A few weeks ago, I met up with a number of local activists in Hong Kong. I wanted to know how much support they still had from the general public and what their chances were for asserting any political influence, given that their leaders were under attack and their elected representatives had been disbarred. At the time, the HK administration was barreling ahead with its controversial extradition bill and nothing seemed to be able to stop it. But now, in the last two weeks, we have seen the answer to my question. A million people protested and they had come together not as members of an organized opposition but through a spontaneous grassroots movement making use of the power of the social media. Popular democracy, so it seems, has triumphed and the administration has now suspended – for the time being – the process of pushing the extradition bill through the otherwise pliable legislature. An important battle seems to have been won.
But the war is not over. The bill may be resurrected at any time later and the fears of the Hong Kong protestors are hardly assuaged, as I have found out. The year 2047 is still looming, when Hong Kong is scheduled to become an integral part of China with the end of the “one country, two systems” arrangement. That arrangement has already been under increasing pressure for some time and the proposed extradition bill was only to be one more nail in its coffin. When I asked my localist friends a few weeks ago how they pictured Hong Kong in 2047, unsurprisingly they had no clear answer for me. Will Hong Kong simply melt away into the cauldron of greater China and become just another Chinese city?
I tried to convince my localist friends that this was unlikely, that because of its history Hong Kong would retain its distinctive character whatever happened to it politically. The struggle of the localist advocates is certainly more than a political one. They want to maintain also their distinctive history and their Cantonese language. The use of Cantonese extends, moreover, beyond Hong Kong and the cause of he localists is thus also one over the cultural identity of Southern China as against the Mandarin speaking North. Hong Kong has, strictly speaking, been never a Chinese city. It was a British creation, grew up as a colonial stronghold, became a refuge for people dislodged from Communist China, and it has in recent years, since the British left, part of that web of megacities that now span the globe. No wonder that many Hong Kongers do not consider themselves Chinese. This cultural consciousness will not disappear for the foreseeable future, whatever happens to Hong Kong. It is thus plausible to think that Hong Kong will remain a thorn in the flesh of China – just as Taiwan is, though for somewhat different reasons. Whether the distinctive identity of Hong Kong will persist, depends, of course, also on the vitality and creativity of its people. A cultural distinctness cannot be defined only in terms of Hong Kong as a global financial center.