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Does Hong Kong Lack Chinese National Identity?

The youth of Hong Kong lack national identity and should be taught to feel Chinese, declared Chen Zuo'er, former deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office and current president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

"Hong Kong’s young students are intelligent and hard working. However, they lack a sense of national identity and of Chinese history," said Chen at a seminar held in Beijing on January 6. He argued that the participation of thousands of young students of Hong Kong in the recent Umbrella Revolution was a result of their lack of "national democratic [sic!] and civic awareness, life goals, and knowledge in geography, history and culture". He pointed out that Hong Kong's secretary for education is “under the supervision of the central government and Hong Kong society at all times”, according to articles 48 and 104 of the Basic Law.

He urged Hong Kong's educators to take into consideration the nation's "sovereignty, safety and interests", and teach their students a correct understanding of the Basic Law, of the "one country, two systems" model and of national identity. 

It is obvious that Chen Zuo'er and people like him don't understand that they are themselves the real problem. Their ideology is poisoning Hong Kong. Without Chen and his peers there would have been no Umbrella Revolution.  

People who have been reading this blog for some time might know by now how much I loathe nationalist doctrines. I have explained that nationalism is an incoherent and irrational ideology. I admit that national identity is a legitimate feeling of belonging to a group. But national identity - like religious, sexual or class identity - is a private matter and should never become state ideology. Whenever national, religious, sexual or class ideologies monopolise the state, the state inevitably becomes intolerant, autocratic and violent.

When Deng Xiaoping formulated his concept of "one country, two systems" he argued that mainland China would maintain its socialist system while Hong Kong would maintain its capitalist system and its way of life. But what was Hong Kong's way of life?

Under British rule Hong Kong wasn't a democracy, but an authoritarian colonial state whose governors were appointed by London. People's participation in politics was marginal and mostly confined to the economic and social elites. Beijing therefore argues that Hong Kong is more democratic now that it ever was in the colonial era. This is a partly true analysis, but it ignores the specific nature of the freedoms Hong Kong enjoyed under British rule.

The essence of Hong Kong under British rule was the absence of state-imposed ideology. The identity of the Hong Kong people wasn't the subject of education. The average Hongkonger was culturally Chinese, but he or she could absorb influences from all over the world, could participate in the global community on an equal footing, without hindrance, without inferiority complex, without dogmatic restraints. A Hongkonger was free to be anything he or she wanted, to define his or her own identity. This freedom was the best aspect of colonial Hong Kong.

After 1997, Beijing brought ideology into the lives of the Hong Kong people. Now the state says that each Hongkonger MUST develop a Chinese national consciousness as defined by the Chinese Communist Party. The Beijing leadership believes that "one country" means homogeneous, standardised, state-sanctioned national identity. Under British rule, the state never asked the Hong Kong people to feel British, English, Chinese, royalist, or anything else. While it is true that Hong Kong had no universal suffrage and no democratically elected government, the Hongkongers had freedom of speech, freedom to define their own identity, freedom to pursue their careers and live their lives the way they wanted. Beijing's nationalist ideology is depriving Hong Kong of these freedoms. Therefore, the CCP is destroying Hong Kong's way of life.

Chen Zuo'er is right. The Hong Kong people lack an exclusively Chinese national identity. A recent poll shows that 'Chinese identity' in Hong Kong is receding. A meagre 8.9% identified themselves as "Chinese". 26.8% of the respondents identified themselves as "Hongkongers", 42% as "Hongkongers but also Chinese" and 22.3% as "Chinese but also Hongkongers".

But why is this a problem? Why shouldn't Hongkongers after 1997 define their identity freely, like they did under British rule? Why is Beijing so eager to inculcate a dogmatic national identity into the young generation of Hongkongers?

The answer lies in the historical experience of China after its fateful and brutal encounter with the West in the 19th century. The CCP's obsession with national identity has become a fundamental part of Chinese nation-building efforts. In the next post, I will write about how nationalism emerged in China in the 19th and 20th century. In particular I will focus on the thought of Yan Fu, Zou Rong, Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen. These thinkers created the concept of nationalism as the most important precondition for China's salvation and anti-Western struggle. 


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