With 2014 marked by unprecedented protests in both Taiwan and Hong Kong and continued demonstrations in Hong Kong earlier this month, media and analysts alike point to a disconcerting trend for Beijing: an increasingly localized sense of identity among residents in both locales that correlates with a decreasing sense of a national “Chinese” identity.
The New York Times reported that the Umbrella Movement protests, which took over major Hong Kong city intersections for several months last fall, were emblematic of poll results from earlier in the year revealing a significant increase in people’s self-identities as “Hongkongers” while identification as either “Chinese” or a “citizen of the People’s Republic of China” fell to their lowest levels since 1997 and 2007, respectively. Polls conducted in Taiwan last year similarly reported record-high percentages of residents considering themselves to be “Taiwanese” only, rather than “Chinese” or “both Taiwanese and Chinese.” Perhaps most significant is that this shift has occurred alongside unparalleled growth in cross-strait economic ties, which mainland Chinese leadership had anticipated would have just the opposite effect on Taiwan residents’ sense of identity. And Taiwan’s local elections last November seemed to further reinforce this point, with voters delivering a resounding defeat to the very party that had made increased cross-strait ties the mainstay of its current policy since it regained the presidency in 2008.
The trends toward localized “Hongkonger” and “Taiwanese” identities, in other words, do not bode well for mainland China, which seems to be losing ground in this battle of identities with each passing day. Whereas Beijing initially anticipated that the passage of time — accompanied by increasing Chinese economic strength and overall standing in the world — would be to its advantage, it now appears that Hong Kong’s and Taiwan’s estrangement — and, on Taiwan’s side, desire for independence — is only increasing as more time passes.
Return to a “Chinese” Identity?
However, one piece of good news for Beijing may be that national “identity” is not static, nor does it only trend in one direction. Whereas the recent shifts could be seen as a source of concern, it should also be recognized that the current lack of “Chinese” identity among those in Hong Kong and Taiwan is at least in part a natural by-product of over a century of historical separation. Since the colonization of Hong Kong and Taiwan by the British and the Japanese, respectively, in the 1800s, the collective historical memory and experience of people in those locales — all of which has contributed to defining characteristics in the two societies today — has diverged from those in mainland China. Perhaps even more critical is that the term “Chinese” used today — referring to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), ruled by the Communist Party of China (CPC) — is a characterization of “Chinese” that is largely foreign to both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Up until 1997, neither had ever been ruled by the CPC, nor had much exposure to its ideologies or directives.
Political values and systems aside for now, the life experience over just the past five to six decades — not to mention the century before that — of residents in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan differed drastically as a result of these varying ruling governments. For example, while Hong Kong and Taiwan were embarking on rapid industrialization and economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s, mainland Chinese residents were undergoing distinctive historical experiences of their own, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Not until the late 1970s did mainland China begin on its own path of significant economic growth — meaning that only then did at least some of its residents begin to encounter the modernizing effects on their lives that those in Hong Kong and Taiwan had been experiencing for decades. Conversely, those in Hong Kong and Taiwan did not — and never will — experience the monumental impact of movements like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
These various affairs, among others, contribute significantly to the characteristics, values, perspectives and overall psyche of Hong Kong’s, Taiwan’s, and mainland China’s society and culture today. In light of this, it should be neither astonishing nor necessarily concerning that those in Hong Kong and Taiwan do not feel “Chinese,” which today is by and large construed to mean “mainland Chinese.” Rather, what would be surprising is if less than two decades of rule by the mainland government — in the case of Hong Kong — and five or six years of increased cross-strait exchanges — in the case of Taiwan — could bridge differences that had been established and engrained in people over decades and even centuries of markedly distinct, deeply impactful, and society-changing historic events.
Thanks to the PRC’s own economic “miracle” of the last few decades, life for residents in mainland China today is already beginning in broad terms to resemble that in Hong Kong and Taiwan much more so than before the 1970s. As wealth enables more and more residents to receive universal education, to purchase modern technologies and conveniences, and to be exposed to ideas and experiences outside China through travel, exchanges and migrations — experiences that those in Hong Kong and Taiwan have known for over half a century — it is not inconceivable that the stark differences the “Hongkongers” and “Taiwanese” see between themselves and the “Chinese” will begin to recede. In that vein, prospects for Beijing’s battle to win the “hearts and minds” of those in Hong Kong and Taiwan may not be as dire as recent events and identity trends may lead one to think.
But alongside this relatively optimistic outlook for Beijing is also the fact that one’s self-identity and that of an entire society is a complicated amalgamation of numerous factors, and economic growth on its own may not be sufficient for restoring a sense of “Chinese” identity to those in Hong Kong and Taiwan. As Western analysts and media frequently point out, the political system that governs a locale and the correlating political values its people hold is another significant component in identity formation. Political values are a major factor in the psyche of both “Hongkongers” and “Taiwanese” today that they feel differentiates them from the “Chinese.”
Regardless of the merits or disadvantages of an autocratic or a democratic system, the reality is that the shift from autocracy to democracy in Taiwan is one that residents are distinctly proud of and cherish, arguably even more than people in the United States, because many of those in Taiwan — unlike most Americans — have known what it is like to live under both systems. More importantly, few people in Taiwan, if any, would prefer to return to the previous autocratic political system. And though Beijing had hoped that those in Taiwan would see Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” structure as one they would desire for themselves, the outcome of almost 20 years of this arrangement is that many Hong Kong residents instead have watched Taiwan’s shift from autocracy to democracy and seen that as the system they ultimately desire to emulate.
In essence, although no one can be sure whether the many factors that contribute to determining identities will work for or against Beijing, one certainty does exist: there’s no going backwards. It would be unfathomable for Hong Kong or Taiwan to return to a point of lesser economic development — like that which mainland residents experienced more recently or even are currently undergoing — in a way that would help narrow the differences created by economic growth. It is equally unimaginable that residents in either Hong Kong or Taiwan — especially those in Taiwan — would willingly accept a less democratic system that could effectively bridge this current political disconnect with their mainland counterparts.
This piece was originally published by the EastWest Institute.