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Hong Kong After 1997 – The ‘Hong Kong Identity’

How has Hong Kong changed after 1997?” – this is a question that many foreigners who come to Hong Kong ask local people. The transition from British colony to Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR) was one of the most symbolic events of the last century and a major historical change witnessed by millions of people all around the world through the media.

Until 1997, Hong Kong’s history was deeply entangled with the history of the British Empire. One may say that without the British Empire, Hong Kong as we know it might never have existed. Hong Kong has been one of the most astonishing and successful colonial experiments, and one of the most amazing blends of different traditions and cultures the world has ever seen.

I shall argue that 1997 did not simply mark the end of British colonial rule. It rather signified the shift of Hong Kong from a unique place that had been built upon the mix of different elements and outside of nationalist, economic or political ideologies, to a new role as a Chinese city among many others.

Under British rule, Hong Kong grew naturally and pragmatically from the circumstances of the time and from the interests and needs of business. It was a city whose identity was hard, if not impossible to define, mostly because there was no government trying to create such an identity. Hong Kong’s ‘indefiniteness’ was perhaps its major strength. With the handover to China this experiment ended, and Hong Kong began to be incorporated into a Chinese state that had been built upon nationalism and political ideology. These ‘two systems’ were not only different; they were diametrically opposed.

When talking with local Hong Kongers, I got the impression that they were far from having a common collective identity. Some of them still refuse to accept that Hong Kong is now part of China and spoke as though Hong Kong was some sort of de facto independent country ‘neighbouring’ mainland China. Others were nostalgic of British rule. Others felt Chinese, but disliked the Communist party. Others again had a pro-Beijing stance. Among the older Hong Kongers who experienced the epoch of strong racial discrimination (when the Peak was still an exclusive ‘white settler’ area) resentment towards the British seems not to be uncommon. Among younger Hong Kongers who did not experience British rule, the allegiance to China may be somewhat stronger. Hong Kong’s identity is a mix of different elements.

Hong Kong’s Hybrid Identity


Although Hong Kong belonged to Britain for one and a half centuries, in the West there is a general lack of knowledge about Hong Kong’s society and identity. In a typical complacent manner that derives from the era of colonialism, Westerners believed to have ‘blessed’ Hong Kong with a superior system and civilization, of which the staggering economic growth of the city-state appeared to be a proof. But how deep was the impact of the British on the Hong Kong population really? Did Hong Kong become a ‘British Chinese city’?

Some indicators seem to show that the identification of the Hong Kongers with Britain was strong. In a survey made before the handover, 68.6 % of the participants said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the British administration and 63% said they trusted the British administration (Yee 2011, p. 65). However, it would be absolutely erroneous to think that Hong Kongers saw themselves as ‘British’. Despite having been subjected to British rule for a century and a half, Hong Kong has always been in its majority a Chinese city.

Hong Kong’s ‘Chineseness’


The great majority of the population of Hong Kong has been ethnically Chinese from the very foundation of the British colony. The Europeans living in Hong Kong were always clearly outnumbered by a Chinese population that kept on growing through immigration, mainly from China’s Guangdong Province.

Hong Kong’s population grew from about 600,000 in 1945 to over 2 million in 1950, and to 2.5 million in 1955 (Tsang 2011, p. 167). Even up to the early 1960s, 33% of the workforce had arrived in Hong Kong after 1949 (ibid.). The positive demographic development never halted. In 1981 the city had 5 183 400 inhabitants, and in 2011 the number had risen to 7 071 600 (see Hong Kong demographic trends).

A large number of Hong Kongers in the first decades following World War II and the Civil War that ended in 1949 were actually born and had lived in mainland China. It is thus not surprising that the first generations of mainland Hong Kongers usually saw themselves as Chinese and felt loyal to China. This was reflected in post-war British policy towards the colony.

The cultural affinity between the Chinese in Hong Kong and in the mainland was one of the main reasons why Sir Alexander Grantham (1899–1978), Governor of Hong Kong from 1947 to 1958, opposed the idea of self-government for the colony. He believed that the majority of the population lacked a local Hong Kong identity, let alone loyalty to the British Empire, and it would inevitably become part of China if it were left free to govern itself (Tsang 2011, p. 148).

Hong Kong’s relationship with Chinese nationalism has always been complex. Hong Kong had been conquered by the British during a period of weakness of the Chinese empire, and the colony became a symbol of national humiliation. This humiliation prompted a strong nationalistic reaction in China, which affected the population of Hong Kong, as well. 

Hong Kong actually became one of the most important centres of Chinese nationalism. For instance, Kai Ho Kai, who was the only Chinese faculty member at the Hong Kong College of Medicine, publicly declared his sympathy for China. One of Ho Kai’s students was Sun Yat-sen, who was educated in Hong Kong and whose political agenda was deeply influenced by his contact with the Western experience in Hong Kong. The father of modern Chinese jurisprudence, Wu Tingfang, also lived in Hong Kong (Carroll 2007, pp. 6; 117).

One of the most famous episodes showing the power of Chinese nationalism among Hong Kong’s ethnic Chinese is the so-called “bread-poisoning incident”. In the course of the Second Anglo-Chinese War (1856 – 1860) during which the city of Canton was bombed by the British, the Viceroy of Canton called the Chinese in Hong Kong to leave the colony in protest. Against this backdrop, on January 15 1857 an attempt was made to exterminate the entire European community in Hong Kong. 

Around 300 European settlers, among them the Governor’s wife, suddenly fell ill after eating bread supplied by a bakery owned by the Chinese Cheong Ahlum (Zhang Alin) (see Chan 1997, pp. 13-14). The bread had been poisoned with arsenic, but there was so much of it that it only caused stomach pains and it was easily detected. No casualties resulted, but the expatriate community was furious. Cheong Ahlum, who had fled to Macau on the same day of the incident, was considered the main suspect.

He was arrested and put on trial in 1857. However, this episode also reveals the extent to which British administration managed to win over the Chinese. In fact, despite the fact that the Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the jury had all been victims of the bread poisoning, Cheong Ahlum was acquitted for lack of evidence. The Chinese got a first-hand experience of British justice and rule of law at work. In the following years, the Chinese learnt to appreciate the predictability and relative fairness of the British judicial system (Tsang 2011, p. 53).

The Rise of the Hong Kongers


Chinese nationalism in Hong Kong began to weaken after the 1960s. In 1949, China became a Communist regime that was economically way less successful than Hong Kong. For many Hong Kong Chinese, China was politically not a model to follow, and many migrants loathed the Communist government from which they had fled. The economic take-off of Hong Kong, the improvement of the standard of living and the political isolation of the PRC made the mainland appear more and more distant and backward. Besides, in the 1960s and 70s  a new generation of locally-born Hong Kongers, who had never lived in mainland China, began to see Hong Kong, and not China, as their home, and were proud of the economic achievements of their birthplace.

However, the ethically Chinese population of Hong Kong did not see being British as an alternative identity. Britain herself never encouraged such development. Chinese and other ethnic groups born in Hong were not issued British passports, but British Dependent Territory Citizen (BDTC) passports, “which did not even give them the right to entry to the United Kingdom, let alone the right of abode” (Lau 1997, p. 3).

Teach English AbroadMost Hong Kongers’ mother tongue was Cantonese, and English, despite being an official language and enjoying social prestige, never replaced Cantonese as the vernacular of the ethnically Chinese population. The way of life, customs and values of the Hong Kongers remained Chinese/Cantonese. In a survey from 1990, 58.3% of the participants identified themselves as Hong Kongers, 26.2% as Chinese and 14.3% as both (Wong 2007, pp. 240-241). This shows that by the 1990s, the Hong Kongers had developed a local identity. They saw both Britain and China as something different from Hong Kong. Ironically, it were the British and the Chinese that decided the destiny of Hong Kong, without even consulting those whose fate they were determining. 

The geographical and psychological distance separating Britain and Hong Kong was, except for the colonial and the business elites, huge. For most Hong Kongers, the Queen of England was nothing but a far-away figure with whom they had no emotional connection. Even the Governor of Hong Kong seemed remote. When Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, started a charm offensive and went among the people to show he cared about them, he had to use an interpreter because he couldn’t speak Cantonese.

We in Europe complain so much about the ‘remote’ European government. But just imagine we had a governor sent from Beijing who could only speak Chinese!

The British Legacy in Hong Kong


I argue that the legacy of British rule in Hong Kong consists of three elements:


1) an efficient and economy-oriented administration;

2) the lack of a nationalistic ideology;

3) broad autonomy; 



1) As historian Steve Tsang put it, the British established in Hong Kong the “best possible government in the Chinese tradition“. Such a government must fulfill the following conditions: “efficiency, fairness, honesty, benevolent paternalism, and non-intrusion into the lives of ordinary people” (Tsang 2011, p. 197). The British did not create such a government because they planned it; in fact, they did not even know what good governance meant for the Chinese. Rather, the successful symbiosis of British and Chinese was born by chance, out of the historical situation peculiar to the colony.

The main interest of the British in Hong Kong was to promote trade and business – this was the reason why the British had acquired the colony. In order to achieve this, they needed a small administration that was cost-effective and guaranteed order and the rule of law. The Governor did not have much resources at his disposal. Until 1941 the colony had only 35 administrative officers, “which meant merely 26 officers were available for running the administration at any one time after taking account of training and long home leaves in the era before the jet airliner” (ibid., pp. 198-199). 

Other than all major empires in history, which were founded on military power, the British Empire had been created by business people, and its core interests were of economic nature. A colony that depended on the Treasury in London for survival was not considered useful. That is why the British administration always tried to make Hong Kong self-sufficient and did not demand more personnel or funds from Britain. The creation of a “big” colonial government was therefore out of the question from the outset.

What the Chinese population wanted was not the government’s major concern. However, for pragmatic reasons the British tended to listen to the voice of the Chinese community, both because the Chinese, and most especially Chinese business people, were the main source of revenue for the colony, and also because the government feared social unrest.

The business-oriented and unintrusive nature of the British colonial government suited very well the Chinese spirit. Most Chinese are traditionally more concerned with their family, ‘face’, a stable and wealthy life, rather than with political issues. The political apathy of the Chinese that seems so incomprehensible to Westerners nowadays, had already been noted long time ago. This is what the British missionary John MacGowan said about the Chinese at the beginning of the 20th century:

Some writers have predicted that a day may come when, inspired by a spirit of war, they [the Chinese] will flash their swords in a wild conquest of the West. This is a dream that will never be realized. Both by instinct and by ages of training, the Chinese are essentially a peace-loving people. The glory of war is something that does not appeal to them. Trade, and commerce, and money-making, and peaceful lives are the ideals of the race (see Sidelights On Chinese Life, chapter I).


And indeed, the same attitude that keeps the CCP in power allowed the British to govern Hong Kong. British colonial administration was an autocratic, oligarchic government with little democratic elements, but it delivered good economic results and left the people alone, and that was enough to prevent any major unrest. When Hong Kongers criticize the PRC’s management of Hong Kong’s affairs, it is mostly because of the widening wealth gap and the excessive power of business elites backed by Beijing, or because the government is too intrusive. From these two points of view, the British government indeed delivered better results, though it is an open question whether these results were really only the merit of the colonial administration.

2) What makes Hong Kong really different from the two Chinese states in Beijing (PRC) and Taipei (ROC) is the complete lack of a government-sponsored national ideology. Hong Kong is culturally Chinese, but there was never a state teaching and propagating nationalism and patriotism among the population. In the PRC and the ROC, on the contrary, the school system and other government or government-controlled organs, including the media, ‘taught’ their citizens nationalism, setting the standards for what it means to ‘love the country’. 

The British government in Hong Kong never had any interest whatsoever in propagating nationalist ideologies. To the British, nationalism was a danger to their colonial rule. Nationalism would have divided the various ethnic groups; we shouldn’t forget that Hong Kong had small European, Indian, Nepalese and other communities, some of which did not leave after 1997. The British feared the rise of Chinese national feelings as a destabilizing force that could delegitimize their colonial administration. 

As we have already seen, Chinese nationalism did develop in Hong Kong. But it was not a nationalism codified and directed by the government, as it is the case in the PRC and as it used to be the case in the ROC under Chiang Kai-shek. Hong Kong’s Chinese nationalism was spontaneous, it came from the bottom and it was a private matter. And because it was spontaneous, it never became a majority view or a definite ideology. That is why Hong Kongers are more relaxed about their identity than mainland Chinese or other nations (like Italy, Greece etc.) where nationalism was taught in school and became state ideology. 

Most Hong Kongers rather developed a mixed identity, with the local allegiance to Hong Kong coexisting with other elements, such as their Chinese cultural roots and Western influence (see Carroll 2007, p. 111). 

This explains why the people of Hong Kong reacted so apathetically to the handover, behaving like a crowd watching a big show that did not concern them. Many Hong Kongers, most especially those in the lower strata of society, did not feel personal connection either to China or Britain. They were politically neutral, saw Hong Kong as an economic colony and wanted it to maintain its character. They cared about their own economic achievements and had a simple ‘business-as-usual’ attitude. Some Hong Kongers were glad the British were leaving and the Hong Kongers could rule themselves (see Chan 1997, pp. 161-162). 

3) In British Hong Kong, the power to govern did not belong to the people, but to the colonial administration and the Governor appointed by London (Lau 1997, p. 27). In a speech made in 1969, Governor David Trench justified Hong Kong’s lack of democracy in the following way:

There is no one brand of politics, or one line of policies, which is right for all places at all stages of development. And whenever you are and whenever you are there, you must select the best course of action for that time and place … (ibid.p. 31).


These words could have come from the mouth of a Communist leader today. Hong Kong’s colonial government was in fact autocratic. It was an executive-led government, a colonial system with powers concentrated in the hands of the Governor and with commercial and popular needs partially represented by appointed and elected members in the Executive and Legislative Councils. It was an elite system of consultation strongly dependent on a professional civil service loyal to the sovereign.

The autocratic and economy-oriented nature of the British colonial government suited Beijing’s political orientation. The Communist Party wanted to continue the existing undemocratic political structure. The PRC sought to maintain this system by allying with the business elites who did not want democratization because they feared that, if representatives of the working classes took part in the government, they would push for more welfare spending and neglect the needs of Hong Kong as a trade and financial centre (ibid., pp. 38-39). Paradoxically, the British had created a system that was so undemocratic that the PRC wanted to keep it as it was. That is why Chinese politicians were outraged when the last Governor pushed for more democracy just a few months before the handover. 

However, the British system in Hong Kong also had two elements that caused major frictions between Beijing and Hong Kong after 1997: ample autonomy and lack of nationalism.

The old colonial system was based on the principle of “maximum autonomy for the colony and minimum intervention from London” as the metropolitan centre of the empire. This system worked well for Hong Kong and guaranteed the development of the city in a natural and somewhat free way. It was a consequence both of the weakness of Britain as a declining colonial power, and of the tradition of local autonomy and ‘small colonial government’ that already existed in Hong Kong prior to 1945 (see Wong 2007, pp. 238-239).

Chinese Nationalism and The Tycoon Connection


What were the biggest changes in Hong Kong after the handover? I will argue that there were three major changes regarding the following three aspects:


1) nationalism

2) autonomy

3) economy


1) As we have seen above, the British colonial government had downplayed the role of nationalism and nationality. The neutral stance of the Hong Kongers towards nationality, however, was not welcomed by the Chinese leaders in the PRC.

Nationalism has been one of the pillars of Communist rule in China. The party cadres that founded the PRC were those who had experienced a poor, divided China marred by wars and economic weakness, and they fought for liberation from foreign aggressors and for national renewal. The recovery of Hong Kong and Macau was to them a matter of national pride. These leaders were so imbued with nationalism that they wished to instill in the people of Hong Kong a sense of ‘national identity’ (see Lau 1997, p. 15).

As early as in 1984 Xu Jiatun, director of the Hong Kong Branch of the New China News Agency (Xinhua), which was at that time the de facto Chinese embassy in Hong Kong, stated that an “important spirit which underpins patriotic tradition is merging one’s destiny with that of the nation and the people. One truly has a destiny only if he binds his own future with the future of the nation and the people.

Ironically, during the Tiananmen incident Xu Jiatun supported the ‘wrong’ side and in 1990 he had to flee to the US (ibid., p. 16). This is another example of how fictional national ideologies are.

Nevertheless, one of the major objectives of Beijing remains that of spreading a ‘Chinese national consciousness’ among the Hong Kongers. One of the most powerful tools to propagate national ideology has always been education. Italian nationalist leader Mazzini said that “without National education, from which alone a national conscience can issue, a Nation has no moral existence” (Lu / Ma 2007, p. 78)
In a recent survey, Hong Kong university students were asked if they loved their country; half of them responded positively, while the other half responded negatively. Most participants who said they loved their country stated that they loved Chinese culture or the Chinese people, but only a meagre 14 percent claimed love for the Chinese government and only 3 percent for the Communist Party (ibid. p. 81).

After the handover, the central Chinese government and pro-Beijing groups within Hong Kong have exerted increasing pressure on the Hong Kong institutions to change the school curriculum so as to emphasize Chinese nationalism. For example, before 1997 Hong Kong school textbooks used the terms ‘mainland China’ and ‘Taiwan’. After 1997, publishers began to use ‘Inland China’ and ‘Taiwan Province’ (ibid., p. 85). 

Other sensitive issues, such as the colony status of Hong Kong or the Tiananmen Incident of 1989 are downplayed, if not actually distorted. For instance, the word ‘colony’ is now mostly used only in quotation marks. National education also comprises the singing of the national anthem and flag-raising ceremonies which start from kindergarten, in order to instill love and respect for the flag and the anthems as symbols of national pride and unity. A kindergarten teacher stated that she explains the relationship between China and Hong Kong as that between a mother and her baby: “The baby needs to go back to its mother. That’s why Hong Kong is part of China” (ibid., pp. 86-87). It is thus clear that after 1997 the government has been trying to create allegiance to the PRC and Chinese nationalism as codified by the CCP.

The issue of nationalism is a very sensitive one. It reemerged recently during the pro-democracy campaigns in Hong Kong. Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the National People’s Congress Law Committee, stated that any chief executive candidate must “love the country and love Hong Kong” (note). Nationalism is used by the Beijing government to set the standards of loyalty and treason.
   
Government-sponsored nationalism, which was alien to Hong Kong before 1997, is without doubt one of the major changes of the post-handover era. And, in my opinion, it is a change for the worst. 

2) The old equilibrium between London and Hong Kong has proved hard to repeat in the new context of Hong Kong as a SAR of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing has been more assertive in insisting on its prerogatives than London was, and it has shown its willingness to control Hong Kong when it deems necessary.

Two episodes highlight the complex balance of power between Beijing and Hong Kong. The first was the right of abode issue of 1999, when a decision of the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong was overruled by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. The second was the attempt of the Hong Kong SAR’s government to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law by passing anti-secession laws. Many believed that the initiative of the SAR’s government was prompted by pressure from Beijing (Wong 2007, p. 239).  

However, it is a paradox that the Beijing government is often viewed as more  autocratic than the old colonial regime. In British Hong Kong, the Governor was appointed by London, and in the whole history of the colony all Governors were white people born outside of Hong Kong. It is true that once the Governor was appointed, London did not interfere much. But there was not much democracy in those days, either. I would argue that the perception of the Beijing government meddling too much in Hong Kong’s affairs is due to the fact that many Hong Kongers don’t trust the Communist Party. Besides, many Hong Kongers are not happy with the widening wealth gap and with the alliance between Beijing and local business elites. Media independence has also become a major issue after 1997.


3) The take-off and economic boom in Hong Kong happened under British rule. Many people think back on that period as an era of opportunities, growth and rising living standards. After the handover, however, Hong Kong experienced not only a recession due to the financial crisis of 1997, but also a widening wealth gap and a sharp rise in property market prices that have undermined social harmony.

In explaining Hong Kong’s entrenched wealth gap, analysts cite the economy’s overwhelming reliance on the services sector, particularly finance, which has created wealth for some but failed to provide significant numbers of well-paying jobs across the board. While income grew 60% among the city’s top 10% of earners between 2001-2010, it dropped by 20% among those in the bottom 10% (note).


While it is hard to say whether the widening wealth gap is a consequence of the new political landscape, it is clear that the connection between Beijing and Hong Kong’s business tycoons is. The Communist government saw in the business elites of the city a safe pool for support, while the business sector was eager to win over Beijing to have smooth access to the Chinese market, and to prevent the “masses” from obtaining more power and compromising business interests.

The alliance between Beijing and business elites is a major reason for discontent among the population. A poll from 2006 shows that 82.4% of Hong Kongers believe that collusion between government and business exists. To the question whether business leaders can be trusted, 25.3% gave a negative, 19.9% a positive answer, while 54.8% were unsure (Wong 2007, p. 239).

Collusion between government and business had already existed under British rule; indeed, it was one of its main characteristics. However, this collusion was not so extensive as to create widespread resentment. Against the backdrop of the widening wealth gap, the close relationship between business and government is met with increasing suspicion. 


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