After the Umbrella movement, Hong Kong now faces an identity crisis

One of the original founders of Hong Kong’s 2014 democracy protests thinks that increasing dis-identification with Chineseness, on both the level of culture and politics, is pushing the city-state towards uncharted territory.

En Liang Khong
27 September 2016

Hong Kong skyline. Flickr/Michael Hansen. Some rights reserved.

Hong Kong skyline. Flickr/Michael Hansen. Some rights reserved.

When I finally arrive back in Hong Kong in the early hours of a September morning, two years after the 2014 pro-democracy protests, it’s in the middle of a storm. Walking through the rain-splattered city, I see that the highways running across the heart of the finance district have been restored. It’s utterly unrecognizable from when I was last here, when activists led mass occupations, in a bold claim to redefine popular power, using umbrellas to shield themselves from waves of tear gas fired by police, and turning the heart of Hong Kong into a untamed tent city. But although public space in the city-state has been resanitised, we still need to understand the ways in which Hong Kong is entering an unprecedented identity crisis.

This has been a process. We are used to speaking of threats to the Chinese state emerging from the centre. But while that was true in the 1980s, China scholar Sebastian Veg argues that in recent years, such contestation “has increasingly come from the margins.” I went to meet one of the original founders of the 2014 Occupy protests, sociologist Chan Kinman, who is a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “For the younger generation,” Chan tells me, “there has been a very obvious trend of seeing themselves purely as Hong Kong people, not as Chinese.” This is a crucial identity shift. Hong Kongers have long enjoyed a hybrid identity, of being both Chinese and Hong Kongers.

But not this time. Chan thinks the age of dual identity is over, as Hong Kong’s millennials begin to treat it as abnormal, “as something in conflict, not something that can coexist”. The Umbrella movement, in particular, accelerated those contradictions. The failure of a strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, and the exhaustion of attempts to initiate dialogue with Beijing, have drawn a line in the sand for Hong Kong’s youth, Chan tells me. Ironically, the Hong Kong government itself has been an unwitting driver of the ideology of Hong Kong independence, by publicly targeting and cracking down on the idea in the wake of the 2014 protests. But this strategy of tarring a wide spectrum of pro-democracy activists as separatists, when the discourse of independence was previously a fringe ideology and never central to the Umbrella movement, has been double-edged. After that, Chan “watched as the idea of independence spread massively through Hong Kong”.

What is happening in Hong Kong defies our normal political understanding. “Now you have around 40% of young people supporting Hong Kong independence,” Chan tells me. This crisis of identity is not only fuelling a political vision of Hong Kong as an independent state, but also exists on a cultural level, against Chineseness itself.

Beijing has long been dependent on a traditional sense of ‘Chinese identity’ in Hong Kong to maintain political loyalty. But the Chinese state’s enforcement of patriotism alongside a disavowal of democratic politics has come at a price. It has done little more than alienate, rather than draw closer, a whole swathe of Hong Kong youth. While the older working-class population are still bound to lines of patronage that link them to pro-mainland groups, and the elites support economic symbiosis with the mainland, a young, middle-class, educated ‘generation with no future’ are in full rebellion against both the traditions of their elders, and the state-driven popular nationalism that is rampant in mainland China.

This rising tide against China partly stems from a genuine fear of mainland intrusion into Hong Kong’s politics, as the city enters an era of unprecedented censorship and self-censorship. 2016 has been full of stories of kidnappings of Hong Kong booksellers, and removals of academic critics. Only this June, Canto-pop singer-songwriter Denise Ho hosted an impromptu gig in Hong Kong’s rapidly-gentrified “PoHo” neighbourhood. A larger concert had originally been planned but the sponsor, Lancôme, balked at the idea of associating itself with the musician’s pro-democracy politics (Ho is now banned from performing in mainland China, after her unashamed support of the 2014 protests). Ho called out the French-owned cosmetics brand’s “commercial self-censorship”.

But there is also a strange, violent rejection of Chineseness, which appears to float free above the history of deep economic and cultural interdependence with the mainland that has defined Hong Kong’s development. In 2012, the local newspaper Apple Daily ran an advertisement paid for by netizens featuring a locust hovering over the city, with the tagline: “Are you willing for Hong Kong to spend one million Hong Kong dollars every 18 minutes to raise the children born to mainland parents?” Mainland Chinese are often known by the Cantonese slur wong chung (locusts), and it was this xenophobic, parasitic idea which also spawned the viral 2011 Youtube song “Locust World”, whose lyrics include “invading across the Hong Kong border and taking our land, that’s your speciality…Locust Nation.” Then, in early 2014, an ‘anti-locust’ protest marched down Canton Road – a stretch of luxury shopping malls in the heart of the city, and a favourite location for the millions of mainland tourists each year – holding aloft signs that said “Go back to China.” In the wake of the Umbrella movement, the memes have continued, invoking the language of plague and pathogen to describe Chinese and Hong Kongers’ behavioural differences.

Meanwhile, the upending of political norms was further reinforced in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections earlier this month, in which six radical activists claimed seats in the city’s premier law-making body, on platforms advocating various shades of self-determination and independence for Hong Kong. The winners included Nathan Law from the Demosisto party, who campaigns for a referendum to determine Hong Kong’s future after the ‘1 country, 2 systems’ arrangement expires in 2047. Law was a key student activist leader during the 2014 protests, and aged 23, is the youngest ever elected legislator. Another winner is Yau Waiching of Youngspiration, another party formed in the wake of the Umbrella movement, with a support base hungry for independence. Yau, aged 25, is the youngest woman to be elected to the Council.

On the level of electoral politics, the infusion of new blood into the Legislative Council poses a transformation of Hong Kong’s traditional political opposition. Of the 2.2 million votes cast for the Council’s geographical constituency seats (other seats on the Council are chosen by pro-mainland business groups), 19% were for activists demanding a radical refashioning of the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland. The recent elections were pulled into further controversy when certain candidates were barred from running, on the basis that they did not hold to the city’s constitution, and the principle that Hong Kong is part of China.

Localists know that independence is out of the bounds of reality, at least for now. In the short term, the influx of localist politics, and the promotion of an anti-mainland narrative of national belonging, threatens the integrity of the traditional democracy bloc. “It has broken the movement”, Chan tells me. But at the same time, although there is no concrete political agenda behind the calls for self-determination and independence, this is a cultural moment that will come to define a generation: that they dared to show such defiance.

I’ve come to look at this as a temporal anxiety over a vanishing city (with the 2047 date looming ever closer), which has brought a new cultural imagination into being, one in which Hong Kong identity is pitted against Chineseness in ever more defiant ways. Before I left, one student activist joked darkly to me that Hong Kong should accelerate its integration with the mainland, until it reaches the status of yet another middling Chinese city on the periphery, of little political interest to the powers that be in Beijing. For now at least, Hong Kong sits at a monumental crossroads, where ethno-nationalism, colonial nostalgia, hybrid cosmopolitanism and a profound anxiety over the future, all contend.

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