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Caught Between Two Worlds, Hong Kong Seeks Identity

The British colony of Hong Kong, born of an armed clash between London and Beijing 150 years ago, is going through an identity crisis as it prepares to metamorphose into the richest region of China.

Some citizens of Hong Kong, which has evolved into a curious hybrid of Eastern and Western cultures, say they are losing their bearings amid the receding tides of British rule and waxing Chinese influence.

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China's state-run news media compare the return of Hong Kong after 150 years of British colonial rule to the reunion of a kidnapped child with its long-lost mother.

But four university graduates who attended a rally last week marking the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown say sentiment toward China's July 1 embrace is much more ambiguous and complex.

"Few people in Hong Kong know very much about communist China, and our history books contained about two sentences on British colonialism, so we are traveling into the future without a past," says Kelvin, a liberal-arts graduate.

As the handover approaches, some here are torn by a phenomenon called "the 1997 complex."

" 'The 1997 complex' is a mixture of happiness over Britain's departure and anxiety over what could happen under Chinese rulers who ordered the Army attack on Beijing in 1989," he added.

Kelvin and his three friends said that one symptom of the complex was a growing fear of expressing criticism of the Chinese government in public. All four spoke on condition that only their first names be used. "Two years ago, we would have talked to the press openly," said one of Kelvin's friends. "But not three weeks before the handover."

Some of Hong Kong's 6.3 million citizens say their deepest and strongest emotional links to far-off Beijing are with those who marched or died in the streets of the Chinese capital to reform the same party that will soon decide this enclave's destiny.

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A young engineer who identified himself only as John said that "the 1997 complex" had swelled participation in recent demonstrations here because of fears "they will no longer have the right to hold June 4 protests after this year's Chinese takeover."

Beijing, too, seems to fear the political union with Hong Kong, which funneled huge sums to the 1989 student leaders.

In the aftermath of the military crackdown, Hong Kong activists worked hand-in-hand with their mainland counterparts to set up an underground railroad to transport leading dissidents out of China.

While China has pledged to maintain the territory's capitalist system, the Basic Law that will govern Hong Kong includes an antisubversion rule aimed at limiting political freedoms.

Beijing is thus perceived here as holding out one hand in friendship and the other armed with arrows that could be aimed at outspoken dissidents in Hong Kong.

This schizophrenic stance has added to fears and uncertainty here about reunification with the Chinese motherland.

"In an abstract sense, most people in Hong Kong are happy to be ethnic Chinese, but we have remained cut off from China for so long that we don't really know what it means to be Chinese citizens," John says.

"There have been so many Chinas for the last decades that it's been confusing for the people of Hong Kong," says Fanny, a young businesswoman. "Are we supposed to identify with the Nationalists in Taiwan, the Communists in Beijing, or the mixed Eastern and Western cultures of Hong Kong?" she asks.

"Most mainlanders treat us like foreigners, and of course we have never been British, so many people here are wondering what it really means to be a Hong Konger," John says.

Indeed, as the last outpost of Britain's colonization of Asia, Hong Kong has one of the most bilingual societies in the region. Many residents combine an English given name with a Chinese surname, use money printed in both languages, and speak with a British accent.

Locally produced films take a distant second to American and European movies in Hong Kong's theaters, and Western rock competes with Chinese pop on the airwaves. And Hong Kong, one of the richest cities in Asia, is among the world's top-ranked in terms of using video cameras, mobile phones, and the Internet.

Despite being plugged into the world, some Hong Kong residents say they feel alienated from both the East and the West.

"Hong Kong has always been wedged between Britain and China, and our disorientation is growing as the Chinese handover approaches," says Charles, a young researcher.

Yet the vast majority of citizens remain largely apolitical, except when sparked into action by major events like the rise and fall of Chinese democracy protesters in 1989.

Justin Jin, a British-educated economist, says "the people of Hong Kong ... have long lacked a common identity." While some older residents visit Buddhist temples and a lesser number still attend Christian churches, "the main religion here is money," Mr. Jin says.

Some educated youths in Hong Kong have begun retracing the roots of Chinese history and culture, but others fill civic halls featuring Western classical music, avant-garde films, or the latest software products by Microsoft.

No one here dares to predict what Hong Kong will look like under Chinese rule. "The only time China gripped our imagination was in 1989," Kelvin says.

"Many people here felt like they were on the streets of Beijing with the students, so it's a little frightening to think that the People's Liberation Army is finally arriving in Hong Kong."

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