Perseus: What does being Chinese mean?

4 mn read

1 July 2021 saw the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrate its 100th birthday, as well as being the 24th anniversary of the end of British Sovereignty over Hong Kong as a Crown colony, and the beginning of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region under CCP’s rule. The anniversary raises many questions in relation to the perceived identities of Hongkongers, and whether Hongkongers see themselves as Chinese, Hongkongers, or a mix of both.

Data from the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute shows that 72.5 per cent of people surveyed between 7 June 2021 and 10 June 2021 identified themselves as either just Hongkonger, or a Hongkonger in China, compared to the figure of 26.4 per cent who identified themselves as Chinese alone, or a Chinese in Hong Kong.

The issue of Chinese identity is not only a topic in Hong Kong that is hotter than freshly steamed dim sum, especially with how the CCP has reacted to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong since 2019, but also in Taiwan. The Associated Press reported on 12 May 2020 that the US-based Pew Research Centre found that 66 per cent of people surveyed viewed themselves as Taiwanese, compared to only 4 per cent who view themselves as only Chinese. 28 per cent of people surveyed viewed themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese.

But what is Chinese identity when people talk about being Chinese? In English, the term Chinese unhelpfully refers to both ethnicity and nationality. East Asians often find that they are faced with only two relevant options in equal opportunities surveys in the United Kingdom: “Asian: Chinese”, or “Asian: Other”. Although in Chinese, “中國人can also be used to refer to both ethnicity and nationality, we have the benefit of “華人which is used to describe ethnicity rather than nationality.

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Of course, throughout the cultural history of China, there have been many achievements which are noteworthy – invention of paper, woodblock printing (as opposed to the European pioneered printing press), the navigational compass, and gunpowder but to name a few. Achievements of which one should be proud considering their contribution to the development humanity. But the problem which we have seen in recent years is the conflation of the Chinese identity and party politics by the CCP itself. No longer are the peoples of China or Chinese culture independent of any political machinations, but any criticisms of the CCP and its policies are now spun by the CCP as an attack on the peoples of China and Chinese culture.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people were discussing anti-Asian racism. Of course, any form of racism should be opposed, but one wonders whether such campaigns have an ulterior motive when people pushing anti-Asian racism campaigns use CCP propaganda to illustrate their narrative. A small group of students who organised rally outside the Chinese Embassy in London on 19 January 2020 told me that had been in contact with another group who had organised an anti-Asian racism rally in Trafalgar Square, asking if they would assist in the anti-racism narrative joining together to hold a protest in relation to the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and forced labour in supply chains, only to be told, “Sorry we can’t help,” with no explanation given. The use of the hashtag #ChineseLivesMatter in relation to anti-Asian racism by some of the same people is also quite ignorant – not all Asians as Chinese, despite what the CCP would have people believe.

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I know people from Hong Kong who before 2019 have been very proud of their Chinese roots, but even they have resisted identifying themselves as Chinese in the 2021 census of the United Kingdom, instead using the custom entry field and entering “Hongkonger” as their ethnic identities. When I asked them why they suddenly wanted to say “Hongkonger” instead of “Chinese” as a response to the ethnicity question, they told me that they felt the CCP had completely destroyed what being Chinese means.

One wonders, in the context of the repression which the CCP is carrying out against minorities within the People’s Republic of China, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet, whether the idea of Chinese identity will also be considered to have an air of Han supremacy about it. The People’s Republic of China officially recognises 56 ethnicities. According to the data from the 2020 census of the People’s Republic of China, the majority ethnic group is that of the Han (to no one’s surprise), accounting for some 91.11 per cent of the total population. With 56 different officially recognised ethnicities, is the idea of having a generic Chinese ethnicity in equal opportunities surveys somehow relegating the existence of the other 55 ethnicities?

Of course, what is meant by Chinese identity cannot be easily answered – and I am in no way suggesting I have an answer which would be everyone’s cup of tea – but one thing of which we can be certain is that the Chinese identity must not be conflated with the CCP, and we need to actively speak out against this idea which the CCP loves to promote. Deng Xiaoping gave a speech to the United Nations on 10 April 1974, and he closed his speech saying, “If one day China should change her colour and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

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For whatever faults one may perceive Deng to have had in life, he had clearly predicted a possibility of how the CCP would behave, and clearly reminded us that the Chinese identity should never considered the same as the Party.

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Perseus (a pen name) is a Hongkonger based in the UK. He is a freelance photojournalist and writer, as well as a human rights and public law lawyer practising in London.


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