Finding shared identity in a world mediated by acts of consumption
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?