Do Hong Kongers identify themselves as Chinese

Hong Kong

Audrey Jiajia Li

To person

is a non-fiction author and journalist. Twitter: @SaySayjiajia

On the evening of June 16, 2019, I shared a video on my social media channels: The video shows how thousands of peaceful demonstrators, together with two million Hong Kongers, protest against a controversial law on the extradition of suspects to the People's Republic of China, within Make space for an ambulance in just a few seconds. "Like Moses dividing the Red Sea, totally moving," I wrote. Many of my friends, originally from mainland China, also expressed their admiration and sympathy for the protests.

Six months later, most of them see the protest movement with different eyes due to the radicalization and violence of the demonstrators. In mid-August, after the chaos at Hong Kong airport, when protesters prevented international travelers from getting on their flights and attacked two Chinese from the mainland because they were allegedly "undercover agents", quite a few are disappointed with the movement.

Richard, for example: He is a Cantonese-speaking Chinese, originally from Guangzhou, did his Masters in the USA and has been working in Hong Kong for almost ten years. He cites July 1, 2019 as the time when his stance on the movement changed. On that day, protesters gained access to the Legislative Council, smashed the glass front doors and ravaged the boardroom. "I don't understand why people who say they value democracy are devastating the most important democratic institution, a place that stands for separation of powers."

Lewis, a Chinese-born American who was born in Hangzhou and now works as a senior engineer in Silicon Valley, also doubted the means of the movement when he saw protesters raging in the Legislative Council. What bothers him most is the way in which those who disagree with the protesters are treated. "Even if Hong Kong risks losing the freedoms it currently enjoys, society is broadly free and the government is nowhere near as authoritarian as Beijing's; endless confrontations on the streets seem to have no foreseeable end not justified to me ".

Muzi, a boy in Washington D.C. working teacher originally from northeast China has had some discussions recently with her Hong Kong-born American husband. She does not believe the allegations of widespread police violence: "How would the American police react to Molotov cocktails? With real bullets. So far no one has been killed in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong police have renounced their people Providing more than tear gas and the like, nonetheless, police officers and their families have been the target of violence and death threats. "

For James Liu, who was born in Xi’an and works in the financial sector in Singapore, the turning point was reached when the protesters paralyzed rail and air traffic. He sees a certain irony in the alleged freedom-loving demonstrators blocking the doors of the subway trains and the check-in desks at the airport and taking rush-hour commuters and international passengers hostage. They would have shown no consideration for those who were just doing their job or just wanting to go home, including pregnant women, crying children and people in wheelchairs. "Your own freedom should not be at the expense of the freedom of others. Irrational radicalization always leads to catastrophe."

My friends quoted here are by no means supporters of the Beijing government. They all share Hong Kong people's frustration at the curtailment of their political freedoms. But why are you now critical of the ongoing protests?

Hostility and stereotypes

Most liberal-minded Chinese who grew up on the mainland find it difficult to accept violence and the motto "the ends justify the means." This is mainly due to the experiences that either they or their parents had in the more turbulent times of Chinese history.

In addition, the wounds of the Tian’anmen massacre of 1989 have not yet healed for many mainland Chinese. With the knowledge of the bloody suppression of the protests, many wish in retrospect that the demonstrators would have given in at the time. This might have prevented the massacre. That is why it is difficult for many mainland Chinese to understand that the protesters in Hong Kong obviously accept the destruction of their city in order to implement their political demands.

The gap between the mainland and Hong Kong has widened significantly in recent times: Hong Kong residents are becoming increasingly nativist and hostile towards their northern neighbors. It is now more common to hear that mainland Chinese are insulted by Hong Kong people as animals or savages. A significant number of mainland Chinese who originally sympathized with the Hong Kong people feel offended by this xenophobic abuse, particularly by denigrating "Shina" graffiti. [1]

Both sides cultivate stereotypical views and prejudices about one another: Many mainland Chinese believe that Hong Kong people who wave a British or US flag at demonstrations today simply cannot cope with the geopolitical and economic decline of the city, and many mainland Chinese reject each because of their nationalist attitudes political activity that could prove to be detrimental to the central power - including the movement for more independence, understood as separatism.

Hong Kongers, in turn, tend to refer to Chinese mainland and overseas Chinese who do not fully agree with their views as enemies of democracy and "shameful slaves" of the Communist Party who have been brainwashed.

Deterioration in relationships

As a mainland Chinese who calls Guangzhou - the Cantonese-speaking capital of the Guangdong Province in the immediate vicinity of Hong Kong - her home, it is heartbreaking for me to see how the relationship between the two sides has deteriorated more and more over the past ten years. In just a decade, the cultural divide has widened while knowledge of the other has decreased.

For a long time, thinking about one another was much more positive on both sides. As a British crown colony, Hong Kong was China's main source of foreign currency for decades at a time when the mainland was plagued by poverty and isolated from foreign policy. During the tough years under Mao's rule, especially the great famine in the early 1960s, millions of mainland Chinese fled to Hong Kong and settled there permanently. After the crackdown on the protests on Tian’anmen Square in 1989, committed Hong Kongers helped many dissidents to get out of the country as part of Operation Yellowbird. And during the great flood disaster in east China in 1991, over 470 million Hong Kong dollars in donations were raised for the victims in Hong Kong within ten days.

In 2008, Hong Kong residents immediately offered assistance to people in Sichuan Province, where over 100,000 people were killed in a powerful earthquake in Wenchuan. In August of the same year, Beijing hosted the Olympic Games, and a survey carried out in June showed that Hong Kong people's identification with the People's Republic was at a peak: In the age group of the younger (18 to 29 years) and older (30+) 41.2 percent and 54.5 percent of the population called themselves Chinese. [2] Since then, the numbers have fallen dramatically. At the end of 2015, approval was only around ten percent among the younger and 30 percent among the older Hong Kong residents.

What happened? On the one hand, the national government in Beijing has become more self-assured and energetic, which is why the Hong Kong people fear that they could lose the freedoms guaranteed by the "one country, two systems" principle, which they should have been granted until at least 2047. When their demand for universal suffrage was rejected in 2014, protesters from the so-called umbrella movement occupied parts of the financial and government district for 79 days. [3] But in the end the movement failed without the government making any concessions, and many activists were arrested and brought to justice.

On the other hand, Hong Kongers have been struggling for years with ever increasing real estate prices, long waiting times for medical treatment and growing income inequality. In addition, almost 1.5 million people have moved from the mainland to Hong Kong in search of work or training over the past 20 years. This influx is a source of frustration for many locals and worries about the future of their city. They fear that the newcomers will put even more strain on the already limited resources and overloaded infrastructure.

One example that made headlines is milk powder: A few years ago, due to a lack of confidence in the quality of Chinese baby food, numerous Chinese parents flocked to Hong Kong from the mainland to buy up the stocks there. In March 2013, this led to a limit on the takeaway quantity to two cans of milk powder per person. You can also hear complaints about Mandarin-speaking tourists throwing their rubbish around, spitting on the street and screeching loudly in public. For these reasons, Hong Kongers, especially the younger generation, are now less inclined to distinguish between the actions of the Beijing authorities and the behavior of ordinary mainland citizens, although this distinction has always been important to older generations.

This trend has unfortunate consequences: there is increasing talk of the desire for "desinization", and the attitude of the younger generation is becoming increasingly radical, as the conventional strategies of the traditional pro-democracy camp no longer seem to be working. As the only city on Chinese soil in which a commemoration of the Tian'anmen massacre is still tolerated, the number of young students in Hong Kong who are indifferent to the massacre because it would not affect them but China is growing.

On the mainland, too, the younger generations, who grew up in a time of impressive economic boom and increasing geopolitical power, are becoming increasingly nationalistic. Most are unaware of Hong Kong's earlier economic miracle and its considerable cultural influence, but are very aware of the supposed bias of Hong Kong people against mainland Chinese.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's economic importance is nowhere near as great as it was in the 1990s, when the Special Administrative Region generated 20 percent of China's gross domestic product. In 2018, Hong Kong's economic output was surpassed by that of the neighboring metropolis Shenzhen for the first time. [4] Many mainland Chinese today have the impression that Hong Kong is in decline and that Hong Kongers can only maintain their current high standard of living because they are supported by generous special grants from the motherland.

Public humiliations

In early August 2019, I became increasingly concerned about the apparent radicalization of the movement. My fears eventually reached a point where I felt compelled to speak up. I had previously seen a video that "went viral" in late July. In it, a gray-haired elderly man was harassed and jostled by a group of young demonstrators after his arrival at Hong Kong airport. The man was humiliated and had a yellow note stuck on his back that read: "Fraudulent police plus triads equals lawlessness". [5]

A similar incident had occurred shortly before at the University of Hong Kong. Students had quarreled with the president of the university, with Zhang Xiang, a Sino-American scientist who originally came from mainland China. Zhang Xiang condemned the "violence and vandalism" during the protest in the Legislative Council. The students insulted him on posters, besieged his house at night, and demanded that he retract what he said. These scenes are frighteningly reminiscent of the public humiliations of the Cultural Revolution, when young people insulted and tortured older people into confessing their "sins" in the name of the holy revolution.

When Hong Kong internet users urge advertisers of TVB to cancel their contracts because the station is allegedly biased, it is reminiscent of the case of French cosmetics company Lancôme, which was pushed from the mainland by internet users, to a concert by Cantopop singer Denise Ho to cancel due to their support for the democracy movement. [6]

If a movement is to be successful, it is extremely important that the participants respect the rights of their fellow citizens, even if their ideas about a society differ from their own. Or as the guidelines of the Hong Kong Bar Association say: In exercising civil rights, respect for others, the functioning of public utilities, and the law in a society should not be compromised.

Radicalization of the movement

In September 2019, the Chinese-American journalist Jiayang Fan was harassed and questioned by demonstrators, presumably because she spoke Mandarin while reporting on the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Jiayang Fan suffered insults and abuse such as "yellow bandit" and "communist agent". "My Chinese face makes me liable," she tweeted. "Was just asked if I was from the USA and a reporter, why would I have a Chinese face?" [7]

A few days earlier, on September 18, 2019, the 88th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of northeast China, a poster celebrating the invasion was posted on the Democracy Wall of Hong Kong University, presumably by protesters. "This is the first time I've seen people fight for democracy by celebrating the Axis powers of World War II," commented journalist Liam Stone on Twitter. [8]

In mid-August, when protesters occupied Hong Kong airport and prevented international travelers from boarding their flights, two mainland Chinese people believed to be "police spies" were knocked unconscious. And in September a Chinese employee of the financial company JP Morgan was attacked: the protesters knocked his glasses off his face because he had said "We are all Chinese" in Mandarin. [9]

Incidents like this point to a complicated aspect of the month-long protests that is barely reported: The world sees the conflict in Hong Kong as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, but behind the democracy movement there is also deep distrust, even a downright aversion, towards many Hong Kongers Mainland Chinese.

Anyone who follows the comments in the Internet forum of "LIHKG" - a website that the protest movement uses to exchange messages and coordinate their activities - will notice the shocking and widespread hateful comments that can only be described as xenophobic (more precisely: sinophobic) can. [10] More recently, incidents in the city's colleges have been increasing in which mainland students are cursed as "Shina dogs" and asked to "go back to China."

"Back to ..." - this exclamation is virulent. Globally, newcomers are being scapegoated and blamed for almost anything the locals don't like, especially when locals compete with newcomers for jobs, wealth, and opportunity. This is also the case in Hong Kong: some locals feel overrun by the influx of investment and the immigration of Chinese from the north. The newcomers who are perceived as "crazy rich" are blamed for the rising cost of living, especially for the dizzying high property prices. Well-educated mainland Chinese, such as Charles Li, head of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, and Zhang Xiang, President of the University of Hong Kong, are met with suspicion and resentment because of their origins (and their alleged connections with the Chinese Communist Party). Chinese tourists and new immigrants are referred to as "locusts", which threaten the cohesion of the city. [11]

While waving British or American flags is widely accepted in Hong Kong, waving Chinese flags is dangerous, even as a local.Shops, restaurants and bank branches believed to have ties to the People's Republic of China are being devastated, set on fire and looted, and customers are even harassed. [12] It is a question of decency and also in the interests of the movement to refrain from denigrating the mainland Chinese and to distance oneself from the xenophobic incitement against immigrants and students from the mainland. Anyone who speaks Mandarin, rejects the degradation of national symbols or is indignant about offensive "Shina" graffiti is not automatically a "shameful slave" of the Communist Party.

No distancing from violence

The highly decentralized protests in Hong Kong are leaderless and constantly in flux - or based on Bruce Lee's philosophy: like water. [13] There is obviously a certain code of conduct among the participants: stick together, do not criticize one another, no matter what. As tensions increased and protests escalated, the violent minority began to dominate the discreet and attract more attention after their actions were glorified by themselves and in the media. At the same time, the moderates, who once made up the bulk of the movement, were marginalized because they were allegedly insufficiently "daring".

So far, the vast majority of protesters in Hong Kong seem to believe that vandalism, violence and harassment against dissidents are the result of a small group of people and are not representative of the protests. And in order not to endanger the honorable goals of the movement, one should tolerate the harmful behavior of this fringe group and not make a big fuss about it, so that the movement does not fall into disrepute.

Regardless of good intentions, the strategy of avoiding criticism from within is wrong and will have negative consequences: First, the entire movement will be damaged by the actions of a few, because the members do not publicly reject acts of violence such as arson by the radical wing distance, let alone hold those responsible to account. In doing so, the movement is jeopardizing its integrity. Second, while there will be some enthusiastic supporters who will stand by the demonstrators unconditionally no matter what, the majority of the public, including people like me who originally supported the initially peaceful protests, will draw a line between what is acceptable is and what is not.

Everyone has to decide for themselves where this limit lies. When demonstrators throw stones at an older fellow citizen and kill him with it, [14] when a man is killed with a manhole cover because he is dismantling the protesters' barricades, [15] or when a family man is set on fire in a dispute with protesters, [16 ] at the latest then the limits are exceeded. We are citizens of a modern society, we do not live in a jungle where only the law of the strong applies and we vent our anger on innocent people whenever we are justifiably outraged. No matter what sacred ideology we hold, and no matter how angry we are with others who do not share our views, we must respect our fellow human beings.


I keep asking myself one question: How can we be sure that when the protesters one day come to power they will not behave as cruel and intolerant of dissidents as the forces they are currently fighting against?

Since the movement in Hong Kong is decentralized, no one seems to be in a position to negotiate a compromise and end the street protests. Nobody takes responsibility and condemns what a few have done on behalf of the democracy movement. Meanwhile, opponents of liberal democracy make every attempt to use the behavior of the radicals to spread fear and justify authoritarian action - with considerable success.

In July 2019, I interviewed Larry Diamond, a sociologist and political scientist at Stanford University who studies pro-democratic movements. He acknowledged that it can be useful to stir up public outrage at an early stage - in this case, at the government's actions - to encourage participation. At the same time, he expressed skepticism about a decentralized movement: "There is a lot of evidence for this: If protests and expressions of discontent are to become a movement that can actually exert influence, this movement needs leadership, organization and a strategy." He also expressed his enthusiasm for the movement, but expressed concerns about its radicalization: "The movement is in danger of losing its previous achievements and moral authority." This concern is shared by many who value freedom and wish Hong Kong the best.

Translation from English: Heike Schlatterer, Pforzheim.