What it means to be a Hong Kong person

By Nicholas Gordon
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, September 22, 2013
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I am a Hong Kong person. I was born in this city, I spent my childhood and adolescence here, I have permanent residency, and a Hong Kong identity card with three stars. I am ethnically Chinese through my mother. But behind these simple statements lies a more complicated reality. I am also American, as indicated by my US passport. I went to university in the United States.

I have multiple identities, all overlapping at the same time. One of these identities, no more or less dominant than the others, is my identity as a Hong Kong person.

Some people like to argue that, since Hong Kong is a part of China, to be Hong Kong is to be Chinese. And to be Chinese, is to be fully Chinese, in culture and language, and in tune with current developments on the mainland. As the author Gish Jen said to The New York Times, “to many (Chinese) ... you have to be culturally Chinese, and that’s much deeper than anything you can acquire by yourself.” Anyone that is not Chinese in this way cannot really be a Hong Kong person.

But I disprove that view. I am just as much a Hong Kong person as anyone else who can claim the privilege. I qualify under any of the rational criteria that could be used to define a Hong Kong person. This is despite the fact that I would likely not be considered truly Chinese, under the monolithic view described above.

Put another way, I cannot be told to “go home” by those who think I am a foreigner; Hong Kong is my home.

I would like to think that many would accept my statement that I am a Hong Kong person without controversy. But, if I can be a Hong Kong person without being fully Chinese, we can then draw numerous conclusions about the nature of a Hong Kong identity.

The first is that I am not alone in having a strong claim to a Hong Kong identity. There are countless groups in Hong Kong — Southeast and South Asians, for example — that can identify with the city despite not being Chinese. Certain groups, like the South Asian populations, have lived here for more than a century, and could just as reasonably claim to belong here as many Chinese residents can.

Another conclusion is that if we accept the existence of multiple identities, then a Hong Kong identity does not have to be mutually exclusive with a Chinese identity. The vast majority of Hong Kong residents hold these two identities with no contradiction between them. Nor is a Hong Kong identity mutually exclusive with any other national identity. In my case, having a Hong Kong identity does not preclude me from being an American, nor does it preclude an Indian resident from being both Hongkonger and Indian.

This is a significant difference from what some people say about a separate Hong Kong identity. To both the far left and the far right, any discussion of a separate identity necessitates the rejection of a Chinese identity, though they obviously disagree on whether this is good or bad.

This brings us to the question of what constitutes the Hong Kong identity? Hong Kong is a global city, and those that identify with it likely value freedom of movement and international experience. Three hours travel from Hong Kong takes you to at least a dozen different cultures and political systems. Compare this to New York, another global city: the only different system within three hours travel is Canada.

However, the Hong Kong identity remains mostly undefined, and discussions of how it could be understood tend to be mired in furious debate. Some on the left argue that any discussion of separate identity is tantamount to separatism, while the far right argues that those who accept Hong Kong’s way of life must wholly reject their identity as Chinese people.

The truth, as so often, probably lies somewhere in the middle. Hong Kong has its own identity, but it is not mutually exclusive with a Chinese identity, or any other national identity, for that matter. Many people and politicians would likely agree with this idea, yet this agreement is lost in a polarized debate.

Determining what the Hong Kong identity is made of could help us think about what Hong Kong actually is. Hong Kong is clearly not a country, but it is more than just a city, and we lack a paradigm that can help us think about Hong Kong. We already have the “One Country, Two Systems” principle to explain our political situation; perhaps we can use “One Country, Two Identities” to help us explain this city.

The author recently graduated with high honors from Harvard University and is doing an MPhil in International Relations as a Clarendon Scholar.

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