Hong Kong: an own identity background for a distinct society

Pro-democracy protests take place in a territory that followed its own historical path for one and half centuries · 40% of Hong Kongese choose not to self-identify as Chinese · Cantonese and English languages' relevant role in Hong Kongese society contribute to set up a distinct scenario

Just the day China marks its National Day, Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters continue to lock horns with local authorities. Demonstrators are calling for free and universal suffrage -that is, with no candidates that are more or less controlled by Beijing in the 2017 election (read this article for a more detailed explanation). Hong Kong is certainly a distinct society within the People's Republic of China, and this is mainly because of one and a half centuries of political separation.

Several news outlets are today wondering what the relationship between Hong Kong's current, distinct political path and the territory's identity are. Writing from the former British colony, Straits Times correspondent Li Xueying says that "younger Hong Kongers are more estranged than ever from China. For post-90ers, what is at stake is the struggle for a collective local identity." The newspaper quotes some youths who refuse to identify themselves as Chinese or who praise Hong Kong's British colonial past.

How many are those denying a Chinese identity in Hong Kong? The question can be understood in two ways, Alan Chin writes on Reuters' The Great Debate blog. A person can indeed say that he or she is Chinese from a national point of view, but "to many in Hong Kong [...] "Chinese" may primarily mean a cultural, ethnic, or racial marker of identity rather than of political nationality." The author points out that self-identified "Chinese" people are nowadays living in many countries -whether migrants or their descendants- who do not necessarily regard China to be their own political nation. "When the demonstrators chant 'Hong Kong People!' they are asserting that to be a citizen of Hong Kong is emphatically not the same as being Chinese," Chin argues.

The issue of Hong Kongese identity can be approached through biannual surveys that the University of Hong Kong has been releasing since 1997. In the most recent one, in June 2014, 40% of respondents declared an exclusive Hong Kongese identity. Merely 19% identified as Chinese only. Furthermore, 27% said they were "Hong Kongers in China," while 12% identified themselves as "Chinese in Hong Kong." These figures therefore show a clear majority of people primarily self-identifying as Hong Kongese: 67% of the total. It was not always that way: in 2004 and 2005, the figure barely reached 50%.

This CNN report holds that Hong Kong's "unique history has set it apart" from China. The American broadcaster quotes colonial legacy as a major factor explaining why Hong Kong has been able to maintain a certain degree of autonomy within China. This has for example allowed it to maintain its own national teams and its currency, the Hong Kong dollar. Besides economic and legal aspects, other differences can be pointed out: "Linguistically -Cantonese is the common tongue here- socially and culturally, Hong Kong and the mainland can seem worlds apart."

Cantonese is not only spoken in Hong Kong: the language is also common in neighboring regions in China. But only in Hong Kong is Cantonese used as a de facto official spoken language -writing is the domain of Mandarin or Putonghua, the standard Chinese variety based on the Beijing dialect. At school, Cantonese and English coexist as vehicular languages​​. The situation contrasts with efforts in China to promote Putonghua as the usual language in schools, the media and the administration.

In a quite stable ratio over the years, English keeps its place as the most usual language of a small portion (3.5%) of Hong Kong inhabitants, which also contributes to linguistically set apart the former colony from the rest of China. That figure by no means implies that only 3 in 100 Hong Kongese are able to speak English: 46% of the population master the language. But most of them keep their everyday use of Cantonese: 90% of Hong Kong people are classed as usual speakers. Via the school, Putonghua has come to be known by 48% of the population, although usual speakers of that variety are only 1.4%.

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