Are ‘Hong Kong people’ still Chinese? Depends on how you define ‘Chinese’

September 30, 2014

A protester sleeps under an umbrella as she blocks a street outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong

“Hong Kong people! Hong Kong people!” shouted tens of thousands of Occupy Central demonstrators on the streets of downtown Hong Kong as they braved police pepper spray and tear gas this weekend. So simple and self-evident, the slogan gets to the heart of the matter, because beyond the immediate causes of contention are the much larger existential issues of who gets to define just exactly what it means to be part of China, and to be Chinese.

Hong Kong, normally the most civil and efficient of cities, has been swept by an enormous wave of characteristically polite and peaceful protest directed against the Beijing-leaning government’s dilution of long-promised reforms. These would have allowed direct election of the chief executive, under the much touted but perhaps never well understood “One Country; Two Systems” formula.

It was never going to be easy, to have one country where there is still a border dividing the two sides, separate currencies, cars driving on opposite sides of the road, and mutually incomprehensible languages; let alone competing political systems with vastly different ideas of citizenship, rule of law, and transparency.

China is a one-party state; Hong Kong has many political parties, all operating freely. China has the Great Firewall that just now has blocked Instagram, fearing people on the mainland would see the protests; Hong Kong has open Internet. These and countless other contrasts may outweigh — perhaps far outweigh — the shared cultural heritage and economic prosperity that bind these two Chinas together.

RTR480EE.jpgFor 150 years, Hong Kong was a British colony. Especially during the Cold War, it felt like that would be the case forever. But Hong Kong was first occupied during the gunboat imperialism of the 19th century Opium Wars, so even fervently anti-Communist and Westernized Chinese always felt great ambivalence towards the British: gratitude and admiration terribly tempered by sufferance of arrogance and injustice.

As it turned out, Britain’s last great colony was also its most successful. The racist exploitation of previous generations gradually transformed into Hong Kong becoming a sanctuary for refugees and an entrepot for free trade and manufacturing. It was as if the decline and fall of the once mighty British Empire somehow mellowed the colonizers and colonized both. The British had never run Hong Kong as a democracy; they simply appointed governors. But at the eleventh hour before the handover to China in 1997, perhaps out of guilt or repentance, they negotiated a deal for the protection of civil liberties, open markets, and gradual democratization in Hong Kong for 50 years. China’s leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, not wanting to kill a gold-egg-laying goose, agreed.

Seventeen years into the arrangement, the honeymoon of reunification is long over. Despite tremendous economic development and rising wealth in China, political evolution has not kept pace. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration has backslid in terms of civil society, cracking down hard on dissidents and flexing military muscle abroad on the South China Sea, entering into confrontations with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and the other Southeast Asian countries.

So when the Chinese government, backed by Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s current chief executive, announced that only candidates approved by a pro-Beijing committee would be permitted to compete in what were promised to be free elections, there was, as Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch said Monday, a “profound sense of betrayal that the Chinese government has reneged on its commitment to allow universal suffrage in 2017.”

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Democracy, even applied to the seven million citizens of Hong Kong as opposed to the nearly 1.4 billion population of China, seems a dangerous harbinger of chaos and tumult for the regime. And yet that fear is already self-fulfilling, as Mr. Kine describes: “Hong Kong has a long history of peacefully managing mass protest, so the excessive response really suggests that the police might have been under the political influence of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.”

Kine continued, “Every October 1, (China’s National Day) many Chinese come to Hong Kong, it’s a favored holiday destination to watch the huge fireworks; humiliatingly for the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, the fireworks have been cancelled, apparently in a move to reduce the numbers of people on the street.

That means that instead of a fireworks display, large numbers of mainland tourists are going to get a hands-on, real-time lesson in peaceful protest by the citizens of Hong Kong, who are seeking to pressure the government to grant a right that was promised, a right routinely denied in China.”

Polls have steadily shown that larger and larger percentages of Hong Kong citizens identify as “Hong Konger” rather than “Chinese” even as the government seeks greater conformity.

Riot police use pepper spray as they clash with protesters, as tens of thousands of protesters block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong KongTo many in Hong Kong, then, “Chinese” may primarily mean a cultural, ethnic, or racial marker of identity rather than of political nationality. There are “Chinese” of various types who make up the majority population in Taiwan and Singapore, a significant percentage in Malaysia and Thailand, and large numbers around the world.

So when the demonstrators chant “Hong Kong People!” they are asserting that to be a citizen of Hong Kong is emphatically not the same as being Chinese. For the authorities in Beijing, this may send shivers down their spines. Because there is nothing they hate and fear more than the center not holding, torn apart by rough beasts. They are unable to see that it is China’s own political shortcomings that encourage this fundamental debate and resulting protest.

On previous occasions, the Hong Kong government backed down after opposition to pro-Beijing proposals and initiatives. The higher the temperature, though, the harder it is for them to do this in a face-saving manner. But also, it becomes harder for them to do anything that won’t escalate the situation further.

From Beijing’s perspective, Hong Kong is an integral part of China, two systems or not. Mindful of violent unrest at the peripheries of Tibet and Xinjiang, tantalized by the prospect of eventually reuniting with Taiwan as well, and haunted by the ghosts of Tiananmen Square and 1989, the Communist Party sees itself as masterfully navigating a minefield of external and internal threats to enforce stability and continue incubating growth.

Within its own perverse dynamics of logic, Beijing actually works hard to prevent another full-on explosion. Even the violent and repressive operations in Xinjiang — where the ethnic Uighurs have striven for autonomy — and Tibet have occurred with, from their point of view, relative restraint, that is, restraint compared to massacring people outright with machine-guns. Hong Kong isn’t Lhasa or Urumqi, far from global witnesses and attention. It’s highly doubtful that Beijing wants to actually spill blood on the streets of Hong Kong.

But a frightening fault line has been crossed. It’s never been more overt just how controlling Beijing wants to be in Hong Kong, and how distinct and different Hong Kongers see themselves. In any Chinese context, that’s an explosive collision course.

Pushed between a highly articulate movement mobilizing tens of thousands of people at any given moment, and the more conservative and authoritarian bent towards maintaining an iron grip on power, it’s highly uncertain what the regime is actually planning to do, and what degree of autonomy the Hong Kong police and government will have in implementation. For many people in Hong Kong right now, there can only be hope for the best stuggling with utter fear of the worst.

 

TOP PHOTO: A protester sleeps under an umbrella as she blocks a street outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

INSET 1: A protester raises his umbrellas in front of tear gas which was fired by riot police to disperse protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, September 28, 2014. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

INSET 2: Riot police use pepper spray as they clash with protesters, as tens of thousands of protesters block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong September 28, 2014. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

27 comments

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What a stupid question!

Of course Hong Kong people are different! They are from Tang stock, hence they call themselves “Tong Yen”.

The ruling people in China came from the Han stock and many people mistakenly confused Chinese of Tang stock(those from Hong Kong and Southern China) with the Han stock!

Posted by whatshisname | Report as abusive

Perhaps to Chinese people Hong Kong people might be different but to western society, Hong Kong, Chinese, Japanese, all the same thing.

Posted by TheKonger | Report as abusive

The larger question does involve Taiwan which in Beijing’s view is also part of China under the same rule “one country – two systems”. China’s President Xi reiterated this view only recently, and Beijing’s ‘Global Times’ always refers to that country by the name of “China’s Taiwan”.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Bottom line is majority of people in Hong Kong, 1.4 million vs. 700K from last months unofficial approval(ID/signature required) of this kind protest, don’t want the protest.

Those students were promoted by their teachers/pears who have direct connected with US/CIA(Pictures on local news media shown when they get together with CIA agents to discuss the movements).

Of course, US news media won’t tell the truth. But only what they want to see. Just like any other place in the world, vote doesn’t count only what US interests count, and news media follow….

I am wondering how long this will last? and people in other counties really that stupid?!

Posted by bigbigdog | Report as abusive

Well I’m confused; I’m going back under my rock.

Posted by BadChicken | Report as abusive

The Chinese government rules by force and coercion. They don’t truly represent the people. They don’t care about the people. They only care about keeping power. They are corrupt and their government is illegitimate. The Chinese people should gather by the thousands in Beijing and overthrow the government. China deserves better. China should be free.

Posted by ronryegadfly | Report as abusive

Many of the protesters have turned to ICX and started using their service when there is no cell phone reception due to the sheer number of people in major project areas. It provides encrypted messaging and photo sharing service.

https://i.cx

Posted by SecureCom | Report as abusive

Most Chinese citizens could care no less than things like how much HKers weigh themselves.National Day holiday has started.Enjoying the annual 7 days vocation with family is what really matters.

Posted by Sarvian | Report as abusive

The powers that be in Hong Kong have said that the National Day Fireworks display was cancelled in order to guarantee the safety of people. The truth is, the Police are needed to guarantee the safety of fireworks spectators, and thousands are deployed on both sides of Victoria Harbour for crowd control duties. Since all the Police officers are now deployed to watch over the protesters, there’s no one to do their originally scheduled fireworks crowd control jobs, so the multi-million spectacle has been cancelled.
And I understand fewer Chinese tourists have been allowed into Hong Kong during the Chinese National Day holiday than in previous years. China bans and censors Instagram and social media sites, but Chinese tourists are taking pictures and videos of the protests, and are probably sharing those when they return home…

Posted by EricTan | Report as abusive

Being ethnically Chinese doesn’t mean one is a Chinese national.
Like most American are Anglo-saxons, are they British?

People in Hong Kong were FORCED to become Chinese national. We never had any chance to choose. Everything was settled in the secret negotiations between the UK and China in the 1980s, Hongkongers couldn’t say a single word.

Yes, the sad fact is, we belong to China now.
But we are simply different from those in the mainland of China.

Posted by wschk | Report as abusive

This is one of the most ignorant questions posed. Are African-Americans, or Asian-Americans, or Latino-Americans, AMERICAN? Culturally, biologically, and historically, people living in Hong Kong are more akin to the rest of the people in China than those previously mentioned groups are American. Your allusion to the years of forcefully imposed lease as a British colony does not change this fact. This shows again how biased the Western media, including Reuters, are against China, quoting HRW, “humiliatingly for the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, the fireworks have been cancelled”. How about actual responses from the majority of people in China, residents of HK not involved with protests, or even Chinese-American communities abroad.

Posted by brendan_c | Report as abusive

Most Hongkoners are hard working people that care about their jobs and businesses and fret that these protests if continue indefinitely will surely impact Hongkong’s economy.

Most people in Hong Kong have not noticed the recent steps taken by the Mainland Government to diminish their dependance of Hongkong as a international business Center , by creating a Free Trade zone in Shanghai and upgrading The Shanghai Stock Exchange.

Posted by Roberto901 | Report as abusive

Of course Hong Kongers are not Chinese !
Fight for HK independence ! Or reunite with the UK !
We need help from the whole world !
You Britain betrayed us in 1980s without giving us a say !
Actually there were only 4% of HK people agreed to be rules by the chinese but you the British just handed HK to the evil china in 1997 !!!!!

Posted by HK-independence | Report as abusive

We are Chinese, but not Chinese.

“The British had never run Hong Kong as a democracy; they simply appointed governors. But at the eleventh hour before the handover to China in 1997, perhaps out of guilt or repentance, they negotiated a deal for the protection of civil liberties, open markets, and gradual democratization in Hong Kong for 50 years. China’s leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, not wanting to kill a gold-egg-laying goose, agreed.”

Some pieces missing. Before signing the Sino-British Joint Declaration, British government did want to give Hong Kong people election before handover, however Chinese government insisted British shouldn’t give the democracy to HK people, they even cancelled the meeting with British side to make British compromise.

Posted by cookingmeow | Report as abusive

why isn’t my comment showing up?

Posted by ouehg | Report as abusive

lol, just wanted to correct the ignorant @#$% about Tang and Han: Han is a dynasty from the 1st century, Tang is a dynasty from the 7th century, all Han people are Tang people and vice versa. The reason people are called Tang people is because it was one of the(if not the) most powerful dynasties in Chinese history, Tang people are of Han ethnicity, and people began to refer to themselves as Tang ren outside of China, as that is most well known, the use continued to this day, but their ethnicity is still Han. To this day, traditional Chinese clothing are called Tang zhuang Han fu (Tang clothes and Han suits)

(Let’s try posting this again, got censored by Reuters who wants to promote racial segregationism)

Posted by ouehg | Report as abusive

Yes, but “Tong yen” people are more sweet. :p

Posted by ABCBanana | Report as abusive

A better question would be “are the mainland Chinese” still Chinese?

Posted by WestFlorida | Report as abusive

To Reuters: Stop blocking my comments, you presented your opinion, let me show mine, or are you afraid mine is right and yours is wrong?

Posted by ouehg | Report as abusive

In response to Mr. Kine describes: “Hong Kong has a long history of peacefully managing mass protest, so the excessive response really suggests that the police might have been under the political influence of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.” I wish to point out that long history of peacefully manage protest were all held at venues not affecting the general public and certainly not occupying streets, blocking traffic as what happened in Hong Kong at the moment. I assume that no democratic government will allow civil disobedience as an acceptable way of protest.

Posted by Alcheng | Report as abusive

Wow, you just refuse to let people know that Tang and Han means the same don’t you? Han is a dynasty from the 1st century, and Tang is a dynasty from the 7th century, Han predates Tang but the two are interchangeable, all you have to do is do a little research to realize they mean the same.

Posted by ouehg | Report as abusive

Just so you know I have reported you to Reuters for not showing my comment, you can’t just show what you want and not allow well known facts to be shown just so you can appear to be correct.

Posted by ouehg | Report as abusive

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