‘One Country, Two Nationalisms’: The Identity Crisis Behind Hong Kong’s Turmoil – The New York Times

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HONG KONG — When Alan Yau was growing up in the Hong Kong of the 1990s and 2000s, it was a city where identity was rooted in worldliness and prosperity. People felt free to consider themselves Hong Kongers, Chinese and world citizens all at once.

But lately, many have shifted to a more closed, inward-looking identity, said Mr. Yau, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Flags and anthems, symbols of national-style identity that were once of little use to those in his cosmopolitan social circles, have become increasingly common.

Hong Kongers had always been proud, but there is something new: a feeling of besiegement, and from much more than mainland China’s authoritarian leaders.

Hong Kong’s eruption into monthslong protests may have been the result not only of Beijing’s overreach, but also of seismic changes in Hong Kong identity itself, according to new research and opinion polling.

Economic upheaval and a surge of immigration put Hong Kong’s traditional identity under tremendous pressure.

As a result, many developed a new kind of identity — one that is more strongly felt as well as narrower and more combative. Being Hong Konger and being Chinese, long complementary, suddenly came to feel exclusive.

This turned the region into a powder keg that one scholar called “one country, two nationalisms” — an allusion to the “one country, two systems” policy that was meant to protect Hong Kong’s status within China.

So when pro-Beijing lawmakers pushed a bill to allow extradition to mainland China, it struck many as an attack not just on their rights but on their distinct identity at a moment when it already appeared vulnerable.

The backlash that followed has widened divisions among Hong Kongers.

While the city might appear united, surveys suggest that its residents are growing more distrustful of cultural outsiders and more polarized by ethnicity, age and class. Locals describe families torn apart by political differences. At protests, scuffles break out with growing frequency.

“When how we define ourselves got threatened, the issue exploded,” said Mr. Yau.

Looking back on the economic and cultural changes that preceded his city’s mass uprising, he said, “It’s all related.”

Dislocation and Threat

Identity crises often begin with a loss of status. Something causes the social hierarchy to reshuffle, with some social class losing out. Its members, feeling threatened, rally behind their group identity, causing it to feel more important just as it is also in doubt.

In Hong Kong, this started with an influx of money from mainland China’s ballooning economy. Hong Kong became China’s hub for financial services and a conduit for trade. And newly rich Chinese poured money into local real estate.

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CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

That drove up the cost of living, triggering a housing crisis.

Poorer residents were cushioned somewhat by housing subsidies. So were some blue-collar and service workers, whose industries got a bump from Chinese arrivals.

But Hong Kong’s traditionally dominant social class — educated, white-collar professionals — was hit hard. Wages stalled or declined. What they made bought far less. Many became less well-off than their parents had been.

Some, Mr. Yau said, had concluded, “The Hong Kong dream doesn’t work anymore.”

Members of that group have transformed their political views, according to research by Stan Hok-Wui Wong, a social scientist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

They have become more skeptical of mainland China and people who come from there, Mr. Wong found. They hold more tightly to Hong Konger identity. And many joined Hong Kong’s nascent localist movement, which advocates political autonomy and cultural distinctiveness from mainland China.

High-income workers who rent their homes, Mr. Wong found, became the most likely to support localist opposition parties. And sure enough, they are disproportionately represented at protests and among activists.

These changes are strikingly visible in Tin Shui Wai, a suburb of high-rise housing a stone’s throw from the border with mainland China.

“They think Hong Kong has lost its future,” said Jacky Ma, a 44-year-old technician who had joined a protest here.

Friends with good jobs, doctors and managers, now scrape by, he said. His son studied as a radiotherapist, but struggled for work.

“They’re miserable,” he said. “As mainlanders buy apartments here, prices have become difficult to afford. So the conflict is about, first, jobs. Then housing. And then life.”

It is common to hear problems linked back to immigration and tourism from mainland Chinese, which surged as Beijing lifted travel restrictions.

The numbers are staggering. One in seven residents is a mainlander who arrived after 1997. Mainland tourists have multiplied from about two million per year to 40 million, sometimes more.

Neighborhoods feel less cohesive and less familiar, Mr. Ma said. Immigrant families, who mostly speak Mandarin, rarely mix with Cantonese-speaking natives. Many believe the immigrants are changing local culture for the worse.

This combination of demographic change and economic dislocation can trigger something called sociotropic threat, in which people reshape their identities and politics around a sense of us-versus-them.

To Mr. Ma, the link to Hong Kong’s loss of freedoms seemed obvious.

“Many times you see the government’s policies, and who are they for? Mostly new immigrants,” Mr. Ma said.

‘A Time When We Need to Choose’

The result has been a new rally-around-the-flag mentality. Though Hong Kong is not a nation, being Hong Konger took on, for some, the characteristics of what is typically called nationalism.

Brian C.H. Fong, a political scientist at the Education University of Hong Kong, has dated the change to 2009, when Beijing began a campaign to cultivate Chinese identity here, as part of its effort to reintegrate the territory.

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CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The campaign, coinciding with erosions of Hong Kong’s autonomy and socioeconomic order, backfired, Mr. Fong has written, triggering “waves of countermobilization” — like the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests in 2014 — as Hong Kongers asserted “a peripheral nationalism” that is defiantly Hong Konger.

The result has been “one country, two nationalisms,” Mr. Fong wrote.

Chinese identity, once complementary or even essential to being a Hong Konger, suddenly became a threat, just as nationalism grew stronger on the mainland, in propaganda and events like October’s celebration of the People’s Republic’s founding.

“You cannot have two national identities that represent the same territory,” Mr. Yau said, adding that, in the eyes of many here, “it’s become a time when we need to choose.”

Recent surveys conducted by Ying-yi Hong, a prominent social psychologist, shed light on how that set up Hong Kong for this year’s protests.

When people rally behind an identity that feels under threat, they tend to divide the world into what psychologists call in-groups and out-groups. Ms. Hong found that the extradition bill had led many to mentally reassign Hong Kong’s government from in-group to out-group.

“So the more you identify as a Hong Konger, the more you distrust the government,” she said. “You see the Hong Kong government as ‘other.’”

Hong Kongers’ hardened identity may also have led them to reclassify another faction: mainland Chinese immigrants.

Ms. Hong examined attitudes toward mainlanders with a series of implicit association tests, which use rapid-fire word association prompts to measure subconscious prejudices.

“We found that implicit bias is very strong — even stronger than white prejudice against African-Americans,” she said.

At the protest in Tin Shui Wai, the suburb, Mito Wong, a financial worker married to Mr. Ma, saw the immigrants as extensions of the threat from Beijing.

“They might have already been half-brainwashed by the Chinese government in the mainland,” she said. “They don’t want to integrate.”

She described immigrants and native-born as locked in competition for housing subsidies or slots in competitive schools. Only the locals truly embraced Hong Kong and its values, she said.

“They just see Hong Kong as a steppingstone,” she said. “Make some money, then go back to the mainland.”

Us and Them

When societies organize around us-versus-them identities, immigrants are often the first cast as outsiders, but rarely the last. As fault lines open, societies can polarize.

Ms. Hong’s study found emerging divisions toward local government. Though few support the government’s handling of the current crisis, many still consider it part of Hong Konger identity.

To these people, who skew older, it is the protesters who are attacking Hong Kong identity by clashing with the police — an increasingly divisive issue.

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CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Many protesters face another front line at home. Baby photos and dinner plans increasingly intersperse with bitter arguments over politics.

At a rally in central Hong Kong, Stephanie Cheng, a 20-year-old student, didn’t flinch when riot police officers stormed the crowd. But she deflated when asked about family text messages.

Her mother, initially supportive, had grown angry when protesters turned against the police. The two feuded over a viral Facebook post accusing protesters of burning cars.

“Many families are divided. I see this among my students,” Ms. Hong said. “And now they cannot even talk to each other..”

Such divisions appear to be widening rapidly with clashing interpretations of Hong Kong identity.

“I know lots of local families that have kicked out kids over political disagreements, because they joined the protests,” said Ms. Wong, the protester.

Over a recent holiday, students at Mr. Yau’s university coordinated “refugee” dinners for those who didn’t feel comfortable going home, he said.

Hong Kong may even be catching a disease that has plagued the United States: partisan polarization.

“I’m experiencing this myself. I’m yellow and my mother is blue, deep blue,” Mr. Yau said, referring to the colors associated with Hong Kong’s main political factions. “We no longer have a common ground.”

Such divisions are especially perilous for Hong Kong, he said, because there can be no underlying, agreed-upon national identity in a place that has never been a nation.

“In the United States, American identity is a given,” he said. “You don’t need to question it. We cannot say the same thing about Hong Kong. We can no longer define what is a Hong Konger anymore.

“That is the struggle.”

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