June 30, 2008 12:12 am

Identity: Nationalism confronts a desire to be different

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Every day before the evening news on local television stations in Hong Kong, a short video portrays Chinese athletes, helpful members of the navy and avant-garde venues for the Beijing Summer Olympic Games accompanied by the singing of the “March of the Volunteers”, China’s martial national anthem.

When introduced four years ago on a trial basis, the videos attracted complaints from Hong Kongers that they were a crude attempt at nationalistic brainwashing.

“In the beginning, most of the audience didn’t much like the idea of that kind of propaganda,” says Anthony Fung, an associate professor of journalism and communications at Chinese University of Hong Kong. But the videos have had a subtle impact. “Now people feel excited about the national song,” he says.

Hong Kong residents have always identified with China’s cultural and ethnic heritage, but have been more ambivalent about their place within the Chinese nation. Since Beijing regained control of the city from the UK 11 years ago, Hong Kong’s political future has come to depend on these new citizens assuring Beijing they see themselves as a part of “one China”.

Yet as the mainland now has many bigger and faster growing cities, Hong Kong’s place in the world economy rests on maintaining its distinctiveness.

For the most part, Hong Kong residents and their forebears came to the city from the mainland last century because of the opportunities and protections it afforded while China was roiled by war and communist campaigns. Hong Kong’s relative freedom and prosperity bred a sense of superiority.

“People felt that China was backward,” explains Anthony Cheung, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education and a member of the city’s governing cabinet.

Seeking to eradicate this attitude, the local government’s recent “national education” programme has included the anthem videos, encouragement of daily classroom hoistings of the Chinese flag, new curriculums featuring topics such as the Beijing Olympics, and exchanges with mainland schools. “The government has put in a lot of money to increase national education,” says Leung Yan-wing, co-head of the Institute of Education’s Centre for Citizenship Education, citing a reputed figure of HK$1bn ($128m).

Another HK$1bn has gone toward the city’s hosting of the equestrian events of the Beijing Games. The training centre for Hong Kong’s own Olympic team was bulldozed to make room for the events after Hong Kong leaders, keen to demonstrate enthusiasm for the national project, lobbied Chinese Olympic officials to host them.

Beijing officials have taken a low-key approach to cultivating Hong Kong’s Chinese identity, dispatching astronauts and Olympic gold medallists on goodwill tours and periodically opening military bases to the public.

These events generally draw big crowds. Public opinion surveys by the University of Hong Kong have shown a measurable increase in identification with China since the 1997 handover as well as a large rise in expression of trust in Beijing and steeply declining sympathy for the independence of Tibet and Taiwan.

Hong Kong residents also responded strongly to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province in May, donating millions of dollars to help victims.

“During times of crisis, the sense of identification will increase,” says Victor Zheng, an assistant professor with HKU’s Centre of Asian Studies.

Indeed, increased identification with China is less a function of government programmes, say researchers, and more a result of the shrinking gap between Hong Kong and the mainland thanks to China’s recent rapid economic development and greater personal contact with the mainland.

Shanghai, Shenzhen and other Chinese cities now outwardly resemble Hong Kong and many members of Hong Kong’s middle class spend considerable time on the mainland on business or leisure.

China’s rise on the world stage commands at least as much attention in Hong Kong as overseas. “People are increasingly proud of the economic development of China,” says Elaine Chan of HKU’s Centre for Civil Society and Governance.

Identifying with China, then, is, in part, siding with a winning team.

“If the Chinese win a lot of [Olympic] gold medals, I am sure Hong Kong people will be happy,” says Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University.

He estimates that between one-third and two-thirds of the spectators who crowded Hong Kong’s streets to welcome the Olympic torch relay in May were mainlanders. Talks with his students revealed that almost every one from the mainland went to demonstrate love for their country, while only some local students attended out of curiosity.

Mr Mathews also tells of a mainland student’s complaint regarding enthusiasm for Yao Ming, the towering Chinese star for the Houston Rockets in America’s National Basketball Association.

“Whether Yao Ming does well or not, we [mainland students] love him,” the student said. “The Hong Kong students only love him if he scores 30 points.’’

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