Dean's Speech: HKUGA College Speech Day 2016 - Bonum commune communitatis

06 July 2016

Principal Chen, teachers and staff, parents, distinguished guests, and most of all graduands, ladies and gentlemen,

Today we celebrate your hard work and achievements. In coming together into one room to do this, we are also celebrating our community, which extends to everyone here including me. You are part of the HKUGA College community. HKUGA is part of the University of Hong Kong community. Presumably one of the reasons you invited me to speak today is because I am from HKU and you identify with me in that respect – and vice versa. We have this shared connection, which intensifies our joyous feelings today.

Human beings are biologically imprinted with an irresistible impulse to belong and to be with other people. This has given us both a survival advantage and a source of identity. Here at HKUGA we can see in a straightforward way that we are all connected by the HKU name and HKU community. But identity is not always such a straightforward matter.

In Europe, the British people are beginning to learn and live the sobering lessons of the “Brexit” referendum, although the ripples will spread far and wide to all of Europe and indeed the world for years. It is a telling example of the gravity of identity politics, arguably the most serious watershed for the UK since the Second World War.

While we observe the Brexit fallout perhaps with the comfort of distance, we cannot be as relaxed about the here and now that has been laid bare with the Occupy or Umbrella movement in 2014. As we see in Hong Kong today, there can be competing views about identity and we may be challenged to make a choice. Shifts in identity in general are understandable, given modernisation, technological innovation and the like. But in Hong Kong these shifts are converging onto a battleground, with serious repercussions for our discussions about the city’s future up to and beyond 2047 – the city that will be your future.

Localism, nativism, tribalism, even separatism have been expounded by various groups that seek to explain and/or direct Hong Kong’s sense of identity. Each “-ism” carries a different meaning and has very different implications for society.

First, let us consider localism. This is related solely to place and the idea that I identify myself as being from and of Hong Kong, of living in Hong Kong, and of wanting to contribute to Hong Kong. It does not exclude others from belonging, nor does it exclude other kinds of belonging. You are simply a Hongkonger first, and also a citizen of China, as well as of other countries for which you may have nationality or a passport. [Strictly speaking though our country does not recognise multiple nationalities.] At HKU, pollster Robert Chung has been tracking Hong Kong people’s strength of identity for nearly 20 years. People have given greater or lesser weight to being Hongkongers or Chinese over the years, but the point is that both forms of identity are there, side by side. One need not negate the other nor should they be mutually exclusive.

We can see this idea of multiple identities in other places, too. New Yorkers will always insist they are New Yorkers first and Americans second, or Shanghainese will say they are Shanghainese foremost as well as Chinese. These are all manifestations of the sense of belonging that we seek, and they show that we can achieve that goal without being mutually exclusive.

Tribalism, on the other hand, is a narrower idea based on cultural or ethnic identity. Tribalism has been useful for humans in some contexts. For instance, in self-sufficient societies where there may be predators or other threats, it can help to bond the community together to keep it secure. But it is mostly incompatible with modern civilisation and our ideas of fairness and decency. We would not find it acceptable today to exclude someone from society based on their skin colour, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. Politics aside, our ideas have in fact been moving in the opposite direction, towards acceptance of greater diversity and a disinclination to judge or condemn those who may be different from us. Your school embodies that ideal through its emphasis on integration, which I will come to shortly.

Nativism is worse still. It associates identity with birthplace. None of us can choose where we were born. Hong Kong, of all places, should not be a place where nativism takes hold. It has always been, and continues to be an immigrant society and a melting pot of people from different places. For most of you, your parents, grandparents or maybe even you yourselves were born outside of Hong Kong. Should that make you any less a part of this city, or feel any less a sense of identity from living here? Nativism should be a wholly irrelevant idea for shaping Hong Kong identity.

Now let us look at the fourth “-ism” – separatism. This is a complicated concept because it relates to the idea of national self-determination, which first appeared in the Westphalia treaties of 1648 – a relatively recent time in the long arc of history. What is a nation and who can determine its destiny? There are no clear answers to these questions. Nations are not always based on cultural or ethnic heritage, and self-proclaimed nationalities can continue to exist within larger nations. Examples of the latter include Scotland in the UK, Quebec in Canada, and the Catalan region in Spain. Conversely, some nation-states that share the same culture can be torn apart by strife, for example North and South Koreas. Other nation-states are forced into existence rather than being formed through self-determination – the example being Singapore, which was expelled from the Malaysia federation in 1965.

Nation-states can also be imposed on people in ways that may not conform to their culture and practices. European colonisers imposed arbitrary boundaries on countries in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula without regard to the cultures, laws and institutions already in place. The partitions remain up to today and the division of ethnically and culturally similar peoples remains a source of intense conflict. The lingering effects of inherent culture can have more benign consequences, too. In the United States, there is an interesting example related to my own field, public health. During the 2009 influenza pandemic, the distribution of the initial cases roughly followed the boundaries of an area that was previously part of Mexico and ceded to the United States in 1845. The Texan and American identities that have since been imposed cannot override the traditional lifestyles, epidemiological patterns and geography.

In Hong Kong today, we can find vocal proponents of all four -isms – localism, tribalism, nativism and separatism. They spring from the same concerns, but offer radically different ways of addressing them.

People in Hong Kong are worried about the future. We feel enshrouded in mist because we cannot see a clear trajectory for our city. We can also feel storm clouds raging with anger and frustration, particularly among young people like you, over the seeming lack of progress in finding a way forward. People do not mind working hard but they need to have a sense of purpose, of what they are working for, both for their city and themselves. Unfortunately, populists have tapped into this anger and uncertainty, and perverted our innate yearning for togetherness into something more sinister and exclusionary.

Like it or not, we are inextricably linked with different regions that make up what we now call the People’s Republic of China. Does that mean we share every single value with every single region of the country? Of course not, nor should we. Does it mean we should have identical aspirations and aims to everyone else in the country? Not at all. In fact, in some respects we may be closer to foreign countries than we are to our own. And that is okay. It is why Hong Kong is unique and it is what makes all of us localists, in the broadest and best sense. I, too, am a local boy. But I am also Chinese, living in a city that has deep, inalienable historical connections with the mainland of China. To my thinking, localism can accommodate these different aspects of identity in ways that tribalism, nativism and separatism cannot.

Each of us needs to consider where we stand on the identity question from an informed position. This is my message to you: think for yourselves. Do not be easily pigeonholed as a separatist or a pro-establishment loyalist or any other of these labels. Just because your friends lean one way and want you to join them, feel no obligation to automatically jump in. Gather information, weigh the options, think – these are all hard tasks. Even harder is to go against the grain. But this is what you must be prepared to do if you are to find a way out of the thick fog, both for yourselves and for Hong Kong.

Your school has instilled a sense of belonging that is based on the integration of cultures, of school and family, and of school and community – of uniting people rather than dividing them. I hope you will carry these values with you in confronting this major challenge for Hong Kong: how do we define ourselves and where do we go from here? Your future will depend on it.