Enframent and Resistance, Hong Kong in the 21st Century

Having recently read ‘Colonising Egypt’ by Timothy Mitchell, I couldn’t help but be drawn into his theory of enframent, which he used to address the place of colonialism within the critique of modernity. The idea of enframent is simple enough, it describes the process in which a container is placed upon a society, enframing the society’s inhabitants within new structures of power and order. The simplicity of this definition makes the theory incredibly versatile, enabling us to apply it beyond the colonial sphere. To prove this, I have chosen to explore the relationship between China and Hong Kong within the 21st century, a case study which details the complexities of enframent within the modern world.

     In recent times, when we think of Hong Kong and China, the first thing that tends to come to mind is civil unrest. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, news reports to do with these two entities were primarily dominated by ongoing protests which were caused by attempts to introduce a new extradition law to Hong Kong. Yet, between 2003 and 2009 more residents of Hong Kong identified themselves as Chinese citizens, than as citizens of a localized identity, begging the questions ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘Why did this change?’. [1]

     The answer to these questions I believe, rests in the importance of disciplinary power, an idea that Mitchell takes from Michel Foucault. [2] After the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, spoke of the need to make the city more Chinese. For example, advocating the need for civic education amongst the youth, stressing that it was important that they, ‘‘would have national pride as Chinese.’’ [3] This is important as patriotic education represents a soft policy, which could subtly regulate the power of thought and behaviour. Furthermore, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government targeted the youth of the city through organising activities such as inviting mainland nationalist’s heroes to tour and perform in Hong Kong. [4] It is, therefore, clear that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempted in the early 2000’s to enframe the youth of Hong Kong through the introduction of disciplinary policies, which disseminated nationalist rhetoric.

     So where did this all go wrong? Marilynn Brewer suggests that Chinese integration policies failed to garner widespread support for the Chinese government. [5] Instead, within the transition period an ‘identity conflict’ arose, as Beijing was unable to strike a balance between differentiating Hong Kong identity and their desire to assimilate the city. For example, the demolition of the Star Ferry terminal in 2006 was seen by many as an attempt by the CCP to remove a symbol of protest from Hong Kong’s collective memory. [6] A decision which led to widespread protests and the development of a heritage conservation movement, which was clearly tied to concerns about the erasure of Hong Kong identity. These concerns can be found to date back as early as 2004 when 300 professionals, concerned that Hong Kong’s identity was being eroded, issued a declaration in the press to uphold values such as human rights and democracy. [7] It would, therefore, seem that disciplinary measures employed by the Chinese where not subtle enough, gradually pushing many Hong Kong residents towards a localised identity to combat the ‘mainlandisation’ (enframent) of the city. This is comparable to Mitchell’s descriptions of enframent policies in Egypt in the 1830’s, where disciplinary reforms, such as the reorganisation of the military and agriculture were met with large scale resistance as they were too overt. [8] Furthermore, Brewer believes that perceived threats towards Hong Kong were amplified by the depth of pre-existing regional identity within the city, leading inhabitants to become more inclined to respond to these threats with political resistance and conflict. [9]

     It, therefore, seems that although mainland China was initially able to begin enframing Hong Kong within the ideals of the CCP, these soon unravelled as the pace and intensity of disciplinary action became too overt. This in turn led to the development of a stronger local identity, setting the stage for the protest movements of 2014 and 2019.

[1] Yew Chiew Ping, Kwong Kin-ming, ‘Hong Kong Identity on the Rise’, Asian Survey 54:6 (2014), p. 1089.

[2] Disciplinary power is a mechanism of power that regulates the thought and behaviour of social actors through subtle means such as surveillance and through institutions (i.e. schools and the military).

[3] Ping, Kin-ming, ‘on the Rise’, p. 1089.

[4] Examples of these heroes are Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut and medallists from 2004 and 2008 Olympic games. Ibid.

[5] Marilynn B. Brewer, ‘Multiple Identities and Identity Transition: Implications for Hong Kong’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations 23:2 (1999), p. 195.

[6] Carolyn Cartier, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), p. 76.

[7] Ping, Kin-ming, ‘on the Rise’, pp. 1102-1103.

[8] Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkley, 1988), pp. 41-42.

[9] Brewer, ‘Identity Transition’, p. 196.


Brewer, Marilynn B., ‘Multiple Identities and Identity Transition: Implications for Hong Kong’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations 23:2 (1999), pp. 187-197.

Cartier, Carolyn, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), pp. 59-83.

Mitchell, Timothy, Colonising Egypt (Berkley, 1988).

Ping, Yew Chiew, Kin-ming, Kwong, ‘Hong Kong Identity on the Rise’, Asian Survey 54:6 (2014), pp. 1088-1112.

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