The vast majority of Hong Kong people are ethnically Chinese. But if you’ve ever asked a Hongkonger how they see themselves, you’ll know the answer isn’t quite that simple.
What 20 years of polls tell us about Hong Kong's trust in Beijing
That’s because being Chinese has a lot of meanings, and one of them is political.
Hong Kong people have distanced themselves from a Chinese identity, and researchers have identified the main factor: a loss of trust in Beijing.
That’s a finding from a paper published last month by the City University of Hong Kong, which analyzed 20 years of opinion polls conducted by the University of Hong Kong.
The researchers found that socio-economic factors, such as age and class, or grievances over livelihood issues did not adequately explain why Hong Kong people’s sense of Chinese identify had weakened.
What mattered in explaining the trend are “people's feelings towards – their trust in – the central government,” Linda Li, the lead researcher and a political scientist at City University, told Inkstone.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, is a part of China that was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and eventual democratic elections when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
In 2014, after years of talks and protest marches failed to bring about electoral reform, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators occupied streets in the city to demand freer local elections in what became known as the Umbrella Revolution.
The strength of Hong Kong people’s national identity, having peaked at above 8 points (on a scale of 10) in 2008 ahead of China’s first Olympics, fell sharply during and after the protests to a little over 6.5, as the Chinese government denied protesters’ requests.
The drop was especially sharp among the youngest group of respondents (18 to 30 years old), researchers noted in the paper, which was co-authored by Christoph Steinhardt of University of Vienna and Kin On Li of City University.
Last month, President Xi Jinping made explicit in a speech last month his support for Hong Kong to “strengthen the national identity and patriotism” of its citizens.
And the Hong Kong authorities are trying to enact a law that would punish people who insult the Chinese national anthem with prison sentences of up to three years.
But hard measures like this, democracy advocates said, would do nothing to help repair Hong Kong people’s trust in Beijing.
“They’ll only further distance younger people from China,” said Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 protests and a founder of the pro-democracy Demosisto party.
To regain his trust, he said, Beijing must let Hong Kong people run Hong Kong, as it has promised.
A positive-sum game?
In the aftermath of the unfruitful 2014 protests, some democracy campaigners have turned to advocating independence, appealing to people’s sense of local identity and highlighting the differences between the city and the country.
But an important finding from the paper was that despite these efforts, Hong Kong people’s local identity had not significantly strengthened, and did not seem to be to blame for their weakened national identity.
“People seem to talk about people becoming less Chinese because they’re ‘too Hong Kong’,” Li said.
“Our data reminds us that that’s actually not the case.”
The researchers found that the strength of Hong Kong identity had “hardly budged” in the 20 years since 1997, the year of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China.
The researchers said that people with strong Chinese identity were likely to report a strong Hongkonger identity, and vice versa.
In other words, if Beijing manages to gain Hong Kong’s trust then it’s a win for all identities: Chinese and Hong Kong alike.