Benjamin Garvey :Hongkonger as ethnicity?

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A discourse of Hong Kong ethnicity has emerged among Hong Kong democracy activists in recent years. The critical contexts for this are Mainland China’s acculturation of the former British colony—what locals call Mainlandisation(大陸化)—and a pervasive sense of hopelessness about prospects for democracy while the territory remains under Beijing’s rule. Younger activists are particularly attracted to the discourse, elevating it to ideological status. The idea is simply that Hong Kong people are a people, and, as an ethnic nationality, entitled to Self-determination, up to and including independence from China. It posits that Hong Kong people are not Chinese; in effect, it says China’s practise of sovereignty over Hong Kong is colonial.

A new ethnicity is not something that arises easily or overnight; a long social process is required. Recognition of a claimed ethnicity—either implicitly or explicitly—often depends on political factors, not whether the collective ethnic consciousness exists or not.

The very concept of ethnicity itself is vague, related to the qualitative, the unquantifiable: the feelings, sentiments and emotionality of extended kinship, group solidarity and cultural commonality. But even as strict definition of ethnicity remains hard to pin down, the social phenomenon we know as ethnicity (or nationality) remains an undeniable everyday feature of the modern world, with passports often being approximate, broad-brush indicators of ethnicity, even amid a popularity to claim oneself a “citizen of the world.”

Perhaps as a hangover from a more primitive era, one of the first things questions we ask, and are asked, when we meet new people—“Where are you from?”—is more than meaningless small talk. We ask because we want to know something about the stranger that allows tentative categorisation in accordance with our schematic understanding of the nationalities of the world: friend or foe (or neither). The answer to the inquiry can, on a provisional basis, affect further interaction, rightly or wrongly, as it may actuate positive or negative mental schemata, biases, prejudices, stereotypes and, in the worst cast scenario, “us and them” dichotomisation.

Many—liberals and socialists for more than 170 years—forecast the demise of ethnicity (along with the separate but often mischievously conflated concept of race), seeing its disappearance as inevitable in the face of the perpetual cognitive and economic progress of human civilisation and Globalisation, that is, neo-liberal international trade, communications, technological advances, people movements and miscegenation.

Ethnic difference does not necessarily cause conflict. But, when other factors, economic inequality for example, coincide with and map on to ethnic divisions, the conflict may be perceived as and/or practised as “ethnic.” Socio-economic transformations, where one ethnic group’s economic status rises as another’s wanes, may aggravate ethnic division, particularly in the case of a real or imagined “zero-sum” game—that is, when members of one ethnic group are, or at least perceive themselves being, the losers in meta socio-economic-culturo processes that valorise another1.

“The perennial struggle for scarce resources exacerbates cultural differences; when economic inequalities are superimposed on ranked ethnic groups, severe conflict often results, especially when societies are undergoing rapid industrialisation.” (Hutchinson and Smith eds. 1996: 3)2

In Hong Kong, a struggle for scarce resources appears to be heightening Hong Kong ethnic consciousness: Mainland Chinese immigrants that arrived after The Handover in 19973 —particularly if they do not adopt Hong Kong practices and abandon Mainland Chinese ways, that is, assimilate—are resented for consuming scarce resources, public housing and school places for example, and pushing up private-sector prices, particularly residential and commercial property costs; New Immigrants’ 4 performance of Mainland Chinese cultural practices that do not conform with Hong Kong standards—speaking Mandarin and using Simplified Chinese Characters being the classic examples—deepens the resentment. As someone recently told me:

“Those people are not adapting to the Hong Kong way of life—they are bringing their habits from Mainland China. That causes conflicts, cultural conflicts. It is like when Muslims move to Europe as refugees: instead of blending in and adapting to the country that they have moved to, they are asking the governments of those countries to change the law to suit their needs.”

Obviously, when the newcomers do not assimilate, they acculturate, they Mainlandise. That adds to a trend of dilution and sidelining of Hong Kong identity and associated cultural practices that the gradual demolition of the physical artifacts of the pre-Handover era, as embodiments of Hong Kong ethnic identity, quickens, consolidating the effects of Beijing’s official nation-building work in the territory.

The struggle for employment, advancement and positions of political influence in Hong Kong similarly exacerbate ethnic division: as Hong Kong people are often descended from those who fled the upheavals of post-1949 China, including the persecution of political campaigns, Beijing suspects them of congenital distrust of the Party and disloyalty to the “Homeland”(祖國), not to mention being brainwashed by the liberal ideas of the West after more than 150 years under British rule. This means ethnic Hongkongers, possibly even if they have displayed loyalty to Beijing, are at a disadvantage for employment in positions of influence. Mainlanders in Hong Kong, with immediate family members likely still in the Mainland, are much more susceptible to Beijing’s influence and subtle threats than local Hongkongers, making them, from Beijing’s perspective, more likely to be “politically correct” and “reliable.”5 Indeed, it is likely that the unmeritocratic denial of opportunity to Hong Kong’s young elite that made Hong Kong University the fount of the discourse of Hong Kong ethnicity and nationalism and a hotbed of Independence activism: when talented young people understood they were unlikely to make it in China’s Hong Kong on account of their ethnicity—possibly even if they were willing to go against their conscience and pledge allegiance to the Party—they put their minds to overthrowing the system, instrumentalising what had disadvantaged them, their ethnicity, producing the ideological spark that has set off a prairie fire.6

“One flint and a single stone struck together in the right direction under optimal conditions can begin a conflagration spreading throughout the countryside. Prairie fires … are not always catastrophic; they can be, as well, naturally occurring events, necessary and renewing, removing the thick mat of thatch that suffocates life, releasing the seeds while encouraging the birds and the insects and the other animals, all the flora and fauna, opening and crawling, transforming and lurching to life.”(Ayers 2006: 17)7

The impact that the prairie fire of Hong Kong nationalism—sparked by the discourse of Hong Kong ethnicity—has had on Hong Kong’s democracy movement is immense: it split it along generational lines, setting off profound and historic change, compelling old democrats to rethink their basic ideological stance regarding China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong and prompting some to find a new position—a position gradually becoming the mainstream position of the old democrats in this era of Hong Kong nationalism, even if technically it is taking no position on the fundamental issue of sovereignty. What I mean by that is, the new stance of the old democrats is fence sitting: they are open to both Hong Kong being a part of China and being its own independent state in 2047, when the 50 years of the Basic Law is up; they advocate a referendum to decide. Still, even as they advocate a Self-determination referendum with Independence as an option, they, perhaps paradoxically, refuse to endorse the idea of Hong Kong ethnicity, setting themselves apart from the Hong Kong University-centred new democrats practising Ernest Gellner’s idea that, for modernity’s sake, ethnic and political boundaries must coincide. 8

 

[1]      Hong Kong locals invented the pejorative terms “Mainlandisation” and “Reddening” to refer to the omni-dimensional meta-process of Hong Kong’s becoming more like Mainland China since 1997. Social scientists would term the process “acculturation.”

[2]     Hutchinson, J. and A. D. Smith, Eds. (1996). Ethnicity. Oxford Readers. Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press.

[3]      Hong Kong locals refer to new Mainland Chinese immigrants to Hong Kong as “New Immigrants”(新移民)

[4]      See footnote three.

[5]      Increased Mainland Chinese ownership of Hong Kong’s economy helps contain the expression of Hong Kong ethnic consciousness as, if an ethnic Hongkonger’s employment depends on so-called “Red Capital,” he or she is more likely to stay silent and refrain from taking part in Hong Kong nationalist activism, lest they endanger their livelihood.

[6]     See Separatism now spreading like wild fire in Hong Kong http://www.ejinsight.com/20150424-separatism-now-spreading-like-wild-fire-in-hong-kong/

[7]        Ayers, W. (2006). “A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire: Teaching Toward Transformation.” Schools: Studies in Education 3(2): 17-27.

[8]     Gellner, E. (1983). Nations and Nationalism. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

 


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