(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 14 December 2016.)


An estimated 36 percent of Secondary Five students lack a sense of national identity, according to a recent study issued by the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute. Some blame it on the failure of government to introduce national education in the school curriculum. Oddly their parents’ generation, who also grew up in Hong Kong and were not exposed to national education under British rule, apparently have a stronger sense of national identity. Why the difference?


The issue of national identity or lack of the sense among some of our young generation has become highly politicized in Hong Kong. Some students and their parents are vehemently opposed to introducing national education for fear that it would brainwash young students. They have actively agitated against it in a highly politicized social movement with the support of some opposition political leaders.


The Chief Executive’s Policy Address in 2015 first targeted nativist and independence leaning sentiments expressed in a Hong Kong University student publication, which he heavily criticized. This escalated into the government disqualifying some candidates who previously voiced such sentiments from running in the Legislative Council elections in 2016.


Identity is a highly subjective business even if its presence or absence appears to be objectively measurable. There is a vast social science literature on how a person’s identity in terms of belonging to a particular race, gender and ethnic group is fluid and changes over time in response to social realities. Understanding some aspects of how identity changes may help us think about Hong Kong’s national identity puzzle.


Ambiguity of Identity


Let us consider the issue of identity in the United States, with its many diverse racial and ethnic groups. In the 20th century, categories of race in the U.S. were redefined across many dimensions – the children of Italian, Slavic, Irish, and Jewish immigrants came to be seen as “whites”, Hispanics became another ethnic group, , and Chinese, Indian, and Japanese Americans were classified under a broad “Asian” racial category.


These processes reflected large-scale economic, political, and ideological shifts in American society. The “whitening” of southern and eastern Europeans is a product of the upward mobility and cultural assimilation of new migrants in the early 20th century.


The rapidly increasing Latino populations of mixed ancestries in the late 20th century, who are less upwardly mobile and culturally assimilated and who mostly speak Spanish instead of English, have created a new Hispanic ethnicity.


The merging of highly diverse, upwardly mobile Asian ethnicity into a single Asian racial category is driven largely by pragmatic considerations to make their voices and influence better represented in American politics.


Another phenomenon contributing to the ambiguity of identity is the rising prevalence of biracial marriages, especially since the 1960s. A child born in a biracial marriage poses complex identification questions — in terms of self-perception and perception by others.


Previously children born in biracial marriages with a black and a white parent were often automatically identified as “black”, but this is no longer the commonly accepted approach. Today, a person’s identity can be determined by either self-perception or the perceptions of an outside observer, although even here there can be discrepancies between the two as changing social realities can influence their perceptions.


Most social scientists agree that racial differences come not just from biology, but also from social, economic, and ideological realities. Social mobility and assimilation can change how racial differences are self-perceived and perceived by others. The same phenomenon applies to other categories of identity, such as gender and ethnicity although they are less well studied.


By focusing on change at the societal level, one could be left with the impression that, though identity is a product of social norms and power relations, once identity divisions are socially defined in a given period, identity population membership remains fixed for each individual. But this is not the case.


Since identities are not biologically determined, they are no longer unambiguous, They become impermanent –– they become fluid.


Fluidity of Identity


A less recognized factor in identity is that even as large-scale social processes redefine and blur the historical boundaries of racial groups, individuals also may shift in and out of racial categories over their lifetime.


Two American sociologists, Aliya Saperstein and Andrew Penner, have examined the process of “racial fluidity” and find that an astonishing one fifth of Americans aged 14-22 first interviewed in 1979 (in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth) experienced at least one change in racial classification over the next 19-year period.


The dataset is a long-running panel that takes repeated measurements of an individual’s race based on self-reporting by the surveyed individual and classification by an interviewer that was coded at the end of the interview. So the interviewer’s classification of race is influenced by the respondent’s answers during the survey interview.


The changes in racial identity were not random. Negative life events, such as incarceration, unemployment, and divorce increased the probability of being identified as “black” in a successive year, while positive outcomes increased the probability of being identified as “white.”


Often these changes were short-lived –– and people would resume their former racial classification after a year or two, but in some cases the changes were long lasting over adulthood.


Both the self-reported and interviewer classifications of race changed over time in response to life transitions, in a manner consistent with the idea that perceived race reflects social status. Changes in race identification were not random subjective perceptions, but grounded in a changing objective social reality.


Race or Class


The findings suggest that interviewers form judgments about the person that correspond to racial stereotypes (such as being unemployed). When there is ambiguity in the visual cues, the interviewer will err on the side of the racial category that matches their own preconceived notion with the interview responses. This is not far-fetched and lines up with research that visual cues are sensitive to social context.


Lab experiments show that a light-skinned African American is more likely to be perceived as “black” if he is shown with an “afro” hairstyle, or wearing a janitor uniform rather than a business suit. People of mixed ancestry are more likely to be perceived as white if they are in a higher social position.


But if the judgment of interviewers is so influenced, why is self-reported race identity also correlated with economic transition in life? Racial stereotypes also influence the surveyed individual. A white person may feel less embarrassed or more comfortable if he reports himself as a black person when he experiences a negative life transition event like unemployment.


Stereotyping and social pressure to conform are often found together, not only in race but in political views. Thus the young generation is less willing to openly identify themselves as conservatives and the old generation is less willing to identify themselves as radicals, both because of stereotyping and social pressure to conform.


This should lead us to reconsider some important assumptions about identity. First, it seems to illustrate that the phenomenon of “passing for white” may actually be more widespread, at least during some periods of people’s lives. If identity fluidity is a common and not rare occurrence, it could lead us to exaggerate the contribution of race to social and economic inequality. We may overstate the contribution of race, since people classified as black are already more likely to be socially marginal.


Race is thus not only biological, but also socially constructed. It is both an output and an input in the stratification process. The process of social construction is, however, not neutral. So if you are unemployed, then society is more likely to classify you as black because of the racial stereotyping. Other forms of racial discrimination are then triggered so that race becomes a powerful shaper of economic prospects in life.


Racial inequality becomes actively (if sometimes unintentionally) reproduced in everyday interactions that further entrench racial divisions. Racial divisions, like other aspects of social structure, do not simply happen to people but are systematically correlated with how social circumstances conform to racial stereotyping. And this has important consequences for peoples’ economic chances in life.


When “localist” Leung Tin-Kei was discovered recently to have  “biological” Mainland roots, it triggered an immediate debate over whether “localism” is socially or biologically reproduced. Obviously “localism” cannot be attributed to biology.


Three factors have probably contributed to the rise of “localism” in Hong Kong. First, the slow progress of democratization has channeled frustration among some segments of the population into an indiscriminate hostility against all things associated with the Mainland. Ambitious politicians for opportunistic reasons have kindled such sentiments.


Second, the number of new immigrants that have arrived since 1976 is estimated to be almost 2 million. Most are from the Chinese mainland and arrived through family reunion via cross-border marriages (constituting some two-fifths of all marriages since the mid-1980s). This amounts to more than one quarter of the population. The number of immigrants that arrived in the two decades between 1996 and 2016 was about one million, about one seventh of the population.


These numbers dwarf immigration ratios in the United Kingdom and the United States of Brexit and Trump-election fame. Immigration in Hong Kong has obviously worsened economic inequality and laid huge stress on many social resources, despite the robustness and integrity of the city’s economic and social institutions.


Third, the relative worsening of the economic life prospects of the middle class in Hong Kong since the mid-1990s has created a growing near-poverty class. They are not in poverty as such, but see the cherished comforts of life — homeownership, good health care, quality education for their children — to be increasingly beyond their reach, especially when they still have to face a very long life after retirement. And like the sinking middle class everywhere in the rich countries, some have blamed their predicament on new immigrants.


If I were to look for an explanation for the rise of “localist” sentiments in Hong Kong, it would be in the falling economic and social circumstances that the have-nots have found themselves caught in since China’s opening. They have blamed it on the failure of Hong Kong’s political system to respond to their concerns. National education will not be enough to address such fears and anxieties, although it could promote better understanding. But “localist” sentiments have to be tackled through economic and social change.




Aliya Saperstein and Andrew M. Penner, “Racial Fluidity and Inequality in the United States”, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 118, Number 3, November 2012, pp.  676–727.





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