Hong Kong’s Identity Crisis Stretches Far and Wide, from China to OES

Viraj Shankar

Debates rage across the globe, but Hong Kong’s problems started long before 2019.

Nestled between towering mountains and one of the world’s largest natural harbors, one of the most culturally, linguistically, and ethnically complex cities has taken a violent, disruptive turn in the past few months. Hong Kong, the autonomous territory located in the southeastern part of China, is dealing with an identity crisis of unprecedented magnitude, one that has resulted in global, economic, and political ramifications. 

Protests in the city began towards the end of March, when the Government of Hong Kong introduced legislation that would permit authorities to extradite criminal fugitives that were wanted in other territories that Hong Kong does not have an extradition agreement with, such as mainland China. Upon the introduction of the bill, mass protests broke out in the city, with protestors decrying the bill’s infringement on civil liberties that are unique to Hong Kong within China. 

Since March, the protests have ballooned in both size and scope, with many citizens of Hong Kong using the bill as an example of the wider issue: China’s growing presence in the region. 

But to understand why tensions between Beijing and Hong Kong have become so deep-seated, one must go back all the way to the 1840’s, when, after a bitter war, China was forced to cede Hong Kong to the United Kingdom. The lease on Hong Kong was extended in 1898 for another 99 years, and Hong Kong was returned to China, as promised, in 1997. 

In this period of around 150 years, though, British Hong Kong and Mainland China became very different from one another. Britain turned Hong Kong into a beacon of western ideals among Asian Countries, introducing democracy and common law, among many other things. China, meanwhile, went from a political dynasty, to a republic, to a Communist state. Hong Kong emphasized economic freedom and personal liberty, while China adhered to a somewhat centrally planned economy and regulation of expression. Hence, by the time 1997 arrived, China and Hong Kong were worlds apart in almost every aspect.

To bridge this divide, Britain and China negotiated the “two systems, one country” agreement, wherein Hong Kong would retain its capitalist philosophies and autonomy, while still being a physical part of China. This agreement was meant to keep both the citizens of Hong Kong, and the government of China, content.

Yet now, 22 years later, the agreement that was meant to keep peace in the region has failed to quell protesters, who are now demanding that China fully refrain from interfering in their affairs. The protests have caused both catastrophic disruptions and extreme violence within the city, as protesters and police have engaged in a contentious showdown. Pro-China counter protestors have also taken to the street in support for the Chinese Government.

Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, has formally withdrawn the extradition bill. But the protests have continued, and show no sign of slowing down now, especially as the issue at hand moves to a wider dilemma: the inherent differences between the citizens of Hong Kong and those of Mainland China.

Internationally, the protests have sparked fierce debates and many controversies. A few months ago, Mulan star Liu Yifei sparked a public outcry when she explicitly tweeted her support for the Hong Kong police, causing a major headache for Disney. More recently, the NBA was embroiled in a public scandal involving the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Morey tweeted out a statement of support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, which led to the Chinese government cancelling NBA coverage in China.

Even here, at OES, the protests have been the subject of debate during many lunch meetings. While talking to Charlie H ‘21, who co-leads a lunch group on Citizenship in America (CIA), he noted that there were significant differences of opinion, even within our community. Charlie made clear that he believed the Chinese government has been slowly encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy, saying, “the people of Hong Kong are rightfully calling it out as violating the terms of the agreement, and pushing back.”

Speaking on the lunch meeting that he helped organize on the Hong Kong protests, Charlie noted, “The meeting was surprisingly contentious. I was certainly expecting that a majority of attendees would be generally on the side of Hong Kong, pushing for democracy and resisting Chinese encroachment, however, there were a lot of boarding students that felt differently that were from China, or had connections with the region, and expressed some pro-China sentiment.” While emphasizing the importance of holding discussions on such issues, Charlie added that it’s, “great to have a diversity of opinion, and at times it did get a little heated when differences of opinion manifested, but we kept it civil, and overall it was a good discussion.”

Reflecting on the importance of diversity in opinion, when I asked Tiffany L ‘21, who also helped lead a separate lunch meeting on topics including Hong Kong, on how we should educate citizens on the protests, she explained, “I think the best was to educate people on the Hong Kong protest is to encourage them to understand the issue from both perspectives.” She stressed the importance of abandoning biases that US citizens may hold, in order to view the situation objectively. Tiffany also added that a way forward for Hong Kongers was to also understand the positive aspects that China can bring to Hong Kong, such as bolstering their economy, and providing infrastructure projects to help link Hong Kong with other cities in China.

Yet as civil debates and violent clashes continue, Hong Kong’s central identity remains at stake. The autonomous territory has reached a crossroads in ideology, and, regardless of the eventual outcome, faces a tumultuous path forward. 

Picture Above: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/28/world/asia/hong-kong-protest-photos.html