Course:GEOG352/2020/Identity and Governance in Hong Kong

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Known as the "Pearl of the Orient", the stunning landscape of Hong Kong represents its unique colonial history and urban processes

In recent decades, with an unprecedented rate and degree of urbanization, cities have increasingly become the centres of political struggles.[1] Under this background, urban politics has become an increasingly significant framework of power relations for billions of people around the world, making it an important area of study.[1] In order to understand urban politics, we must also understand urban identity since they are closely related and interconnected.[2] The identity of a city can exert a great deal of influence over its political struggles.[2] Meanwhile, the practice of urban politics by denizens can shape their identity by the generation of a common experience among a city's communities. [2] The development of a unique urban identity is most politically significant when it imposes challenges to its city's governance.[3]

The interactions between urban governance and a sufficiently politicized urban identity may not always be peaceful.[4] On the one hand, some urban communities desire to protect their urban identity through the preservation of certain key values or cultural practices which provide them with a sense of certainty and security.[5] By the preservation of their identity, these communities seek to preserve a way of living that is desirable or familiar to them, and political struggles for the survival of urban identity usually manifest themselves in the form of populism.[4][5] On the other hand, 'urban governance' is often a set of policies implemented by the governing class of a city in a bid to advance their own interests.[6] When a city's governing class interest is aligned with the popular demand of the city's urban identity, conflicts between these two forces will not arise; otherwise they most likely will.[6]To resolve such conflicts, the governing class must either abandon the policies in conflict with the urban identity, or actively implement policies to reshape the urban identity and thereby realigning popular demand with the governing class's interest. [6]If these conflicts are left unresolved, the governing class could ultimately be overthrown and superseded by a new governing class whose interest is aligned with popular demand.[6]

In the urban space of Hong Kong, the struggle between the identity-based popular demand and government policies has been intense, which manifests the underlying great divergence between the interest of Hong Kong's governing class and the urban identity held by the Hong Kong's residents.[7] These conflicts have visibly emerged since the transference of Hong Kong from Britain to the People's Republic of China in 1997. [8] Since these issues remain unresolved, they have continued to ferment over time and have triggered the emergence of powerful social movements in Hong Kong since 2012. [8]


The Root of Hong Kong Identity

The urban identity of Hong Kong began to emerge after the end of the Chinese civil war, when the residents of Hong Kong started to view themselves as distinct from other ethnic Chinese. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China and the retreat of the Kuomintang (Republic of China) regime to Taiwan, the inhabitants of Hong Kong began to see themselves as politically, economically, and culturally different from the rest of China, and a distinctive Hong Kong identity was thereby formed.[9] Political stability and economic prosperity were the foundations of this distinctiveness. Politically, in contrast to the turmoil of the great famine and the cultural revolution in mainland China (Chinese: 三年大饑荒及文化大革命), and the intense dictatorial repression in Taiwan (Chinese: 動員戡亂時期), the inhabitants of Hong Kong were entitled to legal protection for their physical integrity and property rights under British governance, although certain important democratic rights were missing. [9] Therefore, the city was considered by its residents and many people living in the area of greater China to be a space with the rule of law and political certainty, in contrast to the rest of the country.[9]Economically, the inhabitants of Hong Kong enjoyed a far superior standard of living to both mainland China and Taiwan since the political and legal stability of the city had attracted numerous people with capital and valuable skills from other parts of China (Chinese: 逃港潮), mainly the province of Guangdong and the city of Shanghai, which were the most economically developed but politically and culturally underrepresented areas under the People's Republic.[9]This influx of capital and expertise significantly propelled Hong Kong's economic development and thereby further widened the income gap between it and the rest of China.[9]Also, since the immigrants were disproportionately from Guangdong or Shanghai, Hong Kong (like Singapore and Taiwan) became affiliated with traditional Han Chinese culture, unlike the central and northern mainstream society of the PRC.[6][9] As a result, the residents of Hong Kong not only perceived themselves as having much higher living standards than the rest of China (especially the mainland), but also to be culturally distinct from the majority of its population.[9]

The Political Motivation of the Governmental Attempts for the Reshaping of Urban Identity

Due to economic success and the preservation of traditional Han Chinese customs, the distinct Cantonese culture of Hong Kong has been very influential in mainland China, especially in economically developed regions like Shanghai and Guangdong province.[10]From the late 1970s to the 2000s Hong Kong movies were very popular in mainland China and many provincial and municipal governments in the coastal regions modeled themselves on Hong Kong's style of governance (big market, small government) in a bid to foster local economic growth and seize more political power.[10] During this period, the regional economic inequality within mainland China swiftly intensified as the private sector in southern coastal regions grew rapidly due to an influx of Hong Kong and Taiwanese investment and the development of export-oriented industries, while many state-owned enterprises in central and northern China were collapsing.[10]For the ruling class behind the PRC, such influences were viewed as a deadly threat to its political legitimacy that had to be curbed.[10]Following several purges of provincial and municipal officials in those coastal regions as well as central government officials in the Shanghainese faction of the CCP in 2012 and 2013, it was decided that the institutions, economy, and culture of Hong Kong must be assimilated.[10] In other words, the urban identity of Hong Kong must be reshaped into or supplanted by the national identity of the PRC, which was forged by the CCP after the end of the Chinese Civil War.[10]In response, the government of Hong Kong began to implement mainlandization policies in the name of promoting economic integration with China.[10]

Conflicts Between Governance and Urban Identity

Admiralty is the political centre of Hong Kong. This is where the Central Government Complex, the High Court and the Legislative Council located. Major protests, including Umbrella Movement in 2014 and June 12th 2019 protest, took place here as well

The main reason why the majority of urban residents (especially the young population) are fearful about these policies is that their implementation would erode the city's culture, institutions, and political structures (all inextricably linked with its identity) and then replace them with those of mainland China. [10]That outcome is seen as undesirable because the mainland is perceived in Hong Kong as an area with barbaric culture, rampant corruption, nepotism, severe environmental pollution, poor education, expensive and ineffective healthcare, appalling human rights conditions, insufficient property rights, a low standard of living, extreme income inequality, and authoritarian rule.[10]

The conflicts between urban identity and urban governance in Hong Kong are conceived differently at multiple scales.[10]At an urban scale, the conflicts are perceived locally as a struggle between the majority of the population and the Hong Kong government, including massive protests since 2014, anti-government electoral outcomes, and the increasing number of judicial review cases relevant to government administrative affairs.[10]At a national level, different national governments perceive the issue differently. Whereas the PRC sees these conflicts as manifestations of subversion and separatism[10], governments of many western countries and Taiwan perceive them as social movements fighting for human rights and democracy[11]. At the widest scale, the conflicts are viewed by many scholars as a clash between national and regional interests in a globalizing world.[10]

Historical Context

The history of Hong Kong's unique identity stretches back to the time of British colonialism. The territories which currently comprise Hong Kong were seized by the British from China over the course of the 19th century, until in 1898 a 99-year lease was agreed.[12] Britain seized this specific place (and especially the Kowloon Peninsula) because of its strategic economic potential. Its geographic location made it an important and valuable access route into mainland China for trade. “Its deepwater harbour, sheltered from typhoons" drew the attention of the British who recognized its economic value as a commercial base for the region.[13] That economic potential made Hong Kong an important colonial possession of the British empire’s geopolitical strategy, into which they invested many resources.
“Hong Kong was a British colony for more than 150 years.”[14] As a result, British colonialism was a significant factor in forming and cultivating Hong Kong’s unique history and identity. Since mainland China was never annexed or colonized by any Western power, Hong Kong grew and developed very differently in comparison. Hong Kong’s judicial, legal, administrative and economic systems were based on the British model, making it extremely different from mainland China.[15]
The attachment of the historical past to present attempts to foster a national identity is in no way particular to Hong Kong. “Identity and the history of political construction” have always had connections in political and nationalist movements around the world to foster popular support.[16] That global process of using and politicizing the historical past to cultivate a distinct national and cultural identity has been perpetuated in Hong Kong to separate themselves from the rest of China. Even today, the people of Hong Kong who have issues of urban identity and see it as unique and separate from China, use their history as evidence for their views. Many Hong Kong students believe that their colonial history differentiates them from the mainland.[17] An understanding of Hong Kong's history helps contextualize the issues of urban identity there today.

Case Study of Theme/Issue

Policies Aiming at Cantonese Language Erasure

Among these policies purposefully designed for the mainlandization of Hong Kong, those that limit the use and legal status of the Cantonese language are the most obvious, and their implementation has been heavily resisted by Hong Kong society.[10] There are many recent examples of Hong Kong students mobilizing against attacks by institutions of authority on Cantonese. Waves of student protest were sparked when the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong failed to respect the Cantonese language.[18] Issues revolving around restrictions on Cantonese have always spurred bottom-up urban political movements. Ordinary people in Hong Kong are “especially sensitive” about the integrity of their language and are “willing and able to mobilize themselves politically” to protect it.[18]

To truly change Hong Kong’s culture and assimilate its people, the Chinese government has made it their mission to tackle its language. “Erasing the markers of Hong Kong Cantonese culture with the propaganda that Hong Kong is just another mainland city” is what the Chinese government believes must be done to achieve a full “cultural revolution” in Hong Kong.[19] However, this initiative has created a cultural struggle among Hong Kong’s people to maintain a crucial pillar of their identity.

The anti-PMI or pro-Cantonese movement, through which the people of Hong Kong have fought for their mother tongue, has culminated in the formation of a “Chinese language movement” against the city's Education Bureau.[20] The hijacking of the Education Bureau of Hong Kong, by the Chinese government, makes evident the need for a bottom-up approach to solving these societal issues and struggles against the PRC. Regardless of their shared ethnicity, the influx of Mandarin speaking Chinese people into Hong Kong and the accompanying policies of language assimilation have unintentionally helped foster a stronger cultural identity and distinctiveness than ever before among the people of Hong Kong; it has led many of them to refer to themselves as exclusively “Hong Kongers rather than Chinese.”[21]

Factors Intensifying the Conflicts: Mainland Chinese Immigration after 1997

Unlike the Chinese immigrants who came to Hong Kong from the mainland before the handover in 1997, the "new immigrants" who came after have raised many concerns, being perceived locally as a threat to the city's urban identity. Post-handover, there are two ways which people from mainland China could immigrate to Hong Kong. The main way is by obtaining a “one-way permit”. It is issued to migrants for the purpose of reuniting families, with a limit of 150 permits per day[22]. One-way permit holders form 13% of the population, who are generally less educated [23].

The social, economic, cultural and political threat represented by the increasing number of Mainland Chinese migrants has intensified the sense of common identity among Hong Kong locals. Socially, many Hongkongers perceived incoming migrants to be a drain on public resources, including housing, healthcare and education [24]. Economically, migrants have contributed to an increase in the supply of low-wage labor, which has created a downward pressure on labor price [23]. Less well-off Hongkongers have suffered from the resulting reduction in wages. Culturally, most migrants do not speak Cantonese but Mandarin, making Hongkongers perceive immigration to be a process of cultural genocide [24]. Politically, Hongkongers are bombarded by Beijing government propaganda, which poses a threat to the city's freedom and democracy [25]. All these threats have led to fear and resentment among Hongkongers: the fear of identity loss and resentment at being replaced by Mainland Chinese migrants[23][22]. This attitude has led to a tendency for Hongkongers to mentally segregate ‘us’ and ‘others’. That process of segregation will strengthen the sense of Hongkonger over Chinese identity.

At the same time, this sense of identity is closely related to the creation of anti-immigrant sentiments[22] [23], which have led to social conflicts. According to a public opinion survey, 90% of Mainland Chinese immigrant respondents said they experienced “racial discrimination”, and most local respondents held negative perceptions towards new immigrants and suggested there was a need to decrease the level of immigration [22]. Moreover, in April 2011 a major protest broke out against the government policy of allowing new immigrants to enjoy the same social welfare as locals [26]. This incident shows how Hong Kong identity has posed challenges to the city's governance, particularly with regard to policy making.

An Insurgence of Urban Citizenship: The Umbrella Revolution

Yellow ribbon was used as one of the symbols for the Umbrella Movement 2014. During the movement, yellow ribbons were adorned on fences across Hong Kong, as shown in the photo. Nowadays, pro-democratic movement supporters are being called as "yellow ribbon" in Cantonese

The 2014 Umbrella Revolution was a series of protests against the failure to achieve democracy in Hong Kong in which three busy sections of the city were occupied by gatherings of citizens for 79 days.[27] In the years prior to this event, many of the city’s residents had come to see belief in democracy as an important part of Hong Kong identity. This perception was partly fueled by the PRC government’s own habit of defining opposition to its authoritarian institutions as ‘anti-Chinese’.[28] The Umbrella Revolution was sparked by the perceived anti-democratic intentions of the PRC’s August 2014 revision of Hong Kong’s electoral system.[27] The popular anger at being denied access to democratic institutions and the concomitant expression of a Hong Kong identity materialized as the occupation of Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok, important nodes of Hong Kong’s urban space. The urban geography of the protests was economically significant because of the financial pressures it imposed on its participants and the neighbourhoods they occupied,[29] symbolically significant as an expression of the democratic insurgency of citizens against the state in a mimesis of past urban mass movements like Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Arab Spring,[30] and socially significant due to the differing atmospheres of protest from site to site (for example, many protestors perceived the Mong Kok occupation as more working-class, masculinized, and violent compared to its more publicized Admiralty counterpart).[31] After the end of the occupations, many of its former participants (particularly students) felt that the experience of communal protest against an external threatening political force had strengthened their sense of Hong Kong identity.[32] Through its ideological basis in democracy as a point of difference between Hong Kong and Mainland China and its material basis in the dynamics of Hong Kong’s specific urban space, the Umbrella Revolution exemplified the emergence of the global city as a focal point for group identity.

Pro-democratic protestors have been creating Lennon Walls across Hong Kong to express their political views. This Lennon Wall is located at Central Government Complex, Admiralty, and was created during the 2019 anti-extradition bill protest. The words on the wall "護我城" means "to protect our city". This shows protestors' enthusiasm to protest against the passing of the extradition bill, which will allow suspects to be extradited to Mainland China, as a way to protect the high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong as promised by the Basic Law

Lessons Learned

The case of Hong Kong clearly demonstrates the potential challenges to a city's governance posed by a heavily politicized urban identity, especially when such an identity conflicts with the nationalist/colonial aims of a state government such as the PRC. The continuous protests in Hong Kong since June 2019 reflect how the strong sense of identity among Hongkongers has led to social unrest against the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.

On October 24th, 2019, Hong Kong organized a solidarity rally for the Catalan independence movement (which included mass protests in Barcelona from October 14th)protest [33][34]. These two causes have many similarities. Catalonia is a semi-autonomous region in Spain with its own history, culture, language and parliament [35], contributing to a sense of shared values and identity different from the Spanish mainstream [36]. In the urban context of Barcelona, popular cultural institutions such as the famous football team FC Barcelona served an important role in developing the Catalan identity [37]. The Catalan identity created a challenge to the urban governance of Barcelona through mass protests urging political and financial independence from Spain [35].

Although both Barcelona and Hong Kong are relatively wealthy cities, their recent explosions of insurgent citizenship against 'post'-colonial nation-states may be a useful perspective on the future of the urbanized Global South, as megacities increasingly provide a material base for developing powerful political identities of their own. The case studies above demonstrate how such material conditions were constructed in Hong Kong, how the resulting differences in language and mode of living contributed to the perception of separateness between Hongkongers and mainlanders, and how the city's residents have given political expression to their developing common identity through mass protest and occupation of urban space, creating chronic problems of municipal and national governance.

This analysis does have one important limitation to its general applicability for cities in the global south: the actual political border that existed between Hong Kong and the mainland for most of its history. The resulting institutional differences may not be replicated in most global megacities, meaning that the construction of their urban identities would rely on the material fact of their existence as economic and social units with their particular cultural mixtures and political environments. These factors were necessary conditions for the emergence of a politically relevant Hong Kong identity, but whether they will be sufficient conditions for other global cities only time will tell.


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