Written by Shiu Hing LO.

Since the return of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on July 1, 1997 and that of Macao’s administrative right from Portugal to China on December 20, 1999, the two Special Administrative Regions (SARs) have demonstrated tremendous differences in their adaptation of political and economic integration with the motherland. Arguably, while the strong Hong Kong identity has impeded the process of political and economic integration, the much stronger Chinese identity of most Macao people has contributed to the ease in which the Macao SAR has adapted to the entire process of politico-economic integration.

The Hong Kong SAR provides a classic example of how a former British colony demonstrates tremendous difficulties of adaptation, including both political and social opposition and resistance, to the motherland’s reassertion of its sovereignty and administrative right. As many Hong Kong people have been educated in the Western-style, cherishing classical liberal values such as the freedom of speech, thought, assembly, press and religion, any incident in the society and polity of Hong Kong which is deemed as violating these values is destined to produce political opposition and resistance. Examples of societal and political opposition to the Hong Kong SAR government abound, including the massive public opposition to the Tung Chee-hwa government’s attempt at legislating on Article 23 of the Basic Law (the law against subversion, treason, sedition and secession) in mid-2003, and the abortive attempt by the C. Y. Leung government to introduce the national education policy in 2013. The society of Hong Kong, including vociferous civil society groups, viewed the Hong Kong SAR government as a “villain” with conspiratorial motives in many of its policies. The end result was public uproar, massive protests, and the governmental retraction of its controversial policies.

Viewed from the perspective of David Easton’s model of political systems, which depicted an equilibrium within the “black box” of governmental outputs in response to societal inputs, the political tug of war between civil society and the Hong Kong SAR government is a healthy sign, demonstrating pluralism and governmental responsiveness. Nevertheless, from the vantage point of governance, the Hong Kong SAR has witnessed political turbulence, endless political squabbles, and most importantly, ceaseless politicization, which points to increasing conflicts between interest groups and the government on the one hand, and between pro-government groups and pro-democracy forces on the other. The most worrying sign is that while the pro-government groups are taking the form of political demagogues shouting at the pro-democracy supporters in public, the pro-democracy radicals are envisaging more young citizens who see the influx of mainland immigrants and tourists as upsetting the society and undermining the well-being of the local Hong Kong people.

The rise of nativism, or a strong local Hong Kong identity, has taken the form of young Hongkongers labelling mainlanders as “undesirable” elements who deprive the people of Hong Kong of various services, including hospital beds for local pregnant women as mainland pregnant counterparts occupied many of these beds, and embracing milk powder formula which remain the target of mainland tourists who lost confidence in the safety of mainland milk powder for their babies. Although the Hong Kong government reacted quickly to the entry of mainland pregnant women by requiring them to pay for the local hospital services, and restricting the amount of milk powder that each mainlander can take back, local nativism has already emerged as a powerful force not only opposing the Hong Kong government but also producing anti-mainlander sentiments. If the politicization of Hong Kong persists, it would not be surprising if one day the pro-democracy nativists would clash with the pro-government activists, and that a minority of pro-democracy nativists would spearhead a political movement that would risk repression. If the 1967 riots in Hong Kong under the British rule were the result of the spillover impacts from the PRC’s Cultural Revolution that stimulated the local Hong Kong Maoists to rebel against the colonial regime, Hong Kong SAR’s future turbulence may ironically witness the unanticipated and sudden clashes between the local nativists and the police force.

The most controversial adaptation problem of Hong Kong people is their clamor for a more Western-style democratic system with the direct election of the Chief Executive and also the entire Legislative Council. This Western-style model of governing, however, is seen by the central government’s leaders responsible for Hong Kong affairs as being too politically “radical.” In terms of national security, Beijing’s officials dealing with Hong Kong matters must see the direct election of the Chief Executive as a political move potentially challenging national security, for they perceive the local democrats as possible “agents” of Western governments in shaping the political development of both Hong Kong and mainland China. As such, Beijing allows a direct election model in which the candidates of the Chief Executive must be screened by an election committee under the control of the central government. The democrats, however, reject this “democratic centralism” model as practiced in mainland China. Politically and culturally, there is a serious clash between most Hong Kong democrats and the Beijing elites responsible for Hong Kong matters. To make matter worse, some Hong Kong democrats vow to “occupy the Central District” in order to exert pressure on both the Hong Kong government and Beijing to make political concessions. Nevertheless, from the perspective of national security, it is unrealistic to expect Beijing to make political concessions on Hong Kong’s democratization.

Macao is very different from Hong Kong. The identity of most Macao people is already very Chinese. They tend to accept rapid economic dependence on mainland tourists, see casino capitalism as a realistic means by which the local economy and employment can be boosted, regard the influx of mainland tourists as far more economically positive and socially acceptable than how some Hongkongers view the mainlanders. Macao’s political, economic and cultural identity is already “mainlandized”. Macao’s future development also depends on the geographical space provided by the mainland city of Zhuhai, namely Hengqin, where the economy and society of Macao will be developed further.

Unlike Hong Kong which remains a self-isolated social entity where anti-mainland sentiments are very strong, Macao has been politically and socially Sinified since the 1966 riots, when pro-Taiwan forces were crushed and the Portuguese administration had to apologize to the PRC government for the death of a citizen after the conflicts between the police and the local Maoists. Ironically, Macao’s political and social mainlandization long before 1999 had laid the foundation of a smoother adaptation of most Macao people to the ensuing politico-economic integration between the Macao SAR and the motherland. However, Hong Kong’s strong local identity and its British legacies, including the very assertive civil society and underlying classical liberal values, have provided the constant momentum for local resistance and opposition to both the Hong Kong government and Beijing. To many Hong Kong people, especially the pro-democracy activists, the Hong Kong government appears to be the loyal agent of Beijing. Deep political distrust persists in the minds of many Hong Kong people, who dream of a political system in which they can and will directly elect both the Chief Executive and the entire legislature, and who see Beijing as a regime trying to exert political control on the territory.

The political distrust, resistance and opposition in the Hong Kong SAR will likely continue in the coming decades, unless a massive influx of mainland immigrants dilutes the very strong local identity. However, there is no evidence to prove that the entry of mainland immigrants is going to dilute the local Hong Kong identity; instead, it seems that they are increasingly assimilated into the Hong Kong’s cherished liberal values, including the rule of law and civil liberties. As such, Hong Kong will continue to exhibit clashes between the liberal political values and Western-style legal culture on the one hand and the mainland paternalistic politico-legal orientations on the other. While Macao’s ease of adaptation to its politico-economic integration with the motherland is a testimony to its historical development and rapid mainlandization well before 1999, the Hong Kong case of adaptation problems demonstrate a classic example of the persistent clashes between Western liberal values and the mainland Chinese paternalistic thoughts.

Professor Shiu Hing Lo is Head of the Department of Social Sciences, Co-Director of Centre for Governance and Citizenship and Co-Director  of Centre for Greater China Studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.