A 2016 survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that 40 percent of Hong Kongers intend to leave the territory. In 2017 alone, approximately 24,300 locals left Hong Kong, according to local government data.
It is certain that the current tensions over the extradition bill have increased the number of Hong Kongers desiring to emigrate.
The chaos has revealed a much deeper issue that exists in Hong Kong: The identity of the territory and its people.
Many on the streets protesting against the government would see themselves as separate to the larger entity of China, declaring themselves as Hong Kongers and not “Chinese.”
Regardless of how the protests end, whether through a violent crackdown or with government acquiescence, Hong Kongers will be searching for opportunities to leave their home, which is already losing the core of its identity; if the ability to be a free individual is suppressed, Hong Kongers will search elsewhere to maintain that burning passion that is inseparable from who they are.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has already implemented policies to enforce a homogenous Chinese identity in Hong Kong, local schools — even international institutions — have been mandated to sing March of the Volunteers since January.
Beyond this, as China encroaches on Hong Kong’s autonomy, streets will be renamed in simplified Chinese and students will be taught in vernacular Chinese instead of Cantonese.
I quote a pro-democracy legislator of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, Claudia Mo (毛孟靜): “They say if you want to kill a city, you kill its language.”
Hong Kong’s identity is distinguished by its linguistic difference from the mainland and the CCP will do whatever it takes to integrate the territory.
When Hong Kong no longer resembles what it used to be, those who have left will maintain that distinct Hong Kong identity and culture overseas. Much like the Huaqiao (overseas Chinese) community that supported Sun Yat-sen’s (孫逸仙) anti-Qing Dynasty agenda, these exiled Hong Kongers will join the ranks of the millions of overseas Chinese who dare to dream of a democratic China.
Apart from maintaining Han dominance, the CCP also seeks to homogenize the Chinese people through political indoctrination. It aims to quell alternative visions of a China without the CCP, and as such, Hong Kong and Taiwan are entities that China sees as a threat to its rule.
This conflict of identity has manifested itself in overseas Chinese communities around the world. On July 24, there was a clash between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong students during an anti-extradition bill rally at the University of Queensland in Australia; on July 30, there were scuffles between pro-democracy protesters and mainland students at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
While these are pockets of the identity conflict, the increasing suppression within the mainland will heighten tensions between the Chinese community overseas where their dissatisfaction can be freely expressed.
The CCP cannot be allowed to decide what it means to be Chinese, rather, it must be recognized that there are clear differences within the Chinese world. It is more than the Confucian-Han civilization state that the CCP declares it to be.
In preparation for the impending Hong Kong exodus, people must ask themselves what it means to be Chinese.
A friend of mine from Xiamen, but who has become a Singaporean citizen, said: “A man may leave China, but China never leaves a man.”
I find that his words compound precisely the Chinese identity crisis. There is not just “one China” that the CCP wants you to see, there are many Chinas that the millions of overseas Chinese embody, all with their own idea of what China could be, one that is not a land ruled by state-capitalist autocrats.
The overseas Chinese community has the luxury of freedom of speech that they would not have in the mainland; if the protests in Hong Kong are to be the last, the fight will continue beyond Chinese soil.
Nigel Li is an alumnus of the Singapore American School.
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