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Tiffany G. Wong

On the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the People’s Republic of China, the city is grappling with an identity question that threatens its relationship with the mainland. Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s political career will depend on how she deals with this challenge.

flags adorn the streets in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong

Three months after Hong Kong’s handover in 1997, Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said, rather naively, “the Chinese in Hong Kong should be proud of being Chinese. I earnestly hope that our youths will develop a sense of patriotism and nationalism through familiarizing with the culture of our motherland.” Such hopes have been dashed. Today many Hong Kong citizens do not, and have no wish to, identify with the Chinese mainland.

A recent survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong suggests that only 3.1 percent of Hong Kong youths think of themselves as “Chinese,” 93.7 percent identify as a “Hong Kongers” instead, a term that explicitly carves out an identity disparate from mainland China. This identity distinction goes well beyond ethnic boundaries; it touches upon almost everything from language, music and entertainment to politics and economics. A series of graphics explaining the differences between the city and the mainland became hugely popular during protests and football matches.

“Us versus them”

The desire to be a “Hong Konger” is partially rooted in people’s hopes to protect and preserve the city’s values, which are seen as contradictory to those of mainland China. The “One Country, Two Systems” policy states that the people of Hong Kong will enjoy the rights they had before the handover, including the right to free speech and media freedom. It also promises separate judicial, executive, and legislative systems. In recent years, however, the Hong Kong public has seen an erosion of the city’s judicial independence. Last November, Beijing stepped in to issue a re-interpretation of the Basic Law to ban two democratically-elected lawmakers from serving in the local legislature. That move was widely perceived as undermining Hong Kong’s independent judicial and democratic institutions. For many Hong Kongers who have grown up in a city that has embraced principles of human rights and the rule of law, Beijing’s intervention in domestic politics is nothing less than an attack on the city’s core principles.

Hong Kong’s alienation from mainland China is not confined to politics. After 156 years of British rule, Hong Kong’s culture is markedly different from that of China’s, even at the fundamental level of language. Within Hong Kong, people write traditional characters and speak Cantonese, while the rest of China uses simplified characters and mostly speaks Mandarin. The linguistic difference allows for Hong Kong-based artists to maintain a near-monopoly in music, television shows, and film. Popular culture is laden with references that would only resonate with a Hong Kong audience, reinforcing the identity divide. When a local broadcaster started to display subtitles for a television program in simplified Chinese last year, many saw the move as a threat to the city’s unique linguistic identity and filed complaints.

The struggle for a separate identity also frames many domestic economic issues. Hong Kong citizens blame mainland Chinese investors for driving up housing prices that are already among the highest in the world. Recent college graduates and people in the middle class find it impossible to buy apartments. The influx of mainland tourists has prompted luxury brands and jewellers to flood the streets with their stores, forcing out many family businesses and small proprietors. The irony is that most people in Hong Kong can’t afford to shop at these luxury stores, which cater towards the tastes and budgets of mainland visitors. To some Hong Kongers, the economic landscape has become a “battle of resources,” culminating in an “us versus them” mentality.

Alarmingly for Beijing, this identity divide is now also visible in the Legislative Council, the law-making body of Hong Kong. Traditionally divided into pro-Beijing and pro-democratic parties, the LegCo has seen a blossoming of “localist” parties, which have recently obtained 19 percent of the votes. Founded after the pro-democracy 2014 umbrella protests, these parties advocate Hong Kong’s right to self-determination. Beijing has condemned the localist movements on several occasions, and the central government’s liaison office has gone as far as saying that the “One Country, Two Systems” policy may have to be scrapped if it begins to be used as a tool to confront Beijing.

Beijing’s anxiety is palpable. The Chinese government expressed plans to tighten its control over Hong Kong. Xi Jinping began a four-day visit to the city on June 29, his first since he came to power in 2012, to “demonstrate support to the new Hong Kong government and help unify Hong Kong society.”

Carrie Lam’s conundrum

Carrie Lam Cheng-Yuet Ngor will be sworn in as the new Chief Executive on July 1st, the day of the handover anniversary. To succeed as a political leader, she has to address Hong Kong’s struggle for identity. Under Beijing’s gaze, this may mean encouraging Hong Kong citizens to embrace their “Chinese” side. Lam has already expressed a desire to promote national education and to nurture a sense of “I am Chinese” from a young age, starting with Hong Kong’s pre-school children. But she knows she has to tread carefully. The last attempt to introduce a national education curriculum in 2012, including lessons on “appreciating mainland China,” was shelved after a 10-day protest.

Yet Lam somehow will have to tackle the inherent contradiction between being “Chinese” and being a “Hong Konger.” This extremely tricky challenge could easily become the defining feature of her political career.

Tiffany G. Wong is a research intern with MERICS from June to August 2017. She currently pursues her master's degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.