The Anomaly of Hong Kong (Part 2)

by Nick Lo:

It’s been 14 years since Hong Kong was returned to the motherland, and much has changed. Citizens see little difference in their day-to-day lives, but the undercurrents of society are already in flux. No one knows what will happen in 36 more years, when Hong Kong’s lease on autonomy expires.

But for now, the city is seen as the bastion of the free market economy under the looming shadow of China’s socialist policies. It is the lone democratic Chinese city in which its residents are guaranteed freedom of expression. Hong Kongers perceive a distinction between themselves and the rest of the Chinese population, even if the rest of the world doesn’t. What it means to be “Chinese” is a question the citizens of Hong Kong have yet to answer.

The Hong Kong flag, above left, waves above the city. (Amit Gandhi/Flickr Creative Commons)

Ten years ago, if asked where he or she was from, a Hong Konger would say “Hong Kong,” — not China. You’d probably hear the running gag about mainlanders being uncouth and uncivilized. Jokes used to be made about how old Chinese men hock loogies every which way on the side of the street. But today, the tables have turned. Hong Kongers now embrace their neighbors from mainland China; in fact, they are a huge source of revenue, and are appreciated as such. As the city-state and the country become even more intertwined economically, there has also been a push to integrate the two cultures. Case in point: Hong Kong’s Education Bureau is proposing a system of “patriotic education” that will help students “develop a sense of belonging to the motherland” and “appreciate Chinese culture.” Learning more about history and culture is fine, but the danger comes from passing off propaganda as education — and many Hong Kong politicians have condemned the program as “brainwashing.” This is just one of the most recent struggles Hong Kong has faced as a part of its larger identity crisis.

Even local politics is marked with discord. There are two main camps of political parties, pro-democracy and pro-Beijing. Pro-Beijing politicians are known for sharing similarities with the political ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, and portraying the CCP in a positive light. As a high school student, I had the privilege of meeting with Jasper Tsang, the founder of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), the main pro-Beijing party. He seemed straightforward enough in answering questions — until he was asked about democracy. He insisted that Beijing intellectuals engage in stimulating conversations and discussions on democracy. As a member of the DAB, Mr. Tsang is probably well versed in the art of question dodging, particularly when discussing democracy in the most ambiguous of terms. That experience with Mr. Tsang offered a taste of the politics halfway around the world, where parties vacillate on their stances and pander to their audiences.

A view of downtown Hong Kong, population seven million, at night. (Michael McDonough/Flickr Creative Commons)

Hong Kongers themselves are also divided on the issue of whether to become more Chinese or to remain a separate entity. On one hand, economic relations have benefited both sides, and nobody would object to continuing to ride that profitable wave. On the other, Hong Kongers stubbornly value their autonomy. Hong Kong is not the largest economic center in China, nor is it the largest port. What distinguishes it from the rest is its unique culture. With the legacy of its past as a British colony, and the accompanying hodgepodge of immigrants from all over Southeast Asia and Africa, Hong Kong is not like Shenzhen or Shanghai. What the city should do is embrace its own uniqueness, instead of worrying over whether it is a part of China or not. It can leave the patriotic history and stifling of political freedoms to Beijing. It is both a part of China and not — and that uncertainty is what makes it compelling.

Nick Lo ’15 is in Ezra Stiles College. Hailing from Hong Kong, he is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on Chinese politics and Hong Kong. Contact him at