By Alexandra Wertz
I came to Hong Kong expecting China. What I got was the West. Aside from the snake soup restaurant on the corner and surgical mask fashion statements, Hong Kong felt very modern, nothing like stereotypical China.
My preconceived ideas of China included outdated communism, the one-child policy, very little English, repression of religion, and harsh media censorship. But when I got to Hong Kong, I saw democracy, families have multiple children, countless English speakers, freedom of religion, and local newspaper headlines condemning the mainland’s government. But ever since China regained the island in 1997, ending the days of British colonial rule, Hong Kong has, and has not, been a part of China.
It was the reformist Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, who coined the phrase that defined the relationship between Hong Kong and China: “one country, two systems.” It meant that Hong Kong residents have basic rights that don’t exist in the mainland. Theoretically, natives of Hong Kong enjoy the rights of religion, press, property, travel and marriage. But in actuality, things aren’t so black and white, since Deng Xiaoping’s words are ambiguous.
The Joint Declaration signed by Britain and China in 1990 states that the socialism of the People’s Republic of China would not interfere with the capitalist ways of Hong Kong. The island would continue to be as democratic and as financially lucrative as it had been in its recent colonial past.
But identity is still an issue. When I’m abroad and asked where I’m from, I answer “The United States.” Not Minnesota. Not Minneapolis. But the United States. Yet all eight Hong Kong natives I interviewed told me they came from Hong Kong, not China. So what’s the difference?
“We speak different languages,” Yip said. “And not every Chinese person on the mainland is very educated, but in Hong Kong everyone enjoys the free education system.”
The official language of Hong Kong is Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese, while the official language of China is Mandarin. The language divide seems to be a major contributor to the separation between Hong Kong and its mother country. Everything in Hong Kong from road signs, to restaurant menus, to official government documents, are in a foreign language to the 1.3 billion people on the other side of the bay.
Like any language, Cantonese embodies a culture of its own. “The Cantonese language unifies us,” Cosette Leung, a native Hong Kong resident told me. “Language is culture.”
Leung was my youngest interviewees. Though she acknowledge the importance of her own language, her views of the mainland are positive. “Now I feel like we are part of the mainland. Their government is accommodating to us.”
I noticed the way in which questions about identity were answered depended on age. Overall, young people seemed to have more sympathy toward the mainland, while older generations remained more antagonistic.
I interviewed Emily Lau, Vice-chairperson of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, who claims the mainland is intentionally catering to Hong Kong’s young people. “The mainland is instigating vast programs of bringing Hong Kong people to the mainland, making them feel good about the mainland, nurturing nationalism and patriotism. Young people have not experienced the bad things of the past; they don’t know.”
Whether they are sympathetic to the political capital of Beijing or not, Lau claims that the Hong Kong-Chinese people want democracy. “Democracy is the very strong desire of Hong Kong people. I speak up for my people, and not one of them has ever asked me to give up defending their rights. How dare I abandon that?” Lau said. “We are not revolutionaries; at least not yet.”
While the Democratic Party of Hong Kong fights for democracy, the elimination of functional constituencies (part of the political structure worked out before 1997), and the implementation of direct elections, not all agree full-fledged democracy is crucial.
“Hong Kong is responsible to cooperate with the mainland and not treat it as a competitor. [The Democratic Party’s] fighting method is a bit radical,” Yip said. “I do think that Hong Kong should develop or uphold democracy. It’s important for our people. We just need to be more mild.”
Mark Sheldon, a native American, but long-time Political Science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, believes a political move toward greater democracy must be made or else Hong Kong will lose its chance, not to mention its identity. “So far, we have much more of the ‘one country’ and very little of the ‘two systems’ as far as further political or cultural or social development are concerned. In fact, we are going backwards on political development,” Sheldon said. “It is so important for the political reform aspirations of the [Hong Kong] people to be met and for the HKSAR government to gain legitimacy and credibility. Otherwise, we become more like the mainland, like any other big Chinese mainland city […] and this will be Hong Kong’s kiss of death in the longer term.”
It seems as though unification and identity can grow out of this very fight. When people’s rights are suppressed, it bodes well for unification, as strange as that may be. And through a unified people, identity can be found.
“In 2003 we had a march for democracy, that brought out three quarters of a million people. They marched because they were afraid they would lose their freedoms. When there are signs of losing that freedom, the people will come out,” Lau said.
A singular, cohesive definition of Hong Kong identity seems unattainable But I’ve discovered Hong Kong is an island of paradoxes. It is simultaneously international but national, unified but separate, focused but unsettled, democratic but circumspect, content but still fighting.
My visit to Hong Kong fell during a complex and transitional time, both politically and socially in the island’s modern history. Belonging to China is still a fairly new concept in Hong Kong’s life, and it’s very evident that the fight for democracy and the matter of identity is far from over.
Who are we, Hong Kong? Depends whose side you’re on.