Newspaper article International New York Times

A Hong Kong Identity, Apart from China ; Beijing's Policies Anger Residents Who See Local Culture Being Attacked

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Hong Kong Identity, Apart from China ; Beijing's Policies Anger Residents Who See Local Culture Being Attacked

Article excerpt

Many Hong Kongers who celebrated the end of British colonial rule now say they prefer to identify with the mother city rather than the motherland.

If there is one phrase that has come to define the protests that have swept across Hong Kong in the last week and a half, appearing on handwritten billboards and T-shirts, and heard in rally speeches and on radio shows, it is this: "Hong Kong People."

"I wouldn't say I reject my identity as Chinese, because I've never felt Chinese in the first place," said Yeung Hoi-kiu, 20, who sat in the protest zone at the government offices on Monday night. "The younger generations don't think they're Chinese."

More than 90 percent of Hong Kong residents are ethnically Chinese. But ask residents here how they see themselves in a national sense, and many will say Hong Kong first -- or even Asian or world citizen -- before mentioning China.

The issue of identity is one that the Chinese Communist Party has grappled with since Britain turned over control of this global financial capital to China 17 years ago. But what the student-led protests show is that Beijing's efforts have backfired, helping turn the issue into an occasionally explosive problem as members of an entire generation act on their sense of alienation from China and its values.

Officials in Beijing began recognizing the problem years ago and tried in 2012 to impose a patriotic education curriculum in the schools. By then it was too late. Mr. Yeung and his peers saw the move as China's mounting another assault on Hong Kong, which has a population of 7.2 million. They took to the streets in a prelude to the movement known as the Umbrella Revolution, the biggest challenge to the party's authority in years.

The current conflict has served only to bolster Hong Kong's identity, already strengthened in recent years by what many residents saw as intensifying attacks from China against its culture, political values and economic well-being. There was a growing sense in Hong Kong, especially among the young, that it was being "mainland-ized," whether through the migration of Chinese or through the party's insistence that judges must love China. Many of those who were proud to see 156 years of British colonial rule end in 1997 as Hong Kong returned to China now say they prefer to identify with the mother city rather than the motherland.

"We don't want to associate ourselves with Communist China," said Euler Cheung, 38, as he stood one night in the main protest tent in the Mong Kok neighborhood, surrounded by police officers and shadowy, hostile men. "They destroyed the Chinese culture."

The spark of the Umbrella Revolution is political: Demonstrators want Beijing to grant Hong Kongers a free and direct election of the chief executive in 2017. But the passions that have driven people into the streets are rooted in the desire to preserve an identity distinct from China -- in areas like rule of law, freedom of speech and of the press, financial infrastructure, anticorruption institutions, education, Cantonese language, and Western influence.

Many of those values and institutions are derided as subversive by the Communist Party and are not tolerated. It is an increasingly untenable contradiction that arises from the "one country, two systems" principle created to guide Beijing's governance after 1997, when Hong Kong was labeled a special administrative region. Under President Xi Jinping, many Hong Kongers have, to their alarm, witnessed the party growing more hostile to the values they embrace.

But the seeds of the identity crisis were planted before Mr. Xi. In the last decade, policy proposals by Beijing that aimed to impose the kind of party ideology and control familiar to mainlanders -- including an antisubversion bill and the patriotic-education curriculum -- ignited large protests. That forced Chinese officials to shelve the plans. More recently, a ruling in August by Beijing on the 2017 election law and a report released in June that sought to redefine main elements of governance -- for example, insisting that judges be patriotic -- have provoked fiery criticism. …

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