Hong Kong vs China: Identity Crises, Political Tensions, And Why It Matters

When asked what ethnicity we are, many Hong Kongers, including myself, will say we’re Chinese, but when asked where we’re from, we say Hong Kong. Oh, so like, China, right? No. Hong Kong.

We adopt an adamant view that, no, Hong Kong is different from China, and no, we’re not the same as all other Chinese people. From a geographical perspective, Hong Kong is undoubtedly part of China. In fact, it’s been a part of China since the nation state of China was established. Culturally, Hong Kong is similar to the rest of China too. It’s from a social perspective that the lines become blurred.

But first, a little history:

If you’ve ever looked into the history of Hong Kong, you’ll know that Hong Kong was under British colonial rule for a good 150+ years. Before Qing Dynasty China ceded Hong Kong to the British, however, aboriginal fishing and farming communities populated the area. Later in 50BC, China absorbed the region, and Hong Kong, conveniently located on the shores of the Pearl River Delta and the South China Sea, became a trading port for the Portuguese and the British. Basically, this is all to say that Hong Kong is geographically a part of China.

In 1842, after Qing Dynasty China’s defeat in the Opium Wars, Hong Kong became a British colony. From this point onwards, Hong Kong and China experienced very different events that ultimately shaped Hong Kong into the city it is today. Under British colonial rule, Hong Kong grew into a substantial community — from ferries, tramways, and railways, to racecourses and social buildings, and later, goods and textiles, Hong Kong was developing it all. In the ’80s, Hong Kong gained a place in the world’s top ten economies and became an international finance hub.

Vox – How 156 years of British rule shaped Hong Kong

It was also under British colonial rule that Hong Kong began to differentiate itself from mainland China. When China underwent its Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong was left unaffected by many of the changes that China experienced as a result of being under British rule at the time.

It’s arguable that the separation of Hong Kong from the mainland allowed Hong Kong to retain more aspects of tradition than our mainland counterparts. The modernization of China during the Cultural Revolution prompted mainland Chinese to reject traditional beliefs in favour of modern, Western beliefs. Hong Kong, uninfluenced, retained some of these traditional beliefs, including superstitions, Confucian ideas, and folk customs.

In 1955, when China declared its national language (or rather, dialect) to be Mandarin, Hong Kong’s language didn’t change. Instead, Hong Kong maintained its local Hong Kong Cantonese dialect. We’ve also adopted English as an official language and write in traditional Chinese characters, while the mainland uses simplified characters (developed in the 1950s as a way to increase literacy).

Hong Kong is also unaffected by China’s “Great Firewall”. Instead, Hong Kong boasts a free Internet, where we can access Western social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

One Country, Two Systems. Image via Sites at Penn State.

Following the British handover of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China (which is why you might sometimes see the abbreviation HKSAR used to refer to Hong Kong). Deng Xiaoping implemented the “One Country, Two Systems” government principle, allowing Hong Kong to remain essentially unchanged for a further 50 years. Under this system, Hong Kong retained a high degree of autonomy, a democratic local government, an independent law and judicial system, freedom of speech, and an English-influenced culture.

Why do Hong Kongers not like to associate with mainland China?

Since the handover, Hong Kong-China tensions arose as a result of the contrast of systems and cultures. Incoming tourism from the mainland increased significantly as the borders between Hong Kong and China gradually lowered. Reports of Chinese tourists’ “uncivilized behaviour” in Hong Kong — like speaking loudly in public places, haphazardly spitting phlegm and mucus, cutting lines, even relieving themselves on the streets — began to surface. While not all Chinese tourists do this, the volume of mainland Chinese tourists increased so rapidly that “uncivilized behaviour” eventually became an everyday problem for Hong Kongers.

Mainland Chinese tourists in Hong Kong. Image from Traveller.

Another issue that arose from increasing Chinese tourism into Hong Kong is the issue of the rising costs of goods and living in Hong Kong. China has a massive counterfeit market, and has led mainland locals to distrust their own products — a notable one being milk formula for infants. As a result, mainland Chinese travel to Hong Kong to buy massive amounts of milk formula, depleting Hong Kong’s stock for their own residents. In addition to milk formula, Chinese tourists (especially the new money generation) also splurge on luxury goods and top-of-the-line residences in Hong Kong. As I’ve heard many a Hong Konger say, “di daai luk jan lei sai gam do cin, gaau dou di lau gaa mat gaa hai gam hai dou sing” (those mainlanders come and spend so much money, they’re making property values and goods values skyrocket). Hong Kongers have even gone so far as to call mainlanders “locusts” (based on the idea that they consume Hong Kong’s resources and leave behind a mess) and protest incoming Chinese tourists.

Many Hong Kongers may want to clarify that they’re from Hong Kong, not China, because of a difference in how people from Hong Kong and people from China are seen by others — especially our fellow Hong Kongers. Many Hong Kongers seem to have strong anti-Chinese sentiments, and (at least in my experience) tend to look down on mainland Chinese coming into the city. Being specifically from Hong Kong has a large influence on a Hong Konger’s identity — we feel different from (and possibly superior to) our mainland Chinese neighbours, and we feel the need to point that difference out.

Another reason for Hong Kongers’ animosity towards China has more to do with politics. Since the handover, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to impose authority on Hong Kong. When establishing the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, the Chinese government laid down requirements that limited the makeup of government of Hong Kong and nudged the government in a pro-China direction:

It must be required that patriots form the main body of administrators, that is, of the future government of the Hong Kong special region. Of course it should include other Chinese, too, as well as foreigners invited to serve as advisers. What is a patriot? A patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. Those who meet these requirements are patriots, whether they believe in capitalism or feudalism or even slavery. We don’t demand that they be in favour of China’s socialist system; we only ask them to love the motherland and Hong Kong.


Democratic developments, notably universal suffrage, in Hong Kong have also been stifled by pro-China representatives. In 2014, China allowed for Hong Kong to have universal suffrage, but under certain conditions: 1) the Chief Executive must be patriotic to China; 2) a nominating committee will be formed (in a similar way to the existing Election Committee) and will nominate candidates who will then run for Chief Executive; and 3) the candidate who wins the popular election must then be appointed by the Chinese government. In essence, the Chinese government has agreed to allow Hong Kongers to vote for their own Chief Executive, but China reserves the right to censor anyone they don’t like.

The Umbrella movement in Admiralty, Hong Kong. Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images, via Time.

In response to this, Hong Kong initiated an initially peaceful protest to advocate for universal suffrage and full democracy. From that, the Umbrella movement emerged. Hong Kongers have also been pushing for Hong Kong independence. Thus, a second reason for preferring to identify specifically as a Hong Konger (rather than generally Chinese) may come from a sense of pride in Hong Kong’s values and governmental system, or as an act of retaliation against China’s imposition of beliefs and authority on Hong Kong.

In a sense, Hong Kong is like an angsty teenager — after gaining freedom, they want to completely break free of their parents’ (which, in this analogy, would be China) grasps, not acknowledging the extent to which they’re reliant on China’s resources.  

In modern nation-states, it’s important to develop a strong sense of belonging and community within a country — and the fact that Hong Kongers don’t feel pride in associating with our mainland neighbours inhibits that sense of belonging.

But can you blame them?

Honestly, (I might be biased, but) you can’t really blame Hong Kongers for the way they feel. Hong Kong has been socio-culturally separated from China for so long, and the hardships that Hong Kong and China have gone through are so different, that it kind of makes sense for Hong Kongers not to identify completely with other Chinese. A sense of community is established by experiencing hardships and successes as a community. While under British colonial rule, Hong Kong was so separated from China that they experienced completely different struggles and triumphs from the mainland. As a result, they formed their own, separate community, because they didn’t necessarily fit into the mainland Chinese community anymore. A 50-year transition period can’t reconcile 150 years of separation, especially with the vast differences in development these regions experienced.

Hong Kong’s future

As Hong Kong approaches the 50th anniversary of its handover to China, it also approaches a time of change. In 2047, the promise of allowing Hong Kong to operate under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle will expire. Though nothing has been formally decided, what seems to be the most likely outcome is that Hong Kong will no longer be governed under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle and will assimilate completely into the mainland.

Still, so many questions remain. Will Hong Kong lose its freedom? Will our media be controlled by the Chinese government too? What will happen to our political system? Will we be forced to assimilate the Chinese national dialect of Mandarin and lose our local Cantonese dialect? How will our lifestyles change? What will happen to the question of identity?

How do I feel about Hong Kong’s future?

Honestly, I’m apprehensive. While I wouldn’t go so far as to push for Hong Kong independence (partially because I’m not well-versed in the realm of politics, partially because Hong Kong is heavily reliant on China for necessary resources), I’d like for Hong Kong to remain governed as it is now, under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle (ideally with a better judicial system). Maybe it’s a result of comfort of having lived my entire life under this system, and a fear of the resulting change. Maybe it’s based on my (admittedly) limited knowledge of Hong Kong–China politics.

Undoubtedly, both good and bad will come from Hong Kong’s assimilation into China, whether we see it immediately or not. China is growing, and so is Hong Kong. And inevitably, there will be bumps along the way — but we’ll get where we want to go. Hopefully.

What do you think about the Hong Kong-China political situation? What do you think will happen in 2047? Let’s talk!


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