Protests and demonstrations are not new in Hong Kong. Even before returning to Chinese control in 1997, Hongkongers had demonstrated on different demands. When Chief Executive Carrie Lam wanted to push an extradition bill—that would allow both Hong Kong residents and visitors to be sent to China for trial—through the Legislative Council in March, it immediately triggered criticism and protests, particularly from the millennials of Hong Kong, demanding immediate withdrawal of the law. It is not surprising that the current protests that began in June continues with violent weekend street battles with the police.
Almost all political movements have strong economic undertones. The income-curve of the eight million people living in Hong Kong is steeply skewed. Majority of the lower income group find it extremely hard to make ends meet with stagnant incomes and rising cost of living. Housing prices have tripled over the past decade and median rent has increased by almost 25 percent in the past 5-6 years.
Together with economic woes, Hongkongers are also in search of an independent identity. Under the British colonial rule Hongkongers were neither British citizens nor Chinese nationals. The older generation may feel nostalgic over Hong Kong’s colonial heritage but the younger millennials have little attachment with it or with mainland China. The mostly western-curricula educated younger generation has been leading this movement for democracy and social justice, which is in many ways a struggle for an identity.
According to Anthropology Professor Gordon Mathews of Chinese University, there has been a significant shift in how his students felt about their ethnicity since the handover in 1997. Most identified themselves as Hongkongers rather than Chinese. The term “Hongkonger” extends well beyond politics and nationality, and crosses into definitions of culture, ethnicity, race and morality. Mathews says the term “Hongkonger” has become synonymous with core values such as political transparency, rule of law and freedom of speech.
Dr Beatrice Oi-yeung Lam of Hong Kong University says there are different dimensions of “Chineseness”. A Hongkonger identifying as Chinese may consider himself as culturally Chinese, but at the same time may have reservations about the political regime of the People’s Republic of China and how “Chineseness” is framed under that political regime. She said the modern Hongkonger is a product of “a neo-liberal governmentality”.
In the Ethos of the Hong Kong Chinese (1988), Liu Zhaojia and Kuan Hsin-chi summarised that those who claimed Hong Kong identity rather than a Chinese one, were “younger in age, more educated and higher in occupational status”. They also had a more “modern political outlook” and were more “trustful” of Hong Kong government than China’s. They concluded that this “identity differentiation” within Hong Kong society would continue to intensify and “inevitably have significant reverberations for future political changes in Hong Kong”.
Hong Kong’s geographical location also has a particular influence on its people. The term “Hongkonger” is derived from a variety of sociological, cultural and economic factors. The port city of Hong Kong has had to adapt to large influx of traders and seamen from all over the world that gave them a distinct cultural identity.
The turmoil currently sweeping Hong Kong is driven primarily by four main factors: fear of Beijing’s growing control; concern over erosion of its freedom and autonomy; very high cost of living; and Western “black hands” influences mainly from US, Britain, and the EU. Western media has been playing an aggressive role to project the confrontation between the protestors and Carrie Lam government—actually to discredit Beijing.
There is however no chance that Beijing will accept the demands of the protestors: universal suffrage; full democratic elections; independent inquiry into alleged police brutality. Beijing has condemned the protestors as “rioters” engaged in “colour revolution”. However, Beijing has taken a wait and see policy and wants Carrie Lam to clear the mess her government has created. Beijing is currently concentrating its efforts on alleviating the economic pressures on Hongkongers. Carrie Lam’s government has to focus on quickly tackling the wealth inequality, housing crisis and the high cost of living.
During the 70th founding anniversary of China on October 1, while the mainland was celebrating the occasion with pomp and grandeur, Hongkongers—in an act of defiance—came out in thousands and fought street battles with the police. President Xi Jinping addressing the nation reiterated that he will uphold the “one country, two systems” principle and integrate Hong Kong with the mainland. There is no chance that Beijing will allow this Special Administrative Region having a capitalist economy, different currency, different legal and administrative system, different passport, etc.—to secede and become another Taiwan.
The current wave of protests has done some serious damage to Hong Kong, known as Asia’s financial hub. Businesses have slowed down significantly; tourism has gone down and normal civic life has been disrupted. Billions of dollars have fled to other financial centres, including Singapore. Strategically located, the port city of Singapore is expecting to benefit from the current turmoil in Hong Kong. It has good governance, stability and social harmony that are essential for pro-growth policies. Singapore is however, careful not to be seen as profiting from the unrest in Hong Kong.
Although the word “Hongkonger” does not define the nationality of the residents of Hong Kong, it gives them a cultural identity. The city’s long history has helped shape this sense of identity which is yet to be established. Research and surveys conducted on the subject show that there exists an identity problem for the ethnic Chinese of Hong Kong.
The current unrest is the result of failure of China to culturally win the hearts and minds of the Hongkongers. The educated millennials are spearheading the movement not only for economic and political reforms but also to overcome the “identity vacuum”.
Mahmood Hasan is former ambassador and secretary.