This question has lately become so mainstream that social scientists and politicians are weighing in. Unfortunately much of the discussion has been along rather crude lines. The matter in dispute is whether Hong Kong youngsters consider their identity to be Chinese, and if not, is this a problem?

Mr Leung Chun-ying’s offering on the subject was, like so much that falls from that particular pair of lips, difficult to square with reality. Governments, he said, would regard you as Chinese if you had a Chinese name and face, whatever passport you held. This is, to put it politely, not the way it usually works. A passport is an official document issued by a government, and governments are of all possibilities the one most likely to take it seriously.

hong kong identity
Photo: Pixabay/HKFP remix.

Indeed those comfortable countries whose passports are regarded as most attractive often make a point of disregarding the ethnic origin of their citizens, and many of them have laws against discrimination on that basis. I wondered, actually, if Mr Leung’s remarks had been distorted in translation and he had actually meant “the government”, rather than governments in general. For there is one government of which Mr Leung’s observation is palpably true: the PRC regards all ethnic Chinese as subject to its control, wherever they may be and whatever passport they carry. Such people can be kidnapped in foreign countries and carted back to the People’s Paradise, to face charges relating to “crimes” which were not offences in the place where they were committed. In the eyes of their government Chinese people are not served, they are owned.

Possibly sensing that his master’s voice had been enjoying one of its less lucid moments, Michael Chugani repeated the point, but with a subtle difference. In Mr Chugani’s version it was not governments which would refuse to recognise a different national identity from that of your face, but “other people”. Apparently Mr Chugani’s fellow-Americans often insist that he is “really” Indian because he looks that way. This seemed rather a poor argument for recognising yourself as Chinese rather than a Hong Konger. After all many Americans are lamentably misinformed about “abroad”. One gets used to explaining that Hong Kong is not in Japan. Also it is generally considered that the main determinant of a person’s identity should be that person’s choice, and other people’s failure to recognise that choice should be resisted rather than appeased.

chugani scmp identity

But this is all rather unsubtle. It assumes that identity is something unitary, logically consistent and permanent. This seems rather unlikely. In tolerant countries, after all, one person does not have one identity. He or she has a variety of identities in different contexts. Someone who is born and raised in London, and spent most of his life there, will certainly identify himself as a Londoner. That does not mean he is a traitor or a seeker of independence. In the World Cup he supports England, in the Olympics he supports Great Britain, and in the Ryder Cup he supports Europe.

Besides this geographical onion, she may have other loyalties or memberships. Some of these are within national boundaries, like the National Trust or the Boy Scouts of America, while some of them cross it, like the Catholic Church or the Freemasons. In Hong Kong this is still allowed. It is an arrangement we rarely think about. We have multiple identities which are not mutually exclusive. Someone who thinks he is a Hong Konger may also consider himself Chinese, Muslim, and a member of Amnesty International. Asking people which identity they prefer is asking for trouble. The answer depends on the time and the context. Consequently we should not draw too many conclusions from it. A young Hong Konger who considers Hong Kong his most important identity is not necessarily rejecting all the alternatives out of hand.

Hong Kong passport stickers
Hong Kong passport stickers. Photo: San Gaai Si via Facebook.

Totalitarian regimes are different, alas. Multiple loyalties are not allowed. We are supposed to have “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer” as one unhappy precedent had it. One people, one country, one leader. And this trinity, like its religious counterpart, is not supposed to be divisible. It has to be swallowed whole. If you do not admire the leader you are also betraying the country and the people. The difference between Hong Kong and China on this point was not covered in the Basic Law. I suppose the drafters thought that having provided for a high degree of autonomy and capitalism continuing for 50 years they had dealt with the matter. Clearly Mr Leung has had the necessary brain surgery to meet the standards of devotion required. The prospect of the rest of us having to go the same way may explain some of the disillusionment among young people contemplating a future here.

In fairness to Messrs Leung and Chugani we should perhaps note that ethnic identities have a unique characteristic: they are the first thing people see. When you meet a stranger, before either of you says anything, and without conscious effort on either side, you have an initial impression of gender, age, ethnicity and perhaps other superficial things. People I meet in lifts occasionally comment on my height. If you met President Obama in the street the first thing that would register would be that he is black, more or less. A man interviewing potential students is deceiving himself if he thinks he does not notice that some of the ladies are pretty.

This initial impression quickly fades into the background as you get to know other things about the person concerned. Your first unconscious thought may be “This kid is Chinese”. But once you have discovered that he is a gay vegetarian anarchist who supports Manchester United the ethnic classification is overwhelmed. Of course there are people for whom it remains a problem. No matter how well they know the person the ethnic category still obliterates everything else. This is known as racism and it should be opposed, not accepted as an unavoidable fact of life.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.