earned their money fair and square in a transparent environment, and feel Mainland people have received it through nefarious means in a shady system.

What can be done about it? Well, a first step would be stop trying to make Hong Kong like the rest of China. I often compare Hong Kong to Quebec in Canada. Both places have “distinct societies”, both places have different historical ties, and both places have different languages. Canada made a decision to preserve the uniqueness that is Quebec; China could do the same with Hong Kong.

Like Tibet, or Taiwan, or Xinjiang, China would do best to win over the population through trust, enlightened governance and respect for differences, not by vitriolic propaganda. It would be a good first step towards making Hong Kong people feel more proud to call themselves “Chinese”.

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