Lillian Ngan reviews a new book about the manoeuvres of identity in the quickly evolving political and cultural landscape of Hong Kong.

Iam-chong Ip, Hong Kong’s New Identity Politics: Longing for the Local in the Shadow of China (Routledge, 2020), 184pp.

In Hong Kong’s New Identity Politics, Iam-chong Ip examines Hong Kong, asking what does “the local” mean in a city caught between the forces of neoliberalism and postcolonialism – a city whose political future is still uncertain. China’s hardening stance imposes new challenges on issues relating to Hong Kong identity. These cultural struggles change what it means to be local or native. Instead of focusing on how we passively identify, locate, and imagine social life, Ip is more interested in how we actively actualize agency in identifying with Hong Kong. He borrows multiple theoretical frameworks from cultural studies, situating his analysis geopolitically to unpack the mechanisms of power, and the discursive dynamics, that determine identity politics.

Following Stuart Hall, Ip concurs that identity is a subjective practice, which has a political effect in our social formations. Ip believes our identities are formed in “context,” a notion introduced by Lawrence Grossberg, who emphasizes that we need context to understand unstable truths, particularly in regards to identity politics. Our discourses, our shared ways of talking, are where our identities circulate. The many different ways people identify with Hong Kong reveals something obvious: how people form their local identity is very complex. Ip expands on the ideas of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, arguing that when we define ourselves, we have the chance to free ourselves from how society has defined us our whole lives. This means self-identification creates new possibilities that can break with the past. He aims to use Hong Kong identity to shed light on global identity politics.

Ip proposes that thinking locally is not a given fact; but rather, moments of localization contribute to a process of building up the idea of the local. Our performance of time and space helps turn us into local subjects, who recognize ourselves through performance, representation, and action. Ip is particularly concerned with how twisted temporal and spatial distortions create a new kind of Hong Kong identity amidst the chaos of the post-1997 administration.

Opening with the decline of the “Hong Kong myth” – the free market, individual freedom, the rule of law, and democracy, all of which were originally promoted by Governor Chris Patten and were continued on by the four Chief Executives who followed – Ip identifies the usage of “myth” in semiotics, pointing to it as an example of a fragmented discourse. Although myths are neither true nor false, their power manipulates and disperses social formations. The way that these Hong Kong myths were told, and the changes in how they are being told now, captures a futile effort to preserve them. Ironically, all this effort has only caused the public to talk about Hong Kong identity more. The fall of the myth thus gives rise to authoritarian neoliberalism, which brings capitalism and state control together. This prioritizes China’s development.

Ip further elaborates on the neoliberal subject by analyzing the interaction between the words jiyu/geiyu 機遇 (opportunity) and social process. As Ip argues, neoliberalism does not work through indoctrination. Media circulation and daily conversation are more important and effective in spreading the message. Facing a change in political status and economic challenges, politicians stress the term jiyu/geiyu to encourage Hongkongers to grasp the opportunities offered by integration with China. The discourse shapes the notion of jiyu/geiyu as an object to be created, and conditioned, by crisis. The population is constantly reminded of Hong Kong’s marginalized status and it is the public’s obligation to take advantage of these opportunities provided by China’s economic reform. However, the rhetoric of marginalization is, in fact, born out of nowhere. It is simply a gesture used to conceal the conflict with China, while simultaneously a tool to mobilize Hong Kong’s citizens to pursue the capitalist desires of the state.

Regarding the questions of locals versus non-locals and everyday people versus elites in Hong Kong, Ip interprets these factors through the concept of  “ethnocracy.” In Ip‘s analysis, ethnocracy is not merely a political structure controlled by a dominant ethnic group, but a place which makes the unstable connections between nation-building and citizenship visible. Ip contends that nativist protests against mainland visitors is an attempt to restore agency and create a reimagined space to negotiate boundaries with the other. This shifts the nativists’ struggles from top-down to bottom-up, from disempowerment to empowerment, in which the nativists develop a practice of subjectivity to reclaim their role as the “host.” Ip’s ethnocracy continues in the discussion of political deinstitutionalization. The aggressiveness of young activists in the LegCo and Umbrella Movement demonstrate a new form of political subjectivity born out of ambiguity, ambivalence, and contradiction. Nativists express their territorial loyalty, contesting the “existential threat” through their actions. The fear of a disappearing ethnic boundary also hastens nativism to absorb neoliberal economic ideas, accusing immigrants from the mainland of preying on Hong Kong’s resources. The rhetoric is less about achieving market equilibrium than it is about antagonizing one’s self in light of an imminent threat. Nativism is sometimes involuntarily invoked as a reaction, but not always a solution.

Throughout the three interviews Ip has given over the past two years, he questions what is “youth’s” place in time, with regards to reorienting the public’s political consciousness. Ip disentangles the connection between activism and right-wing populism in relation to temporality and normalized time. The increasing popularity of territorialized and temporalized vocabulary such as “occupation” and “restoration” exemplify the transition from anticipated time to “disjointed time.” Young activists’ future fantasies offer new perspectives on identity politics. The “becoming” of identity is full of unimaginable potential.   

In contrast to the nativists, Ip turns to ganpiao 港漂 (Hong Kong drifters), who left mainland China to go to Hong Kong for education and work. Here Ip analyzes another form of self-identification, how space and place relates to self. Ip argues drifting is a process of creating translocality, as migrants take their identity with them and create new ones where they land. Therefore, ganpiao are “internal Others,” unsettling Hong Kong’s local identity. Their simultaneous insider/outsider status refreshes our understanding of both cultural boundaries and identity.

In the epilogue of the book, “Will to Power,” Ip calls for attention and caution when understanding what it feels like to be a “community of fate.” Structures of feeling is a multi-directional and multi-relational dynamic. The slogan “Go Hongkongers!” (香港人加油!) in the 2019 protests against the extradition bill, rightly explains the phenomenon of affective collectivity. Nevertheless, we should be self-critical about our current position. As pointed out by Ip, “what we lack is an image of what our shared way of life might be. An alternative vision, speaking to, rather than fully endorsing or rejecting, the current affective assemblage of enunciations that predominates the political scene, remains to be created” (136).

Hong Kong’s New Identity Politics pens Ip’s observations and thoughts about the city’s tremendous transition. The book reorients the discussion of identity politics from object to subject, empowering individuals by giving them agency. As Meaghan Morris says, identity needs to be claimed and explained. Aggressive activism, mass protests, the chanting of slogans: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” reveals a set of power mechanisms and geopolitical tensions; as well as, the mobilization of feelings from below. Ip’s book recalibrates identity politics as an understanding of context.

Lillian Ngan is a PhD student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California. Her research interests include racial and language politics in Sinophone literature, Sinophone-Vietnam cultural relations, and decolonial solidarity at the intersections of (settler) colonialism, imperialism, and transpacific studies.

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