An Open Letter to My Mainland Students in Hong Kong

Ernest Renan was right when he wrote over a century ago: “Forgetting, and I would even say historical error, are an essential factor in the creation of a nation, and so it is that progress in historical studies is often a danger to nationality.” That is, I believe, a fine task for historians: to be a danger to national myths.

—Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780

I have taught Mainland Chinese students for nearly a decade now. Talking about these subjects has never been easy. One of my first lessons in China was that talking about these things wasn’t illegal, per se, but they were socially taboo (禁忌). I wasn’t worried about being fired by broaching these topics – though that was a very real risk. I was worried about making students feel uncomfortable. In my four years in the Mainland, I would talk about these issues with nods and winks (点头眨眼) or the occasional abstract reference that few people understood. But now I am your teacher, we are in Hong Kong, this is our subject, and we must be frank.

I write this for two reasons. First, many of you have chosen to write about national education, and with it Hong Kongers self-identification, the most contentious (有争议的) issue in Hong Kong today, despite having dozens of other paper topics to choose from. A great many of you are jumping head first (一头扎) into national education and what it means to be ‘Chinese’ in Hong Kong today. Second, your frameworks are nearly all the same, an issue I will address at the end. A very complicated issue looks very simple.

Let me retell the history of Hong Kong and China. The British took a mountainous port, not a people, in 1841. I’ve made an argument that Hong Kong was perhaps never really ‘Chinese’ before the British arrived. When they did arrive, a colonial official noted that there were 4,360 in the villages and hamlets, 800 in the bazaar (集市): 2,000 in the boats (水上人), and 300 labourers from Kowloon. There were 3000 people total living on HK island when they arrived. Nineteen years later they took Kowloon (1860) just to have a little more space. Before reclamation, Kowloon peninsula was a fraction the size that it is today. Tsim Sha Tsui was a tiny village. It wasn’t until 1898 that they negotiated a 99 year lease for the New Territories, Lantau, and other outlying islands. 

Screenshot 2014-01-16 00.38.45

When the Spanish colonized the Philippines, they colonized everything. People had to change their religion, their language, their names. My wife now has a Spanish-sounding name. After four hundred years of Colonial rules, most Filipinos have forgotten their history. Their history books begin when Magellan arrives. The British did not rule like that. They were merchants first, soldiers second, and missionaries (传教士) are a distant third. They did not bother telling Hong Kongers what it meant to be ‘Chinese’ or ‘Hong Kong Chinese’. They only cared that they did not rebel (反抗政府).

Hong Kong was never meant to be a city. People first came because of the economic activity (think of early Shenzhen). There were 20k people by 1848. Then China got crazy – a flood of refugees  came during the Taiping Rebellion (太平天囯; 20 million dead). There were 283,000 people by 1901. There were 1.6 million people in Hong Kong in 1941. There were only 500,000 in 1945. A flood of people came back during and after the Civil War. 750,000 people came back after the war, 1945. At the end of the Chinese Civil War, there were 2.2 million people. Even more people came as it became clear what life under Mao was like: there was the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries [镇反 70,000-2,000,000 killed], the Sufan movement [肃反, 77,000 killed], the Anti-Rightist Campaign [反右运动], the Great Leap Forward [大跃进, 40m dead], and finally the Cultural Revolution [文化大革命, est. 400,000 killed]). By 1968, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, there were 3.9 million people here. Until about this time, many lived without proper immigration papers in slums (贫民窟). There was an open border.


Most people who came looked at Hong Kong the same way early Shenzhen emigres looked at Shenzhen. It was a temporary place. It slowly became permanent. There were half a dozen major dialects / languages in use. The Colonial government didn’t consider them British citizens (英国公民), but colonial subjects (殖民地的臣民). In truth, most of them were refugees (难民), economic migrants (经济移民), and political asylum seekers (政治避难者). The British Nationality Act was passed in 1981 giving the first gateway for Hong Kong people to have British citizenship if they wanted it. 

Cantonese didn’t dominate until the late 1950s. But then it became ubiquitous. So here we have several million very different Chinese people, from different parts of China, all coming into a very internationalized ‘melting pot.’  The synthesis was a unique expression of what it meant to be ‘Chinese.’ The British were not overly interested in culture. They merely wanted stable governance. They wanted the people not to rebel. They wanted a small elite class that spoke very good English and understood their culture to help run things (see India, Kenya, etc). Historians say the biggest driving force towards a HK identity was the Cultural Revolution, which inspired the 1967 Riots. There was a moment where it looked like the Red Guards (红卫兵) were going to overrun Hong Kong’s (open) borders. For the first time, the local Chinese turned towards their British colonizers and asked for protection. The only thing standing between them and the chaos to the north was the Colonial government and its security regime.

Fast forward to 1997. Mainland Chinese people had lived under 20 years of totalitarian (极权主义) rule (1958-1976). They were a ‘hermit kingdom’ (隐士王国) for that period, trained to hate Western countries. Frank Dikkoter’s research in government  archives indicate that 40 million people died in the Great Leap Forward. The Cultural Revolution was terrible – we don’t know how many tens of thousands of people chose suicide instead of more harassment. There was cannibalism (吃人肉) in Guangxi and Inner Mongolia.

collageThings really only started to change in the early 1980s. The leadership that emerged at the time the  Handover was being negotiated were more-or-less liberal democrats (Hu Yaobang) 胡耀邦 and Zhao Ziyang 赵紫阳). Hong Kongers were fairly comfortable with the idea of handover. Zhao Ziyang and student leaders like Benny Tai (戴耀廷) were exchanging mail. Everything was on track for China fully ‘normalizing’ – politically, economically, and culturally – with Hu and Zhao leading the charge.

Hu Yaobang was purged in 1987. Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, fell out of grace by calling Hu’s purge illegal. He was a lifelong friend and supporter of Hu.   His death in dishonor sparked student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Zhao Ziyang tried to negotiate with the students. Li Peng won the day. The tanks came in. Hong Kong people were watching. Then came the ‘amnesia’ (失忆症). Hong Kong people realized China hadn’t changed as much as they had thought. Most people were extremely surprised by the violence – even the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (中国共产党中央委员会总书记). He was put under house arrest (软禁) until he died. He left you a book.

Tiananmen Collage

June 4th, 1989 was a tipping point (引爆点) in Hong Kong. Like Chinese elite today, many began scrambling to get foreign citizenship for their families. 1% of the population (62k ppl) left the year after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. It would continue at about that rate in the years before Handover. People wanted a way out in case Beijing were to mistreat (虐待) Hong Kong. For many people, the CCP rule terrifying. Estimates are that between 250k to one million people left for Canada, Australia, and the United States. Many came back when things seem to go smoothly.  Other’s simply failed at securing foreign passports. Now Beijing has backed out of promises and said that One Country, Two Systems never meant what we thought it meant. We need ‘re-enlightenment.’ Now things are not ‘smooth.’ People are asking: “Is it time to leave beloved Hong Kong?


My point is this – everything about China-Hong Kong relations is ‘special.’ China has ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ (中国特色社会主义). Hong Kong is a ‘special administrative region’ (特别行政区). From my perspective, there has been a great shift in discourse over the past ten years. Hong Kong was ‘normal’, China was ‘special (特).’ One Country, Two Systems was supposed to protect Hong Kong from China’s ‘specialness.’ Hong Kong was wealthy city with a vibrant civil society (公民社会) and good governance. The original idea was always that China would be ‘normal’ by 2047 – not that Hong Kong would become ‘mainlandized’ by then. Everything has changed under Xi Jinping. By China failing to change as it had been expected, and promised by everyone from Hu Jintao to Deng Xiaoping, I think we can say that the current situation is one in which China changed, not Hong Kong. Hong Kongers are reacting to these new changes.  

Finally, look at the differences between Hong Kong and the mainland Han Chinese as distinctive (独特的). One is not better or worse than the other. At the same time, distinction is often created through the social construction of the ‘Other.’ Mainland Chinese people are Hong Kong people’s ‘Other.’ They find similarity amongst themselves by highlighting how different you are. This means they are likely to exaggerate the differences, or intentionally display them.

But this is happening in both directions. The Chinese government is trying to make Hong Kong people ‘Others’ by casting them as confused colonial half-breeds (混血儿). You are the ‘real’ ‘traditional’ Chinese person. ‘They’ have forgotten who they really are because of foreign devils (洋鬼子) like Chris Patten (千古罪人,  娼妓, 蛇). But you know Hong Kong people are not so easily fooled – or led! – by anyone. They do their own thing. They always have, they always will. In truth, Hong Kong Chinese culture is what happens when dozens of Chinese communities mesh and meld under almost no governmental cultural guidance. It’s been cultural anarchy. That’s a beautiful and rare thing.

The Chinese Communist Party has fed you ‘wolf milk‘ for all of your life. You have lived in an environment where every movie, newspaper, TV show, book, and teachers all follow the ‘mass line‘ (群众路线). Inside the mainland, they control history. They are terrified of their own past. They have invented a story of the past century that no historian outside of China would agree with. They are terrified of new scholarship. They have frightened people into shutting up (Tiananmen, Changchun,) They are trying to define what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be a Patriot. To love your country, for them, is to love the Party (“没有共产党就没有新中国”, right?).

But it is actually your choice. You are a young scholar. Your task is to step outside this and look at the world from a different angle. It is difficult, but you must question everything and learn to evaluate different claimants to truth. Is Liu Xiaobo a traitor or a patriotZhang Zhenglong? Hu Yaobang? Zhao Ziyang? Teng Biao?  Teng asked the most difficult question: “did we stand on the side of the ‘Tank Man,’ or on the side of the tank?

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