If asked to pinpoint the date when Hong Kong lost all chance of self-governance, most would say July 1, 1997 – the date of the official handover of the city from Britain to China. November 2, 1972, on the other hand, is not a date of import to many. It is on this date that the United Nations General Assembly removed Hong Kong from its list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. This vote, championed by the then-newly ascendant UN member the People’s Republic of China, rescinded the right of the people of Hong Kong to self-determination as granted by an earlier anti-colonial resolution.
From that point on, in the eyes of the UN, Hong Kong was officially Chinese territory that was occupied by a foreign power. Thus the groundwork was laid for the city to be absorbed into China – all without the actual people of the city having a say in it.
This UN vote did not fundamentally change the perception among Hongkongers that they are a separate people from the Chinese on the mainland, nor did it diminish their desire for self-determination. Hongkongers differ from mainland Chinese in almost every category that commonly differentiates people groups from each other: language, religion, values, and even ethnicity.
A closer inspection of these important differences belies the feelings of Hongkongers that are indeed a distinct nationality, and not just people destined to be reunited with their mainland kin.
Firstly, Hong Kong has both a different language and writing system to that of the mainland. Cantonese is the language of the 852, and the writing system uses traditional characters. In China, Mandarin is the sole official language and simplified characters are used. Although many other languages are spoken in mainland China, including Cantonese in Guangdong, they are all marginalised in favour of the “standard language”. In China, Cantonese is not even recognised as a language. Indeed, in Shenzhen, the Cantonese language has been almost entirely replaced by Mandarin.
Faced with this, Hongkongers are rightfully protective of their language, which they see as an important part of their unique identity. This is not to mention the English language, which also holds a special place in Hong Kong society, and is often mixed with Cantonese in everyday speech.
Religion also sets Hongkongers apart from China. Due to its political separation from the mainland, Hong Kong was shielded from the effects of state atheism and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). As a result, traditional Chinese religion is still held in high regard by Hongkongers, some who have also adopted Christianity. One can find both colonial-era churches and traditional temples all over the city, untouched by the devastation of Maoist policies.
As with language, Chinese laws threaten the religious practice of Hongkongers. Needless to say, the religious traditions of Hongkongers sets them clearly apart from mainland Chinese.
Arguably even more important than language and religion are the differences in values. The people of Hong Kong deeply value their economic and social freedoms inherited while under British rule. These freedoms, such as a free press and a multi-party democracy, are non-existent on the mainland, which is a single-party communist state. The individualist, freedom-centric values of Hongkongers are opposed to the collectivist, authoritarian values of mainlanders.
The difference in values is not limited to politics. Many Hongkongers are quick to recognise a mainlander based only on differences in their public behaviour.
Simply put, Hongkongers and “Chinese” are not the same people. Centuries of history have birthed a completely new group of people: not British, not Chinese, just Hongkonger. Hongkongers are a distinct nationality, and they deserve all the rights thus entitled, including self-determination.
Faced with Chinese policies that pose an existential threat to their language, religion, and values, Hongkongers must appeal to multinational organisations, such as the UN, and make the argument that they are actually a stateless people deprived of their rights. This will be no easy task, especially due to the aforementioned UN 1972 decision, but it might be the only way to preserve the treasured Hong Kong way of life.