In October, the Hong Kong Football Association was fined CHF5000 by FIFA over supporters booing the Chinese national anthem in a World Cup qualifying match. Undeterred by FIFA’s punishment, Hong Kong fans jeered at the anthem again when they hosted China for another World Cup qualifier a month later. Banners in every corner that read “Hong Kong is not China” captured the attention of the international media.
The use of sport events, especially football matches, to express the sentiments of fans on national and political divides is not unheard of. What is more surprising is the drastic change of the Hong Kong people’s national identity in less than two decades after the city was returned to Chinese control. The society’s shift from embracing motherland to rejecting Chinese identity could well be explained by Beijing’s attempt to tighten its grip on the city after the handover.
On reunification in 1997, Beijing promised that the people of Hong Kong could preserve their way of life under the “one country, two systems” principle. This means Hong Kong would adopt a separate political and economic system from the mainland where the rights and freedoms of citizens would continue to be safeguarded. In addition, the Hong Kong government would enjoy a high degree of autonomy over its domestic affairs, and universal suffrage would eventually be implemented. The pledge reassured Hong Kong society that its relatively open and democratic system would not be compromised under the city’s new status.
Nevertheless, the presence of Chinese influence in Hong Kong has grown more and more pervasive. In 2012, the Beijing-appointed government sought to introduce a national education curriculum that portrayed the Communist Party of China as “progressive, selfless and united”. The policy was considered blatant brainwashing and triggered massive protests, forcing the government to back down. Deliberate attempt to foster affinity to the mainland only highlighted the differences in values between Hong Kong and China.
Furthermore, Beijing provoked huge social discontent by unilaterally settling Chinese citizens in Hong Kong. After the handover, the Chinese authorities devised the “one way permit” scheme that allowed certain Chinese citizens to apply for settlement in Hong Kong. The policy was conducted without the consent of Hong Kong’s immigration authorities, and continues to take place to this day. Since then, the number of mainland immigrants has surged to 760,000, equivalent to more than 10% of the city’s population. The policy has been criticised as a stampede on Hong Kong’s autonomy that resembles settler colonialism, and has significantly strained Hong Kong’s education, housing and welfare system.
Beijing’s well-known intolerance to dissent is embodied by its repeated obstruction to adopt universal suffrage in Hong Kong. It continues to pull the strings and interfere with the autonomy of the city through a puppet government. Having seen the promises of “one country, two systems” reneged on every possible front, the rage of Hong Kong eventually burst out and the people took to the streets last year, after Beijing imposed stringent restrictions on the next Chief Executive election that implied only Beijing’s preferred candidate could win.
Thought the 79-day Umbrella Revolution did not result in any substantial democratisation, the disillusionment of the Hong Kong society to Chinese rule was apparent. Many civic organisations and political parties have been established with the mission to preserve local culture and defend the city’s core values from Chinese encroachment. They have raised public awareness on issues that were previously neglected, such as the displacement of Cantonese by Mandarin in schools, and the disturbance to local communities by Chinese parallel traders. While advocacy for self-determination remains at a nascent stage, there is growing consensus that Hong Kong needs to escape Chinese rule.
In the end, Hong Kong held China to a goalless draw, leaving both teams unlikely to progress to the next stage of the tournament. At the same time, FIFA has also initiated a new investigation into the fans’ behaviour, with harsher punishment expected to be handed down. Despite the adversities, the people of Hong Kong have never been prouder to support their team.