Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong must be given room to be different from the mainland

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South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Xi Zou

Xi Zou believes such allowances by Beijing will help ease tensions

The “umbrella movement” has brought an identity crisis into the spotlight. What we see in the current demonstrations is a cry for Hong Kong’s unique identity to be protected. Now more than ever, the younger generation clearly want to differentiate themselves from mainlanders. Ironically, this is the generation that has grown up under the “one country, two systems” paradigm.

Having grown up in Guangzhou and lived in Hong Kong between 1999 and 2004, my memory of Hong Kong people is that they are warm, open-minded and incredibly proud of Chinese traditions. One might assume that, as the mainland grows stronger, Hongkongers would want to claim more of their Chinese identity and draw closer to their fellow countrymen.

However, in the 17 years since the city reunited with China, things have taken a different direction. Hong Kong people who once valued their relationships with mainlanders have become more and more resistant to mainland influence, exacerbated by culture clashes between mainlanders and locals.

It is clear that as the government pushes strongly for integration, the need for uniqueness among Hongkongers becomes stronger. Consequently, both Hongkongers and mainlanders are driven to focus on the differences between them.

Social psychology has proven that, as humans, we need to both belong and express individuality. Critically, these two motives are in constant tension with each other; when there is too much of one, the other naturally increases to counterbalance it.

The umbrella movement is a reflection of the growing need among younger Hongkongers to be unique. This is perhaps why, important as they are, Chinese citizenship educational programmes and the way they are designed appear to be counterproductive in promoting a common identity.

The solution may seem counter-intuitive to some: to build stronger ties between Hong Kong and the mainland, we need to create more channels for Hong Kong people to express their uniqueness.

Indeed, Hong Kong has a composite identity. Hong Kong people see themselves as being part of both Western and Eastern cultures. Despite the reunion with China, there is no denying that Hong Kong’s Western influences are still strong, even in the little details of everyday city life. There are two cultural systems affecting every Hongkonger, and there needs to be recognition and appreciation for that uniqueness. This is precisely what the “one country, two systems” model promised Hong Kong people.

Understanding these dynamics in Hong Kong is crucial for the mainland’s future, too. There are clear signs that the younger generations on the mainland, including the millions graduating each year, have a growing need for self-expression that challenges the current sense of shared culture. This can be seen in the popularity of mass media talent programmes. This may mark the thin end of the wedge in a natural human desire for individuality that conflicts with the current social policies that value conformity.

The differences between Hong Kong and the mainland cannot be ignored if we are to find a happy solution. Any integration policies that set out to make the two systems into one would only push them apart. Successful integration relies not only on platforms that strengthen common ground, but also on channels for people to express their individuality.

The umbrella movement highlights an identity crisis among the younger generation. Proper handling and an understanding of the underlying triggers may yet open doors for both Hong Kong and mainland people to define, for themselves, what it means to be Chinese.

Dr Xi Zou is assistant professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School


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