The 2008 Routledge book, “Hong Kong, China: Learning to belong to a nation,” is a deeply confused and frustrating journey through the assumptions and prejudices of those people who would allow nation and identity to be defined by political and economic elites and modern colonists, and who fail to deeply question the basis of identity and nationality.
From start to end, they attempt to first deconstruct the conception of nation into its respective forms, an ethnic/cultural/linguistic conception, and a civic/social contract/constitutional conception, before immediately accepting the former definition as the natural nation of Hong Kong without questioning any of the glaringly false underlying assumptions behind such a conception. They seem to recognize that a shared basis of political values can legitimize a national identity, or form a “society,” but they seem to miss the idea that within one “nation,” a group of people who perhaps shared many of the same national traits could form an alternative national identity based on a difference in this political basis, which is exactly what exists in Taiwan (121).
The authors, on one hand, make no attempt to hide their bias and basal acceptance of PRC hegemony, with autobiographical statements with one author prefacing the book by saying that he, “firmly believes that Hong Kong is a part of China,” and another describing himself as, “a critical advocate for Hong Kong’s belonging to China.” Throughout the book, they do not deeply question the rightness of the fate of Hong Kong, to treat the political, cultural and social entity of Hong Kong like a piece of chattel property that is forever bound to the PRC, simply because nearly two hundred years ago, this rocky outcropping was part of a Manchurian emperor’s territory and the CCP aims to inherit the “Chinese” historic legacy (149-150). This itself is built of the conception of “China” as a monolithic and continuous entity, which itself could easily be deconstructed as a vestige of a tyrannical and fragmented history, of which Guangdong’s people know all too well.
On the other hand, the last lines of the book read almost as a wish that Hong Kong will remain alienated from the PRC, that ingrained uncritical patriotism is a pernicious influence on the world, a notion at odds the acceptance of Chinese domination which is a prerequisite for the continued obeisance of the people of Hong Kong under the crumbling one country two systems (1C2S) framework. Further, the books largest hole is in its explanation of why any people needs to accept any conception of nationality, and if they do, why they should accept the PRC, an alien state with which they may share ethnic similarities, yet which is the state from which most of Hong Kongs contemporary population fled for their lives from to escape state disfunction and persecution at the hands of its communist party. These points are recognized by the authors, however, they express no value judgements, as if domination is the natural order of politics.
They make claims that national identity is a critical part of humanity, although readily admit that the concept of nationhood is only a recent historical invention. What is more frustrating, though, is their claim that Hong Kong lacks a sense of Chinese nationalism because it has been replaced by the market (126, 164). The much more obvious explanation would be that Hong Kong’s government, as well as the PRC government are considered untrustworthy and illegitimate by the vast majority of Hong Kong’s population, by their own admission; they therefore, they have substituted family ties, multiple citizenship, and self-reliance for dependence on a state they can not possibly come to love, because it is not and never has been theirs.
Instead, the present an idea of market obsession, theorizing that consumerism and commodification of life and citizenship is crude and outdated. Their evidence for this is shallow and the theory itself seriously undeveloped, and based on interviews with a small handful of participants as well as 1990s era stereotypes of Hong Kong citizens migrating abroad temporarily just long enough to score a passport before returning to milk mainlanders for their money and take advantage of the growth. The decade from 2010-2020 has shown identical social trends and behaviors on the part of PRC Chinese, who have become one of the foremost consumerist societies on the planet, while Xi Jinping and other top CCP officials regularly send their wives and children abroad to either obtain credentials from foreign schools, or establish residence in order to obtain second and third citizenships, one of the modern perks of “communist” party membership in China. Market obsession is clearly not intrinsic to Hong Kong, it is an alternative value set when one’s society has become socially or politically bankrupt.
It is unclear where their line of reasoning goes, what conclusions are to be drawn, and what the normative arguments are for political acquiescence to Beijing, something that they consider natural on the basis of a vaguely shared history and family ties to those across the border, as if this affected colonial Americans or Koreans after the war.
This book was written all the way back in 2008, before the Umbrella Movement, before the Localist candidates were disqualified, and before the 2019 protests which rocked Hong Kong to its core and brought it as close to a hostile invasion from the PLA as it probably has ever come. At the time, independence advocacy was weak, as they make a point of mentioning (12), and it seems like the prevailing mindset was that since China was economically and militarily to critical and yet so menacing, their was simply no alternative but to accept the PRC’s conception of “Chinese” nationality and submit to political domination. This acceptance is hardly questioned in the book.
They leave unexplored two broad problems with their understanding of the failure of Hong Kongs independence movement. The first is the apparent gap between their recognition of an indigenous Hong Kong identity, and the formation of a “nationality” complex surrounding that. The difference between an independent conception of a distinct people must not be predicated on realizability alone; if that were the case, ISIS cells, Uighurs, and Palestinians would have given up long ago. Therefore, why is Hong Kong’s independent mindset, culture, language, people, history, and value set insufficient in itself to constitute its own parallel nationality?
The second problem is that while they clearly recognize that a political, rather than ethnic, conception of nationality exists in the world, they make absolutely no link to the possibility of this existing in a parallel form within the context of Hong Kong, which is appalling, considering that Hong Kong’s entire population is made up of people who specifically fled there to extricate themselves from the political situation, and the consequent economic and social situation in China, and they recognize this as a potential cause for the failure to inculcate “Chinese” nationalism (15). They instead consider this in terms of a clash between “local” Hong Kong and “national” PRC identity, falsely predicating this on the idea that Hong Kong, whether because it was weaker or because it had no realistic prospects of independence, could never itself assume a national identity (41, 114, 119). This was further compounded by a history of fundamental civil rights, though not political ones, whose history predates the PRC by more than one hundred years. Therefore, the entire set of values held by the people of Hong Kong, in terms of its migrants, refugees, expectations and political culture must significantly differ than China. Regardless of shared ethnic, cultural, historical or any other ties, political differences are certainly justification to defend an independent Hong Kong nationality, but this route is left entirely unexplored by the authors.
This book was not an exploration, it was a justification for an ideology, one that relies on a conception of Chinese nationality that was invented by the PRC and accepted at face value for some inexplicable reason.
The last year has revolutionized Hong Kong, and deepened a perhaps impenetrable gulf between the two entities. Any analysis of Hong Kong must now be entirely reconceptualized, as it is now a place that is increasingly culturally distant, politically active, and socially distinct from the PRC, a master who demands absolute aquiescence from its colonies.
Staff writer: Ari B.