Hong Kong identity and Chinese nationalism – A clash of civilizations

Hong Kong skyline

In 2012 thousands of people took to the streets in Hong Kong to protest against a government proposal to introduce a new Chinese national education curriculum into Hong Kong schools. The curriculum, modelled after the so-called “patriotic education” taught in mainland China, would have included material that praised the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), described as “progressive, selfless and united”, while criticizing multiparty systems.

Those who opposed the curriculum, including teachers’ and parents’ organizations as well as students, argued that it was a form of brainwashing and that it glossed over major events in recent Chinese history such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown (Joyce Lau: Thousands Rally against Hong Kong Curriculum. International Herald Tribune, July 30, 2012).

After protesters occupied for 10 days the area surrouding the government headquarters, then Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced that the curriculum would not be compulsory and that schools would be free to choose whether to teach it or not. One of the student leaders of the protests was then 15-year-old Joshua Wong, who would later become one of the most prominent democracy activists of the city.

The controversy around the national curriculum highlights the chasm between Beijing’s understanding of nationalism and the specific identity that Hong Kong developed throughout the British colonial period and the post-handover years.

In this article, we shall analyze the development of Hong Kong’s identity since the foundation of the colony in 1841.

We shall argue that the major difference between the Hong Kong identity and the mainland Chinese identity lies in the fact that Hong Kong society during the British era was indivisualistic, pragmatic and unaffected by state-imposed nationalist ideology, while in mainland China people’s identity was shaped by a rigid, ideological notion of national identity as defined by a totalitarian one-party regime which uses nationalism as a means to justify and consolidate its power.

This article is divided into three parts.

In the first, we will examine Hong Kong’s identities from the founding of the colony in 1841 up to 1949. In the second, the emergence of a specific and unique local Hong Kong identity during the time of the economic boom and the Cold War will be discussed. In the third, we will briefly analyze the clash between Hong Kong and mainland China following the handover in 1997.

1 Hong Kong’s identities from 1841 to 1949

From 1841 to 1949 the population of Hong Kong consisted of three main groups: 1) Western colonialists and expatriates; 2) the native Chinese who already lived in Hong Kong prior to the British occupation; 3) Chinese immigrants who moved to Hong Kong from China after the British takeover and either settled permanently in Hong Kong or stayed in the colony for a limited period of time. The latter group was by far the largest. Their identity remained tied to mainland China, and they did not develop a specific Hong Kong identity. As historian Steve Tsang explained:

Before the Pacific War [Second World War], the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong’s ethnic Chinese shared much more in common with their fellow countrymen living on the mainland of China than with their non-Chinese fellow residents in Hong Kong. They were either sojourners, economic migrants or refugees, and were not noticeably different from other Chinese living elsewhere in China. Except for a small number who had taken root locally, most intended to return to their home in China for retirement or after making sufficient money for a more comfortable life back home. The Chinese community of Hong Kong did not have an identity of its own and the non-Chinese community was essentially an expatriate one. This non-existence of a local sense of identity did not bother either the government or the local people until the end of the Pacific War” (Steve Tsang: A Modern History of Hong Kong: 1841-1997, 2007, p. 180).

When the British took possession of Hong Kong on 25 January, 1841, the small island had a native population of around 3,000 people, most of them fishers and stone-cutters. The largest settlement, located in Chek Chu (present-day Stanley), in the southern part of the island, had about 1,000 villagers.

Map of Hong Kong made by Sir Edward Belcher in 1841 (via Wikimedia Commons)

However, after Admiral Sir Charles Elliot’s proclamation on 2 February 1841 that Hong Kong would become a free port, a wave of immigrants from China’s Guangdong province and from the neighbouring Portuguese colony of Macau set in. Within a short time, a small European-style town emerged on the northern shore of the island which had previously been, in the words of Lord Palmerston, a “barren rock with hardly a house upon it”. As a British engineer recalled:

“[I]n the course of two months, the native town, Victoria [Victoria was the name that the British gave to their major settlement on the northern shore of the island], which had before presented to the eye scarcely anything but streets and rows of houses, formed of the most crazy, perishable, and inflammable materials, now boasted at least a hundred brick tenements, besides a spacious and commodious market-place…a stone jail, a wide, excellent road, drains, and bridges, wherever necessary, and an official residence for the presiding magistrate” (quoted in: John M. Carroll, Chinese Collaboration in the Making of British Hong Kong, in Hong Kong’s History: State and Society under Colonial Rule, ed. Ngo Tak-Wing, 1999, p. 18).

In February 1842, Henry Pottinger, plenipotentiary and superintendent of trade, moved the Superintendency of Trade from Macau to Hong Kong, contributing to the growth of trade and economic activity. As Pottinger stated:

“[T]he impetus given by the removal [of the Superintendency] … has been quite remarkable, even within the last week or ten days; that highly respectable and affluent Chinese Merchants are flocking from Canton and Macao to settle here, or at least form branches of their trading firms, that it is moderately estimated that there are not less than twenty-five thousand souls in the Colony; that extensive and solidly built warehouses, wharves, jetties, &c., besides private dwelling houses, are springing up in every direction, and that the early receipt of the intentions and commands of Her Majesty’s Government connected with the Island is most desirable” (quoted in: ibid., p. 19).

By March 1841 Hong Kong’s population had already risen to 15,000, of whom about 12,000 were Chinese. The town had a magistracy, a post office, a land and record office, barracks, tailors, and a Chinese market, set up in the Lower Bazaar; there were gambling houses, brothels, and a jail.

Westerners mainly settled along the waterfront from present-day Central to Causeway Bay, where residences, warehouses, government buildings and offices were built (ibid., p. 19).

The ethnic Chinese population gave a great contribution to the development of the colony. While most of them were common labourers, some were merchants and businessmen who obtained wealth and status by working with the British. The most successful Chinese had already done business with the British prior to the occupation of Hong Kong.

Most of the Chinese elite of early colonial Hong Kong originally came from the poor classes of imperial Chinese society. Their prestige and riches derived from the specific political and economic circumstances of Hong Kong.

Three of the wealthiest Hong Kong Chinese of the early colonial period were Tam Achoy, Loo Aqui and Kwok Acheong, all of whom belonged to the Tanka people, also known as “boat people”.

The Tanka were among the poorest peoples of imperial China. Their social status was even lower than that of beggars and prostitutes. The imperial government did not allow them to settle ashore, marry with residents on land, buy land or take part in the imperial examinations (Hung Ho-Fung, Identity Contested: Rural Ethnicities in the Making of Urban Hong Kong, in Hong Kong Reintegrating with China: Political, Cultural and Social Dimensions, ed. Lee Pui-Tak, 2001, p. 185).

To the British, however, the social distinctions that existed in mainland China mattered little. They were interested in military conquest and business, and they were willing to use any help they could find. The Tanka people played a pivotal role in the British takeover of Hong Kong by providing supplies and fuel.

After the Opium War, the British rewarded them with grants of land and with lucrative contracts. Thus the Tanka freed themselves from the class and economic constraints of their homeland (Carroll 1999, p. 17).

Tam Achoy (譚亞才, Mandarin: Tan Yacai) originally came from Kaiping, in China’s Guangdong province. In 1841 he moved to Hong Kong from British Singapore and worked as a contractor. Due to the small number of Western settlers in Hong Kong, the British were dependent on local contractors and workers.

Tam Achoy built some of the most prominent buildings of the early colonial period, such as P&O Building and the Exchange Building for Dent & Co., which was purchased by the government in 1847 and used as Hong Kong’s first Supreme Court.

The British thanked Tam for his collaboration in the Opium War by granting him land in the Lower Bazaar, an area that would later become the centre of the ethnic Chinese community. The income that he derived from this land made him a wealthy man. He was able to buy up more land from his neighbours, and later invested in the shipping industry. In 1865 he leased a wharf to the new Hong Kong, Canton and Macao Steamboat Co. Tam was so wealthy that he was dubbed the “Nabob of Hong Kong” (ibid., pp. 20-21).

Like Tam Achoy, Loo Aqui (盧亞貴, Mandarin: Lu Yagui) too was an influential merchant who helped the British during the Opium War and was granted land in the Lower Bazaar. Due to his wealth and connections with the colonial government, he was later able to acquire more lots in the Lower Bazaar. He owned a gambling house, a theatre and various brothels. Loo also acquired from the British government an opium monopoly and a license to open a market (ibid., pp. 17-22).

Kwok Acheong (郭亞祥, Mandarin: Guo Yaxiang) was another Tanka boatman who supplied provisions to the British forces during the Opium War. In 1845 he joined the Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) Steam Navigation Co. In the 1860s he acquired a fleet of steamships that competed with the Hong Kong, Canton and Macao Steamboat Co., which was owned by Europeans. By 1876 Kwok had become the third-largest property taxpayer in Hong Kong after the European-owned Douglas, Lapraik & Co. (a shipping giant) and Jardine, Matheson & Co. Kwok was also an advisor to the British government (ibid., pp. 17-18).

The Chinese community of Hong Kong developed a unique blend of both traditional Chinese and colonial social practices. Because Hong Kong did not have the restrictions and hierarchies of imperial China, individuals who in traditional Chinese society would have been outcasts were able to gain economic and social status.

Tam, Loo and Kwok, who were precluded any path to success in mainland China due to their Tanka origins, became the most prominent leaders of the Hong Kong Chinese community, assuming the function of the gentry which had been denied them in their homeland. In 1847 Loo and Tam built the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road, which was not just a temple, but also the main social centre for the entire Chinese population of Hong Kong.

Man Mo Temple, built in 1847 by Loo Aqui and Tam Achoy, now surrounded by modern buildings and skyscrapers (photo by Baycrest – CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

Thus the British inadvertently created a Chinese business elite that used their wealth and power to attempt to recreate in Hong Kong the social order of mainland China. At the same time, this elite was inextricably linked to British colonial society and to its cosmopolitan character (ibid., p. 23).

During the second half of the 19th century, Britain expanded the territory of its colony twice. In 1856 the Second Opium War broke out. The conflict ended in 1860 with the signing of the Convention of Beijing, which gave Britain the area of Kowloon peninsula south of present-day Boundary Street, as well as Stonecutter’s Island.

On June 9, 1898, Britain and China signed the second Convention of Beijing. The treaty granted to the British a 99-year lease of the remaining part of Kowloon peninsula up to the Shenzhen River as well as 230 surrounding islands, an area of about 370 square miles to which the British government gave the straightforward name “New Territories”.

Map showing the British acquisition of Hong Kong Island (1842), Kowloon and Stonecutters Island (1860) and the New Territories (1898) (via Wikimedia Commons)

With the cession of the New Territories, the British suddenly found themselves administering a native Chinese population whose roots in the region dated back centuries. According to the 1901 census, there were over 100,000 native Chinese people in the New Territories, who were added to the 283,000 people that already lived in the previous British possessions of Hong Kong Island and southern Kowloon. In 1844, Hong Kong Island had only 23,000 inhabitants. In 1861, the population of Hong Kong Island and southern Kowloon was 119,000.

Hong Kong Island and southern Kowloon were by far the most urbanised areas of the colony. Most of its inhabitants were settlers from China – labourers, merchants, as well as political refugees.

The New Territories, by contrast, were overwhelmingly rural. They were dominated by the so-called “five great clans”: the Tangs, Haus, Pangs, Lius and Mans. The five clans were wealthy and influential Chinese families that controlled the most fertile land. Their ancestors had settled in the New Territories – which in imperial China were part of Xin’an county of Guangdong province – centuries earlier.

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) the Tang clan moved from Guangdong province to the fertile plain roughly corresponding to present-day Kam Tin. During the Southern Song Dynasty came the Hau and Pang family; the Liu family arrived during the late Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 AD) and the Man family came during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The five great clans were known as the Punti (本地, literally: “local”).

Later on, families of the ethnic Chinese group of the Hakka also moved from southern China to the New Territories, but because the most fertile land had already been occupied by the five great clans, the newcomers could only settle in the least fertile areas and on the hillside. Nevertheless, the Hakka still had to give a portion of their harvest to the five clans as land rent. According to scholar Davide Faure, in the precolonial era the rivalry between the Puntis and the Hakka was fierce, and the Tangs even organized armed teams to collect land rents (Hung 2001, pp. 186-187).

One of the most famous Punti villages is Kam Tin town, founded in the 11th century by Tang Fuxie of the Tang clan. One famous episode in the history of Hong Kong took place in Kam Tin. As British official Harold Ingrams, who visited Hong Kong in the 1950s, recounted:

Kam Tin has also gained notoriety in modern times. When British troops occupied the New Territories in 1899 the villagers, who, it is said, knew nothing about the leasing, were alarmed and shut themselves behind their walls, barring the iron gates. When they refused to open them, the troops attacked and broke into the village and removed the gates, which were given to the Governor, Sir Henry Blake. On his retirement he took them to his home in Ireland and set them up there. Twenty-five years later Tang Pak Kau, on behalf of the village, petitioned Government for their restoration. The Governor, Sir Reginald Stubbs, had some difficulty in tracing them but they were eventually run to earth and brought back from Ireland. On the 26th of May 1925 a ceremony was held at Kam Tin when the gates were returned to their original home. These iron gates lead into a portico where there is a shrine to the Land God and two red scrolls commemorating the restoration. A lane leads straight from the gateway to the temple at the other end of the village, with rows of houses leading off to right and left” (Harold Ingrams, Hong Kong, 1952, p. 156).

Today Kam Tin is still inhabited by the descendants of the Tang clan and has retained its rural character, as have other Punti settlements in the New Territories.

Regarding the administration of the New Territories, the British pursued a policy of minimal intervention and of protection of the traditional lifestyle of the Chinese villagers. Prior to the Second World War, the colonial government viewed the New Territories mainly as a military buffer between China and the urban areas of Hong Kong Island and southern Kowloon (Hung 2001, p. 185).

As Sir Charles Collins wrote in the 1950s:

The establishment of British government in the New Territories opened a new chapter in the history of administration in Hong Kong. Hitherto the administration had had to deal with an immigrant population almost entirely, whether European or Chinese, but now it was called upon also to administer an area with a settled population possessing its own civilization and way of life. The general policy adopted was to interfere with these as little as possible …” (Charles Collins, Public Administration in Hong Kong, 1952, p. 135).

The British instituted a model of “indirect rule” designed to preserve the precolonial system of villagers’ local management. After the 1940s, the British pursued a more interventionist policy. They subdivided the New Territories into 28 districts, with one District Office and one Rural Committee in each district. A Heung Yee Kuk Rural Committee Village Representative system was set up (Hung 2001, p. 188).

The Heung Yee Kuk has recently been described as a “mafia-like organisation that rules the New Territories like its own private fiefdom” and maintains a “stranglehold … on land in much of the New Territories—which, although it comprises 952 square kilometres (or 86.2 percent) of Hong Kong as a whole, houses only half of its population”. The power and prestige of the old Punti clans are still felt in Hong Kong.

That does not mean, however, that the British presence had no impact at all on the Puntis. The growth of the urban and commercial economy of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon “eroded the subsistence economy of the village and replaced it with a money and market economy” (Hung 2001, p. 187).

Nevertheless, the inhabitants of the New Territories largely maintained their traditional lifestyle and their Chinese identity.

Generally speaking, before World War II the Chinese population of Hong Kong can be divided into permanent settlers and non-permanent settlers.

Permanent settlers consisted of all native Chinese whose families lived in Hong Kong prior to the British takeover, as well as the Chinese that settled in Hong Kong after 1841, some of whom became wealthy businessmen deeply integrated into the colonial system. Non-permanent settlers were the Chinese who had lived in Hong Kong for a short or extended period of time, but had struck no roots in the colony.

According to historian Steve Tsang, the vast majority of ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong identified with mainland China. They valued Hong Kong mainly as a place that enjoyed political stability and a good business environment, at a time when China was in constant turmoil (Tsang 2007, p. 169). Tsang’s analysis is consistent with contemporary accounts.

This is how Lennox A. Mills described the ethnic Chinese population before the Second World War:

By far the greater part of the population is concentrated in the towns of Victoria and Kowloon, which lie on either side of the harbour, the former on Hong Kong Island and the latter on the mainland. The rest of the Colony is sparsely inhabited by fishermen on the islands and along the coast of the New Territories, and inland by cultivators. The census of 1931 gave a population of 849,751, of which 632,815 lived in the two towns, the remainder being fishermen and cultivators. An unusual feature was the number of Chinese, 68,721, who lived in junks and sampans either in the harbour or in the sheltered bays. A large part obtained their living as lightermen or from the other work of the port.

The Chinese numbered 821,429, or 96.67 per cent of the population, and came principally from Kwangtung [Guangdong] Province. Nearly nine-tenths were dependent for their livelihood directly or indirectly upon the trade of the Colony or upon manufacturing. They ranged from wealthy merchants, shipowners and bankers through professional men, small shopkeepers, manufacturers, and clerks to domestic servants, artisans and manual labourers. A small though increasing number regard Hong Kong as their home; but the great majority retain their connection with their original birth-place in China. Even though they may live for years in the Colony they regard it merely as a temporary residence to which they have come for the purpose of making money. They intend eventually to return to their original home and in the majority of cases do so with their savings in their old age. Meanwhile they remain in touch with their families in China and revisit them periodically. Especially in the past, children born in Hong Kong were frequently sent to their relatives in China for their education and later returned to the Colony. This applies not only to the recent arrivals, but to the majority even of those settled in Hong Kong; apart from a growing minority in the towns the cultivators of the New Territories and part of those who live afloat are the only section of the population which looks upon the Colony as a permanent home. Exact figures are unobtainable; but by far the larger part of the population is migratory and not permanent.

The proximity of China fosters the situation: less than an hour by train takes the traveller across the border and a few hours by boat brings him to Macao or Canton. Prosperity in Hong Kong always brings an influx of immigrants attracted by the prospect of wages higher than are obtainable in China; while depression leads to the departure of many of the unemployed to their villages until conditions improve.

The non-Chinese, according to the census of 1931, numbered 28,322, composed of the following races:–European British subjects 14,366; other Europeans and Americans 2,036; British Indians 4,745; Japanese 2,205; local Portuguese (originally from Macao) 3,197; Eurasians 857; others 836. Of the European British subjects 7,682 belonged to the army or navy, and the remaining 6,684, apart from the civil servants, were engaged in business, as were the other Europeans, the Americans, and the Japanese (Lennox A. Mills, British Rule in Eastern Asia: A Study of Contemporary Government and Economic Development in British Malaya and Hong Kong, 1942, pp. 387-388).

Mills’s assessment of the transient nature of the Chinese population of Hong Kong was confirmed by Harold Ingrams:

“The good management of the Administration, with its aims of avoiding any embroilment in the affairs of China and of striving to adjust whatever policy comes out of Whitehall to its own business needs, has quite accidentally suited Chinese realism and individualism down to the ground. The Chinese in Hong Kong have certainly been in a position to reach the conclusion that good management without politics in Hong Kong is more profitable than politics and confusion in China, and to see that honest management with impartial law brings bigger returns than corruption, venality and nepotism. Some certainly have reasoned this way, but for my part I doubt if there are many. Most have taken it all for granted.

“The enormous migrant population has no interest in Hong Kong’s ultimate welfare at all. These people come and go as it pays them. Even the migrant, however, dislikes regimentation, and the more regimentation there is in China the more the Chinese in Hong Kong appreciates his surroundings, and, with the small exception of political fanatics, Hong Kong’s two million inhabitants proceed brisk and busy on their affairs in freedom and confidence. No one who has spent a short time there can have any doubt that the vast majority of the Chinese in Hong Kong instinctively prefer it as it is. To put it at its lowest–they would not come there if they did not. Law and order, the stability of the currency, and the enforcement of contracts are benefits not to be had everywhere in the Far East these days, and the Chinese values them, even if he does so subconsciously, to enable him to work and enjoy the fruits of his labour, knowing that he will encounter as little interference as possible. Those who have grown up there have no interest in politics …

One soon perceives that few Chinese regard Hong Kong as their home or native land. There are certainly some who regard themselves as citizens of Hong Kong and British subjects, but I doubt if I met any of whom I could say with perfect confidence that they did so to the exclusion of any connection, other than race, with China. Furthermore, although the Hong Kong born Chinese are by British law British subjects, they are also by Chinese law Chinese citizens. They appreciate Britain with their intellects, but love China with their hearts, and regard Hong Kong as part of China. It is doubtful if there are more than 5,000 who would claim British nationality unequivocally” (Ingrams 1951, pp. 244-246).

For a long time after the British takeover, the ethnic Chinese population of Hong Kong did not develop a distinct “Hong Kong identity” separate from mainland China’s. As Helen F. Siu has noted:

At the turn of the century, the political and economic boundaries between Hong Kong and the mainland were not distinct. Not only were the self-identities of Hong Kong’s residents oriented toward China, the social realities of the two places were intimately linked through a regional network of urban places” (Helen F. Siu, Remade in Hong Kong: Weaving Into The Chinese Cultural Tapestry, in Unity and Diversity: Local Cultures and Identities in China, ed. Tao Tao Liu and David Faure, 1996, p. 180).

The Chinese business elite of Hong Kong was part of a larger network of Chinese cities and ports dominated by Western business interests, which included the Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Shanghai. The Puntis as well as migrant labourers also maintained a Chinese worldview and lifestyle.

Moreover, Chinese nationalism played a pivotal role in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a base for Chinese nationalist leaders like Sun Yat-sen and Wang Jingwei, and the Hong Kong Chinese community contributed funds to Sun Yat-sen’s attempt to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, which ultimately led to the fall of the empire and the founding of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1912. The Hong Kong community was also involved in the anti-Japanese protests of 1915, the protests against the conditions imposed on China by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and the anti-British Guangzhou-Hong Kong strike and boycott of 1925-1926 (Tsang 2007, pp. 75-80, 91-100).

However, one pivotal event in Chinese history suddenly changed the geopolitical situation of Hong Kong, leading to the emergence of a distinct “Hong Kong identity”.

2 The Hong Kong Identity after 1945

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong overthrew the government of the ROC, which fled to Taiwan. The founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, put Hong Kong at the forefront of the Cold War.

The Communist regime soon launched a series of ideological mass campaigns, began to persecute landlords or alleged landlords, intellectuals and dissidents; it further implemented a wide range of Soviet-style economic policies to bring the entire economy under state control, including the collectivization of land, which proved to be extremely unpopular. Besides, Mao Zedong plunged the country into turmoil when he initiated the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

The chaos of the first decades of Chinese Communist rule led to the diminished appeal of Chinese nationalism in Hong Kong. Millions of mainland Chinese fled to Hong Kong after 1949 to escape Communist terror and poverty. As a consequence, the Hong Kong population grew rapidly.

According to the Hong Kong Annual Digest of Statistics compiled by the Hong Kong government, Hong Kong’s population grew from 1.8 million in 1947 to almost 2.8 million just ten years later. By 1967 the population had risen to nearly 3.9 million, and by 1990 it had grown to 5.7 million (Hong Kong Digest of Statistics, 1967, p. 14, Hong Kong Digest of Statistics, 1997, p. 3).

Prior to 1950, people could move freely from China to Hong Kong and vice versa. But in 1950, as it became clear that Chinese refugees would not return to China to live under Communism, the British decided to close the border and adopted permanent immigration restrictions (Tsang 2007, p. 180).

The relative isolation between Communist China and Hong Kong, alongside Hong Kong’s economic take-off and the colonial government’s increasing attention to the well-being of the ethnic Chinese community, contributed to the gradual development of a Hong Kong identity.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Hong Kong society was by no means free from conflicts and confrontations, and the politics of China still played a role. For instance, there were several violent clashes involving supporters of the Chinese Communist Party and of the ROC government. Those scuffles were related to the larger context of the conflict between the PRC and the ROC, and had no roots in local Hong Kong politics. In the mid-1960s, however, the situation began to change.

In April 1966 demonstrations and riots took place in protest against a fare increase by the Star Ferry. The disturbances were a turning point, because it was the first time that a generation of young ethnic Chinese people who had grown up in Hong Kong had voiced their anger and dissatisfaction with local economic and social conditions.

In a report titled “Kowloon Disturbances 1966: Report of Commission of Inquiry”, the British colonial government explained that there was “evidence of a growing interest in Hong Kong on the part of youth and a tendency to protest at a situation which their parents might tacitly accept.”

The report concluded that the actions were “spontaneous and unco-ordinated and that there appeared to be no central organization or control” and “no indication of any political or triad control or exploitation of the situation”. It also stressed the fact that the participants in the protests belonged to a “new generation growing up who have never had experience outside Hong Kong”.

The Commission of Inquiry believed that the disturbances were caused by a “failure of communication” between the public and the government (quoted in: Lui Tai-Lok Lui, Social Movements and Public Discourse on Politics, in Hong Kong’s History: State and Society under Colonial Rule, ed. Ngo Tak-Wing, 1999, p. 104).

While the 1966 disturbances appeared to have been spontaneous, one year later new riots took place, which this time were exploited and partly coordinated by individuals acting on behalf of the Chinese Communist authorities.

The so-called “leftist riots” of 1967 began as a labour dispute which started at a factory of the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Works owned by Li Ka-shing. In May 1967 twenty-one pickets attempting to blockade the company’s factory at San Po Kong, which employed 686 workers, were arrested by the police after having refused to obey orders to disperse (Lui 1999, p. 104, Tsang 2007, p. 182).

The labour unrest was soon seized by the Chinese Communists in an attempt to subvert the British colonial government. China was at that time engulfed by the Cultural Revolution, and radical Maoist supporters sought a confrontation with the Hong Kong authorities.

Initially the Communist-orchestrated riots had a degree of popular support. However, as the Maoists’ tactics escalated into acts of terrorism and violence, the Hong Kong population began to fear that the city may be dragged into a state of chaos similar to that of mainland China. Moreover, the response of the government, which pursued a policy of “firmness without provocation”, gained the consensus of the majority of the population (Steve Tsang, ed., Government and Politics: A Documentary History of Hong Kong, 1995, p. 295).

Writing for “The Atlantic” in 1967, Maynard Parker described the situation thus:

“[T]he most remarkable fact about the Communist effort has been its complete failure to spark a responsive chord in Hong Kong’s Chinese. Unlike Burma, Cambodia, and Nepal, where Maoism has burst the bounds of the Chinese Embassy, Hong Kong is a Chinese city; it is a colony, and it is contiguous to China. It should be ripe for revolution.

Yet, throughout the entire summer, the Communists have found few compatriots at the barricades. At the most, they have turned out about 5000 supporters, and as more and more of these have deserted the ranks, the Communists have been forced to pay bums, teddy boys, and sacked striking workers in order to put rioters into the streets …

Instead of the Communists acting and the government reacting, the government has allowed the Communists to act, waited patiently for the public to demand action, and only then moved against the Maoists with the applause of the community ringing in their ears …

“… British propaganda and police work have carried the day, but the battle remains far from over. Small-scale riots still break out intermittently; terrorist attacks against public buildings and government employees grow in intensity; within the last weeks more than 1500 bombs have been planted. Although most have been duds, some have exploded, and civilian casualties from bombings have become a new fact of life in Hong Kong (Maynard Parker, Report: Hong Kong, The Atlantic, November 1967).

An internal Hong Kong government report issued in 1968 described the situation as follows:

“The basic aims of both factions [the moderates and the extremists of the Chinese Communists in Hong Kong], so far as they have been formulated, are probably similar: to force the Government into a position of subservience to communist domination. But while the moderates, dragged unwillingly into the struggle, would wish to see this achieved by peaceful means that would not affect the continuing prosperity of Hong Kong, the extremists were prepared to go to any lengths to achieve this result even if it meant the destruction of the Colony as such and its integration with China …

Despite their expectations of mass support, those who took an active part in confrontation remained a tiny minority of the population. It was not a popular course of riots or other incidents and a further four were members of the public who died at the hands of the communists; were rioters shot in the act by the Police; five died from injuries received in the course of riots; and one died in Police custody.

The man who died in Police custody was Mr. Lee On and a Police corporal and two constables were subsequently charged with his murder. At their trial they were convicted of manslaughter; they appealed and at 31 December [1967] the case was pending. The decision to take proceedings against these men met with considerable public opposition based on the proposition that the Police had been subjected to such vicious attacks by the communists that they could not be blamed and should not be punished if they overstepped the law in retaliation. It was also claimed that Police would be seriously undermined if these men were punished. These arguments were clearly unacceptable: in a charge of such gravity no exceptions could be made if law and order were to be maintained. The morale of the Police was not affected

Central to the whole course of these events has been the attitude of the overwhelming majority of the people of Hong Kong. At the start of their assault, the Communists undoubtedly expected that considerable numbers could be attracted to their cause, or at least could be kept neutral by a combination of dislike of the authorities, ‘patriotism’ and intimidation. In the event, the people of Hong Kong rallied strongly behind their Government and openly and freely made clear their opposition to the Communists’ activities (quoted in: Tsang 1995, pp. 295-296).

By the end of 1967 the Communists had lost any public sympathy that they had initially enjoyed. The Communists’ violent acts backfired. Instead of rising up against the British, the Hong Kong population, facing the prospect of chaos, instability and political upheaval akin to mainland China’s, rallied behind the colonial government (see Lui 1999, p. 104).

The 1967 riots were a turning point in Hong Kong’s history. They ended any meaningful ideological political influence of the Chinese Communist government on Hong Kong’s ethnic Chinese community. They also prompted the British colonial government to improve its communication channels with the Hong Kong public, and to provide better services and welfare to the people.

The period following the end of the riots also coincided with Hong Kong’s economic take-off, which propelled the colony to one of the wealthiest and most advanced societies in the world.

After the 1967 riots, Hong Kong Governor David Trench created the City District Officer (CDO) scheme. Modelled after the District Officers in the New Territories that had existed for half a century, the new CDOs were political officers tasked with “mak[ing] themselves as accessible as possible to the people in their districts”, assessing “the overall impact of government policies” and “explain[ing] these policies as well as the difficulties and the achievements of the Government to ordinary people”.

The government introduced compulsory free primary education and replaced the Secretary of Chinese Affairs with the title of Secretary for Home Affairs, a reform that ended the traditional discriminatory policy of regarding the interests of the ethnic Chinese community as a separate issue from the overall administration of the colony.

Trench’s reforms were important, yet relatively limited in scope. The next Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Murray MacLehose, would prove to be a much more charismatic politician, who would introduce a wide range of reforms and policies, and who would be able to implement an effective communication strategy between the government and the Chinese community (Tsang 2007, pp. 180-191).

MacLehose was appointed at the end of 1971. Due to the large influx of immigrants from China, one of Hong Kong’s major issues was the shortage of housing. In 1972 MacLehose announced a ten-year housing policy to provide “permanent self-contained accomodation, in a reasonable environment, for virtually everyone in Hong Kong.”

The Governor believed that supplying mass housing to citizens would not only create social stability, but also boost economic growth, employment and consumption through the expansion of the construction sector. By 1983, 40% of the Hong Kong population lived in government housing estates (John Carroll, A Concise History of Hong Kong, 2007, p. 161).

Oi Man Estate, a public housing project from the mid-1970s (photo by Chong Fat via Wikimedia Commons)

In order to tackle the issue of widespread corruption, which undermined people’s trust in government, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was established in February 1974. The ICAC became one of the success stories of the MacLehose’s administration, quickly improving the quality and efficiency of the colonial government.

MacLehose also expanded labour regulation and welfare. The Employment Ordinance, which regulated individual contracts of employment, protection of wages and set minimum labour standards, had already been enacted in 1968.

The MacLehose administration further passed the Employee’s Compensation Ordinance and adopted a series of industrial safety regulations. It also created a Labour Tribunal to settle disputes between empoyers and workers. In 1975, the Labour Relations Ordinance was passed to facilitate labour dispute resolution through the intervention of the Labour Department or a government-appointed agent (Ng Sek-Hong, Hong Kong Labour Law in Retrospect, in Hong Kong Reintegrating with China: Political, Cultural and Social Dimensions, ed. Lee Pui-Tak, 2001, pp. 134-136).

Another prestige project of the MacLehose administration was the construction of a metro system.

Like other policies of the MacLehose era, the idea for an underground network was not new, but he was the one who pursued it with more energy than his predecessors and had the charisma to market his policies effectively.

As far back as 1966 the Hong Kong government had commissioned a study on the possibility of building a metro stystem. The report concluded that Hong Kong needed to build a $3,404 million rapid transit system, or a more expensive roads system, within 16 years in order to manage the level of traffic, which had become a major issue that was expected to have adverse effects on the economy if it was not addressed.

On 7 June 1972, the Hong Kong government announced its plan to construct a $6,000 million underground railway system. In 1975 the Mass Transit Railway Corporation was established with the purpose of constructing and managing under “prudent commercial principles” the metro system. The Hong Kong government was its sole shareholder.

On 30 September 1979 Governor MacLehose attended the inauguration ceremony of the MTR at Kwun Tong station.

The Hong Kong MTR has become a symbol of the city and a model for public transportation all over the world, thanks to its 99.9% on-time rate, its profitable “rail plus property” business strategy, and its relatively low fare prices.

As the government expanded its administration and services and became more responsive to the needs of the Chinese community, the colony’s economy was booming. The below data from the World Bank DataBank illustrate annual GDP growth, GDP per capita growth, and GDP per capita.

The anti-corruption campaign, the reorganization of the administration, the implementation of a welfare state, the elimination of previous racially-motivated discriminatory policies, spectacular economic growth, and improved education changed the relationship between the colonial government and the Hong Kong ethnic Chinese. People’s support for the government was strengthened by the fact that Communist China was economically backward and politically unstable and repressive.

The Hong Kong government successfully reformed itself from an old-style colonial administration based on “benevolent authoritarianism” to a “consensus” and “consultation” government that was responsive to the needs of the citizens (Lui 1999, p. 110).

As a result, in the 1970s the previous cultural nationalist and identitarian politics of confrontation between the Hong Kong Chinese and the colonial government were replaced by demands for allocation of resources. Chinese nationalism and the quest for identity faded away, and the attempts to challenge the colonial administration all but stopped. The Hong Kong Chinese began to view the government as legitimate as long as it provided order, prosperity, stability and welfare benefits.

Whenever the people criticized the government, it was mostly on the basis of specific demands for entitlements that they expected from the authorities, rather than from the standpoint of Chinese “patriotism” (see ibid., pp. 110-111).

Paradoxically, the colonial government managed to create in Hong Kong what historian Steve Tsang (2007) has called the “best possible government in the Chinese political tradition”. As he explained:

The British did not set out to fulfil this Chinese aspiration. The method of delivering it, as prescribed by Confucius and his disciples over two millennia, namely the setting up of a government composed of Confucian gentlemen-officials, was irrelevant to the British. Nonetheless, building on the basis of its own record and responding steadily to changes after 1945, the government produced a paradox. While it remained an essentially British colonial administration, it also fulfilled the basic conditions for such a government, namely, efficiency, fairness, honesty, benevolent paternalism, and non-intrusion into the lives of ordinary people” (Tsang 2007, p. 197).

We shall keep in mind this definition of the best possible government in the Chinese tradition, because after the handover to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997, the Hong Kong government gradually departed from the model of governance implemented by the British.

As Hong Kong society developed, the vast majority of ethnic Chinese entered the middle class. Meanwhile, a number of enterpreneurs such as Li Ka-shing amassed immense wealth and rivalled their Western counterparts. The Hong Kong Chinese felt proud of their accomplishments, and were aware of being economically equal, if not even superior, to the richest societies of the world.

Wealth also meant that more and more people were able to travel. Hongkongers who went to the West realized how developed their city had become, while those who travelled to mainland China, sometimes motivated by “patriotism”, saw a country that was poor and backward. By the 1980s, a generation of Hongkongers that had grown up in Hong Kong no longer fully or chiefly identified with China, which by all measurements of economic and political development lagged far behind the British colony (see Tsang 2007, pp. 189-192).

The identity that emerged in Hong Kong from the 1970s onwards was based on shared civic values, a common popular culture, and a blend of traditional Chinese Confucian principles and Western liberal principles. The shared values of the Hong Kong people “incorporated elements of the traditional Confucian moral code and emphasis on the importance of the family, as well as modern concepts like the rule of law, freedom of speech and of movement, respect for human rights, a limited government, a free economy, a go-getting attitude and pride in the local community’s collective rejection of corruption” (ibid., p. 194).

Unlike China and Taiwan, where national identity, as defined by the government, was imposed by the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang) respectively, the British authorities had no interest in fostering a specific nationalist ideology. As a result, Hongkongers were “relaxed about their nationality” (ibid.). At the age of 18, every Hongkonger had to choose between British and Chinese nationality, yet citizens could later switch if they changed their mind.

Steve Tsang argues that the attitude of the British authorities allowed Hongkongers to have a “dual sense of identity” – they could feel that they were Hongkongers and Chinese at the same time (ibid.).

However, we shall argue that the Hong Kong identity was far more complex than that. There coexisted many different identities within Hong Kong society, and each citizen could have multiple identities that were not mutually exclusive, but complemented each other.

For instance, as Helen Siu pointed out, the cosmopolitan identity of Hongkongers was mostly limited to the “wealthy and Westernized professional circles” (Hung 2001, p. 182).

As we have seen earlier, the rural areas of Hong Kong’s New Territories have been traditionally inhabited by the Puntis and the Hakkas. The urban-rural divide, which has existed since the end of the 19th century, never completely vanished.

Rural communities changed and became economically integrated with the urban areas. The British created large housing projects in the New Territories, altering their demographics radically. Nevertheless, traditional rural communities retained, at least partly, a distinct identity (ibid. pp. 182-183).

In 1994, for instance, Heung Yee Kuk launched the “Protecting the Native Homeland, Defending the Clans” movement to protest against legislation that had been proposed by liberal politicians and the Hong Kong government to reform the traditional patrilineal property rights of the villagers. Thousands of angry New Territories villagers took part in the protests.

While the urban politicians of Hong Kong viewed patriarchal society as a vestige from the past that had to be changed, the rural elites framed their defence of traditional society in terms of a historical and cultural identity that pre-dated the British colonial period (ibid., p. 184).

One aspect of the traditional patriarchal rights and privileges of Hong Kong’s “indigenous” people is the so-called Small House Policy dating back to 1972. The policy allows any male indigenous village who is descended through the male line from someone who in 1898 was a resident of a recognized village in the New Territories to build a house measuring a maximum of three storeys in height and 700 square feet per floor without paying a land fee. In a city with a notorious housing shortage and high real estate prices, such policies give indigeneous Hongkongers valuable privileges.

Indigenous villagers’ traditional rights were recently challeged in court. In April 2019 Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming ruled that villagers can build houses on private but not public land, as was previously permitted. Chow defined traditional rights as those that are “traceable to the rights or interests of the New Territories indigenous inhabitants before the commencement of the New Territories Lease in 1898.”

Heung Yee Kuk, the aforementioned rural advisory body, has a very conservative outlook and is a reliable ally of the Chinese Communist Party. Heung Yee Kuk’s political affiliation underscores the difference between the rural communities and the urban professional elites, who tend to have a more cosmopolitan outlook.

Apart from the rural-urban divide, Hongkongers’ identity is also determined by their class, their economic links to mainland China, and even the time when they or their ancestors immigrated to Hong Kong.

In the 1980s the Hong Kong middle class had been the beneficiary of unprecedented upward social mobility. Many Hong Kong professionals at that time might even have “illiterate parents who [had] been street-hawkers and siblings who [were] clerks and blue-collar workers” (Siu 1996, p. 186).

The sophisticated and cosmopolitan middle class of the economic boom years looked down on so-called “new immigrants”, i.e. people who immigrated to Hong Kong from China from the 1970s onward. According to a “Ming Pao” editorial published in April 1980, illegal Chinese immigrants who arrived in Hong Kong from 1974 to 1980 were overwhelmingly farmers from collective communes (81.7%), while only 4.6% and 5.2% were, respectively, artisans and students. The majority of them were males between the ages of 15 and 30. These individuals from poor areas of China appeared to the Hong Kong middle class unsophisticated, lacking social skills and qualifications, and unable to adapt to Hong Kong’s law and order and urban etiquette.

In the 1980s, the number of legal Chinese immigrants averaged 20,000 to 50,000 per year. Unlike illegal immigrants, legal ones had already family in Hong Kong or brought their family members with them. They often settled in the lower middle income areas of Kowloon and the New Territories. Their children fared poorly in school and a high number of them ended up in gangs and was prone to committing criminal acts (ibid., pp. 187-188).

However, the growth of the mainland Chinese economy in the 1980s gave new immigrants opportunities to improve their social status. Many of them became links between the economy of Hong Kong and mainland China. Though they acquired Hong Kong IDs, they might not identify with Hong Kong, but with China, which was the source of their economic prosperity (ibid., pp. 188-189).

As we can see from these examples, during the last 30 years of British colonial rule the Hong Kong identity was complex and ambiguous. However, all different identities, from the cosmopolitan professionals to the rural communities, from the new immigrants to the dwellers of small outlying islands, coexisted peacefully. The colonial government had no interest in telling people how they should feel about their identity.

There is indeed evidence that the overwhelming majority of the Hong Kong people, even those who identified with China, appreciated the positive sides of the British colonial government.

First of all, after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, Hongkongers feared that the Communist regime might do to them what it had done to mainland Chinese students and activists.

It is estimated that one sixth of the whole Hong Kong population marched against the Beijing regime following the 1989 crackdown (ibid., p. 181).

Secondly, the approval rating of the last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, was 55% when he took office in 1992 and 60% when he left office in 1997. By contrast, the approval rating of all Hong Kong Chief Executives after 1997 declined during their term office and was far below Patten’s. Incumbent Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been the most unpopular Hong Kong leader since 1997, with an approval rating of just 24.6% as of last August.

Thirdly, after 1967 Hong Kong experienced no major riots or civil unrest for 30 years, a clear sign that the government had become responsive enough to the needs of the citizens. Since 1997, however, a series of major protests have taken place.

There is abundant evidence that Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s politics is gradually undermining Hong Kong’s freedoms.

By far the most intense protests since 1967 were sparked by Carrie Lam’s proposal to enact an extradition bill with mainland China which would have allowed the Communist authorities to ask for the extradition of any person whom they might suspect of having committed a crime. Since the Chinese judiciary is controlled by the Communist Party, and mainland Chinese law penalizes free speech, Hongkongers regarded the bill as an attempt to restrict their civil liberties.

On June 16, an estimated 2 million people took to the streets to protest against the extradition proposal. This demonstrates that a large number of Hongkongers remain committed to the values of governance that developed prior to 1997.

3 Hong Kong identity and Chinese nationalism

As we have seen, the “Hong Kong identity” is complex and cannot be reduced to a simplistic nationalist pattern. Different groups may have a very different identity depending on their social status, business links to mainland China, and ancestry. Considering all that, can we then talk of a “Hong Kong identity” at all?

We shall argue that a Hong Kong identity indeed exists, and that it is based on two common features inherited from the last 30 years of British administration and shared by the vast majority of the population:

  1. Identification with the values of the Hong Kong administration: rule of law, efficiency, fairness, honesty, benevolent paternalism, non-intrusiveness, stability and economic prosperity;
  2. Freedom to choose one’s own individual identity without any imposition of a nationalist, religious or class ideology on the part of the government.

During the British colonial period, whatever each citizen’s personal views regarding identity and Hong Kong’s relationship with China were, they all coexisted peacefully. The Hong Kong identity was not exclusive, but based on common civic values.

Since 1997, however, the Chinese Communist Party has launched an assault on the Hong Kong identity and actively promoted Chinese nationalism. As we shall explain in a future article, the CCP’s definition of nationalism basically means loyalty to the CCP itself.

In 2012, attempts by the Hong Kong government to introduce “patriotic education” in schools met with fierce resistance. The state-sponsored promotion of nationalism as defined by the CCP has been a major point of contention between many Hongkongers and Beijing. Despite popular protests, the CCP continues to promote nationalism as a central tool for gaining support and unquestioned loyalty to the one-party regime in the same manner as it does in mainland China.

The CCP’s attitude can be best illustrated by a white paper that the State Council of the Chinese Communist government released in June 2014 during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement:

As contacts between the mainland and the HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] become closer and mutual understanding between the people deepens, the Hong Kong compatriots are getting a stronger sense of national identity and commitment. They pay closer attention to the development of the country and take an active part in the country’s modernization drive …

The central government will continue to support the HKSAR government in forming a closer working relationship with relevant government departments at both the central and local levels, support the Hong Kong compatriots in having more exchanges with people on the mainland, and support Hong Kong in playing its unique role in the country’s endeavor of comprehensive reform and opening up. The central government encourages Hong Kong to carry out broader and deeper exchanges and cooperation with the mainland, and make concerted efforts with the mainland to build the common home of the Chinese nation …

Meanwhile, it is necessary to stay alert to the attempt of outside forces to use Hong Kong to interfere in China’s domestic affairs, and prevent and repel the attempt made by a very small number of people who act in collusion with outside forces to interfere with the implementation of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong. A proper handling of these issues and further implementation of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong will further demonstrate the strong vitality of the policy of “one country, two systems” (my emphasis).

The white paper shows how the Chinese Communist government frames nationalism as an issue of loyalty to its authority and acceptance of its absolute power and policies. Furthermore, it demonstrates how the regime isolates and criminalizes individuals who express their viewpoints on issues of governance, blaming “foreign forces” for masterminding dissent. In typical CCP fashion, the white paper does not describe a real situation, but simply states the situation it desires and expects the people to conform to it unquestioningly.

Identity, which in the British colonial period was based on individual self-determination and had nothing to do with politics, has been politicized by the CCP.

As a result, the urban, cosmopolitan classes, as well as other groups that do not identify with China or the Communist Party, found themselves discriminated against, marginalized and accused of lack of “patriotism”. Those who profess their allegiance to the CCP enjoy the protection of the regime, while those who do not face persecution.

While the British never persecuted the pro-Beijing camp or those who expressed no loyalty to the colonial government, the CCP and the CCP-controlled Hong Kong government have taken sides against anyone who challenges Beijing’s authority.

For example, back in the 1990s Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai was forced out of his own company Giordano after he criticized the CCP. His media conglomerate has faced attacks, and some Hong Kong companies have refused for years to advertise on his newspapers and websites for fear of angering the CCP.

After Jimmy Lai visited the US and met with US officials, including vice president Mike Pence, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry slammed Hongkongers who seek cooperation with the West, saying: “They are willing to act as a political tool for foreign powers to oppose China and cause chaos in Hong Kong. … Their ugly face and despicable acts would be despised by all Chinese people, including Hong Kong compatriots. These national scum and Hong Kong sinners will always be nailed to the pillar of shame in our history”.

What the CCP did not mention is that Hong Kong citizens have no legal avenue to influence the government, and that the CCP-controlled Hong Kong government, unlike its British predecessor, is not responsive to the public and doesn’t seek to govern by consensus.

Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s largest airline, has sacked employees because of their support for the anti-extradition bill protests.

It is clear that since 1997 the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to impose its own version of national identity, which is tied to absolute loyalty to the Party itself. In a society where identity and allegiance has for almost half a century been flexible, pragmatic and based on individual self-determination, the imposition of such ideological requirements was bound to spark opposition.


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