China’s Happiest Day, Hong Kong’s Dark Cloud

Posted: July 16, 2012 in Chinese Culture

When I used to teach in Nanjing, a regular discussion topic I’d give my students was to describe the happiest day of their lives. Without fail, I’d always have a few students in each class who said their happiest day was July 1st, 1997 – the day Hong Kong returned to China. For the past few days I’ve been in Hong Kong asking locals the same question to see if the feeling is mutual. It pretty clearly is not.

When asked what their happiest day was, those Hong Kongers I talked to said things like when the day they graduated college, the first time they went out drinking with friends, and a Dragon Boat Festival. Unsurprisingly, not a single person mentioned the territory’s handover to China. The more interesting part however was what they said next. I’d tell them I was asking because many young mainland people would say Hong Kong coming to China was their happiest day. When I said this, there was uniform laughter. Here’s a few of the responses:

Of course they say that. It’s like if you give someone a diamond necklace. It’s the happiest day for them maybe, but not really for you.

We remember that as the day dark clouds came over Hong Kong [Note: The day of the handover was literally very cloudy and rainy].

That’s ridiculous.

It doesn’t mean anything to us.

England, China – there’s not much difference. We’re still just Hong Kong.

Ha, more like the worst day of my life.

I just talked to about two dozen people at bars and my hotel and they were all under 35, so this is by no means a fair representation of greater public opinion. But I think it’s pretty telling that not a single person had positive things to say, even after I tried to nudge a few in that direction. Just more to suggest Beijing has a very long way to go in winning the hearts and minds of Hong Kong.

  1. Ching says:

    As a former Hong Kong-ian, I share the same sentiment. We are Hong Kong, Pearl of the East, the Fragrant Harbour. How can we be happy with a country whose government is known for suppression rather than expression? I view Hong Kong as the New York City of the East. Can you imagine if New York City is suddenly given over to a new government with the threat of internet censorship, or secret crackdowns on protests of the government (this has happened in Hong Kong already), or even just the basic situation of millions of people from outside of city suddenly flooding already crowded NYC? We are proud to be Chinese, but being Hong Kong Chinese is an entirely different identity.

  2. foarp says:

    “Just more to suggest Beijing has a very long way to go in winning the hearts and minds of Hong Kong”

    Actually I’d turn this one inside-out. Suppose the handover to Beijing had been awesome for HK people – would they say it was the happiest day of their lives? No, because any ordinary person, free of the malign influence of brainwashing, would put a political event over, say, their wedding day, or the birth of their first child, or their graduation, because human-beings are hard-wired to value tangible things like family over abstract concepts like nationhood.

    Think of your own family – unless perhaps they had been in a concentration camp, how many people among your grandparent’s generation would say that VE day was the happiest day of their lives? Go to a place like Poland or Taiwan – how many people there will say that the day of the first free elections was the happiest day of their lives? In any place where people enjoy a reasonable degree of freedom of speech, how many will say that a political/historical event was the happiest day of their lives ten years after the fact?

    Some people like to make out that the kind of parroting of government rhetoric you see coming from young people in mainland China is somehow an ingrained part of Chinese culture. This is a million miles from the truth. Instead it is the result of influence of a system of control over education and the media designed to create a single, fixed view of life and to make the receipients reject anything that conflicts with this view. It is the result of what must be called “brainwashing” if this word is to have any meaning, even though some people may not like the use of this term. Free thinkers exist in China despite this,l not because of it.

    • sinostand says:

      I wasn’t expecting a single Hong Kong person to say that was the happiest day of their life – even if it was a good day. What they said after I told them why I was asking was what I thought was interesting.

    • foarp says:

      The HKer’s responses are merely a somewhat more negative version of the kind of responses you’d see about any political transition in a relatively free society (e.g., the election of George W. Bush in the US). It’s only in contrast to the mainlander’s responses that they seem extraordinary.

      As a Brit, I’d get a lot of questions about the HK handover in mainland China, the usual expectation of the asker being that people in Britain saw it as a defeat or come-upance of some sort. In reality, most people barely noticed it – I only remember the day because it was also the day of my first driving lesson.

  3. Touche. Great arguments. Keep up the good work.

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