Find­ing shared iden­tity in a world me­di­ated by acts of con­sump­tion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK COMMENT - JONY LAM The author is a cur­rent af­fairs com­men­ta­tor.

Istared at the national flag and did some soul search­ing the other day, and was hor­ri­fied when no no­table emo­tion was reg­is­tered. I called a friend up right away and asked what he felt when he saw the flag. “Noth­ing much, re­ally,” the Bei­jing-born Youth Pi­o­neers of China’s three-stripe badge holder replied. “It was usu­ally in the morn­ing and I was drowsy.” I asked if he was proud of be­ing a Chi­nese. “Of course,” he replied with a grin.

I think it has never oc­curred to those in charge of Hong Kong’s pa­tri­otic ed­u­ca­tion that cul­tural at­tach­ment to one’s home­land is forged by a com­mon his­tory and shared in­ter­ests, not empty slo­gans and cam­paigns.

In the nar­ra­tive of colo­nial his­tory, Hong Kong was bare rocks be­fore the Bri­tish came. For some mys­te­ri­ous rea­sons, this dis­course is also preva­lent among of­fi­cials in Hong Kong and the Chi­nese main­land. The truth is that the ter­ri­tory that now com­prises Hong Kong was in­cor­po­rated into China in the Qin Dy­nasty (221 BC — 206 BC), and the area was firmly con­sol­i­dated un­der Nanyue (203 BC — 111 BC.) Dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty, Tuen Mun served as a port, naval base, salt-pro­duc­tion cen­ter and later, as a base for the ex­ploita­tion of pearls. Lan­tau Is­land was also a salt pro­duc­tion cen­ter, where the salt smug­glers ri­ots broke out against the govern­ment.

Hong Kong was not as pop­u­lous or as rich as it now is, but in rel­a­tive terms it has been among the more pros­per­ous places in China from time to time. Even the Bri­tish did not have the in­ten­tion or abil­ity to make Hong Kong a suc­cess overnight: that only hap­pened un­til the late 1970s, well af­ter it first ac­quired the ter­ri­tory. The cur­rent “national ed­u­ca­tion” fo­cuses on the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China, but Hong Kong was al­ready sep­a­rated from the main­land dur­ing that pe­riod. We have to go ear­lier to find our com­mon roots.

At the same time, a shared iden­tity can only be main­tained by ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence. In to­day’s world the bulk of th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences are me­di­ated by acts of con­sump­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, Hong Kong peo­ple’s rights as Chi­nese con­sumers are of­ten de­nied by nar­row-minded busi­ness op­er­a­tors.

Most of the best TV pro­grams that can be watched for free in Chi­nese videostream­ing sites are in­ac­ces­si­ble in Hong Kong. When you click on the clip, what you see (af­ter the ad­ver­tise­ment) is a black screen with the words “the con­tent is not avail­able in your re­gion”.

Busi­ness rea­sons ex­plain par­tially why Hong Kong peo­ple are not treated like other Chi­nese. Be­hind le­gal is­sues such as copy­rights and li­cences are more fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of the at­tri­bu­tion of profit and cost. Spon­sors of TV pro­grams that keep the shows free may not have busi­ness pres­ences in Hong Kong. For those also op­er­at­ing in Hong Kong, their main­land busi­nesses and Hong Kong busi­nesses are usu­ally reg­is­tered as sep­a­rate en­ti­ties that do not share the same profit and loss state­ment.

How­ever, such a nar­row-minded ap­proach to mar­ket­ing is un­called for. Hong Kong res­i­dents are not as in­su­lated from the main­land as th­ese busi­nesses be­lieve. The prob­lem is that point-of-sale data tell com­pa­nies only where the rev­enues are gen­er­ated, but gather no in­for­ma­tion on the cit­i­zen­ship of cus­tomers.

The point is, much more is at stake here than pri­vate gains. Aca­demic Bene­dict An­der­son de­fines the na­tion as an “imag­ined po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity”: imag­ined be­cause mem­bers of even the small­est na­tion will never know most of their fel­low mem­bers, meet them or hear of them, yet in the mind of each lives the im­age of the com­mu­nion. A na­tion ex­ists when a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple in a com­mu­nity con­sider them­selves be­long­ing to a same com­mu­nity with shared in­ter­ests.

“Imag­ined com­mu­ni­ties” were cre­ated in the past by, among other forces, the mass me­dia. Through tar­get­ing a mass au­di­ence and gen­er­al­iz­ing or ad­dress­ing them as the pub­lic, the mass me­dia shaped gen­er­a­tions of cit­i­zens with a shared con­scious­ness. But be­fore Hong Kong peo­ple could go through this stage and de­velop a national iden­tity af­ter the han­dover, the frag­mented “new me­dia” has al­ready re­placed the mass me­dia.

Can we leave the build­ing of an “imag­ined com­mu­nity” for Hong Kong peo­ple in the hands of the busi­nesses?

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