Hong Kong at a Crossroads: Rising Localism

At the 20th anniversary of its return to China, Hong Kong’s future seems rather uncertain. The ‘one country, two systems’ formula designed by Deng Xiaoping, and reassured by Jiang Zemin in 1997 was to be ‘unswervingly’ implemented.

By Anne Luo and Joanna Zhao

Under a vast sky – Wong Kai Kui
Please start with enjoying a Cantopop classic and the song that marked Occupying Central in 2014


At the 20th anniversary of its return to China, Hong Kong’s future seems rather uncertain. The ‘one country, two systems’ formula designed by Deng Xiaoping, and reassured by Jiang Zemin in 1997 was to be ‘unswervingly’ implemented. The 1984 agreement between Britain and China gave Hongkongers the rights and freedoms that mainlanders still do not possess. However, to the discontent and fear of many, the ‘two systems’ seem to be weakening, with Hong Kong increasingly engulfed by the one-party state.

Many in Hong Kong take great pride in speaking Cantonese, reading and writing traditional Chinese, and in the unique culture that the city has developed. This fusion of Cantonese traditions and Western influences has produced a way of living in this bustling and vibrant metropolis, where the pace of life for most is so fast that you can barely keeping your feet on the ground. Whilst many affiliate with this distinct culture, there are few who would deny being Chinese also.

Or at least that was the case.

The political significance of ‘Chineseness’ is more and more prominent in discussions of identity in Hong Kong. In recent decades, mainland China has surpassed Hong Kong and, for that matter, most economies in the world in terms of its pace of economic development. Furthermore, its cultural output and influence is growing ever greater. The implication of this is that ‘being Chinese’ has never in recent times been so closely linked with the political regime of the strong, authoritative, and increasingly confident Chinese party-state. Those who seek to cut off ‘Chineseness’ from their identity are not denying their cultural heritage and traditions, but rather are eager to draw a clear line between ‘Hongkongers’ and the mainland regime. This is especially the case among the younger generation. A recent poll reveals that today only 3.1% of Hong Kong youths identify themselves as ‘Chinese’ or ‘broadly Chinese’, compared to 31% in 1997.


‘We are not Americans, obsessed with their democracy. We just want the Communist Party out of our affairs’, stated one Hong Kong friend of ours.

For Hongkongers, the Communist Party bears few, if any, positive connotations. Unlike mainlanders who are enjoying a higher standard of living and a more stable society, thanks to the leadership of the party — an idea that is constantly propagated to keep it in power, none of Hong Kong’s economic achievement or cultural scene owes anything to the Communist Party. If anything, for Hongkongers the exact opposite is true. Universal suffrage has been put on a halt again and again, and events such as the kidnapping of a Causeway Bay bookseller have marked the increasing erosion of the rule of law.

Many other common complaints concern mainlanders causing increasing housing prices, clearing the infant formula milk stock (many families would prefer not to risk using mainland-produced ones after the 2008 milk scandal), taking up space in public hospitals to give birth, and the often perceived ‘uneducated’ behaviours of mainland tourists in general. Like many youths in developed economies, Hong Kong’s post-90s generation is frustrated by their future. Poor job prospects, unaffordable rents and the ever-expanding wealth gap: for the first time, the new generation in Hong Kong could be worse off than their parents.

But their grievances are not just economic in nature.

A rising local identity in contrast to a mainland Chinese one

The Umbrella Movement in 2014 marked a political awakening for the younger generation, who had grown up around the time of the 1997 handover. In 2014, following the announcement by Beijing that it would refuse to allow for any measure of genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, the ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ movement began. It quickly transformed into the youth-led Umbrella Movement, named after protesters using umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray and teargas grenades fired by the police. Prominent voices during the movement espoused an idea of ‘Hong Kong first’. They called for economic welfare policies, an end to the CCP’s ideological indoctrination in the Hong Kong Education system (which started really through the moral and national education curriculum in 2012), the rectification of socio-economic injustices, and an end to the overall issue of institutionalised ‘mainlandization’. Student voices like Joshua Wong saw themselves as using ‘nonviolent means to fight for our territory’s democratic system – a simple right, promised by Beijing, to choose our own leader.’ A simple right perhaps, but it seemed that such a desire fell on deaf ears in Beijing. The three-month long protest achieved nothing. Earlier this year, Joshua Wong, alongside two other student leaders, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, were imprisoned for their involvements in the Umbrella Movement. This was no doubt part of the grand preparations for welcoming President Xi Jinping, who was due to visit Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of the handover.

“Qin Shi Huang / Emperor Xi”
A meme comparing First Emperor of the Qin’s Great Wall and Xi Jinping’s barricades during the handover celebration in Hong Kong: from barrier against nomads from the North to the barrier against his own citizens

‘Forgive me in this life for being wild and yearning for freedom’

The aftermath of the protests saw the formation of several new political parties, often led by former protesters and advocating greater autonomy for Hong Kong on a spectrum which spans from self-determination to full independence from China. Hongkongers have long enjoyed a hybrid identity of being both Chinese and Hongkongers. Yet what is emerging now is an identity shift. This is not only fuelled by political visions but also cultural distinctions against ‘Chineseness’. It is clear that amongst the younger generation, there is a shifting focus from solely economic concerns to those of more intangible political values such as the freedom of speech. They are increasingly mobilising themselves, in an attempt to ‘take back Hong Kong’s future’ and gain political agency.

Ultimately, the future of Hong Kong remains uncertain. The question is, what next? What will happen in 2047, when the ‘one country, two systems’’ 50-year framework expires? One thing is certain: the Umbrella Generation won’t stand by and wait until then. Profound anxiety over the future looms, for both Hong Kong’s political future and also the future of its individual inhabitants. The Umbrella Movement led to a realisation that Beijing is likely to become ever more flexible in its commitment to its 1984 and 1997 promises. As Wong Kai Kui sang in the band’s legendary single: ‘Forgive me in this life for being wild and yearning for freedom’, so too are the youth of Hong Kong striving for self-determination. The almost romanticised pursuit for rights and freedoms resonates more and more among young people. Stronger political consciousness and engagement are to be the hallmarks of the Umbrella Generation which, bearing the city’s future, is struggling to define itself within a myriad of cultural and political complexities.


Further Readings:



Featured Image: The 2014 Umbrella Movement occupied the streets of Hong Kong. Photo: AP


Anne Luo and Joanna Zhao are third-year students in International Relations at King’s College of London, particularly interested in East Asian affairs, IR theory, and art.


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