Trouble Down South: Why Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese Aren’t Getting Along

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Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

A young girl holds Hong Kong and Chinese flags as she poses for a photo before the Hong Kong skyline on China's National Day on Oct. 1, 2011

The traditional distance between Hong Kong Chinese and their mainland counterparts was thrown into sharp relief recently, after two widely seen videos dramatized the cultural gulf that still exist between the two sides nearly 15 years after Hong Kong’s reunification with China. In one, a cell-phone video disseminated on social-network sites and Hong Kong TV news, arguments erupt between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese after a local man tries to stop a mainland girl from eating in a Hong Kong subway carriage. The other is a response from a nationalist academic, Peking University professor Kong Qingdong, couched in language so virulent that at least one version was removed from YouTube for violating the site’s policy on “hate speech.” The professor says, “Some Hong Kong people don’t see themselves as Chinese … They are bastards,” before adding, “These people are too used to being running dogs for British imperialists.”

Hong Kong’s colonial past is one reason why many see such a rigid delineation between “us” and “them.” Large numbers of Hong Kong Chinese retain British or other foreign travel documents and take a balanced view of the colonial era — viewing it as a time of racial or social injustices, certainly, but also as source of many of the city’s defining advantages, including common law, a global outlook and media freedom. These have been contributing factors in a distinctive local culture that has long caused many Hong Kong people to quietly regard themselves as being far from ordinary Chinese. These days, however, the issue of identity is spilling into a more public forum.

A University of Hong Kong public-opinion poll that has been conducted every six months since 1997 measures the number of Hong Kong residents who identify as Hong Kong citizens, Chinese citizens or some combination of the two. In the latest survey, released in December, the number of respondents identifying themselves first and foremost as Hong Kong citizens was the highest in 10 years, while the number who saw themselves primarily as Chinese sank to a 12-year low. The results hit a nerve: mainland officials called the poll unscientific, and state-run media lashed out at the survey’s main organizer, accusing him of working for the British to “incite Hong Kong people to deny they are Chinese.”

In part, Hong Kong people’s negativity toward mainland Chinese reflects discontent over the Communist government’s control over the supposedly autonomous region. The dominant political forces in Hong Kong are pro-China, and the Hong Kong government is viewed as regularly kowtowing to Beijing. Hong Kong is politically distinct from the mainland, most notably with its laws governing freedom of speech and freedom of protest, and any muddling of this distinction is “frightening” to locals, says Gordon Mathews, a scholar on Hong Kong identity at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The greatest fear Hong Kong people have is Hong Kong becoming just one more city in China.”

Pocketbook issues are also exacerbating political and cultural divisions. In recent years, wealthy mainland Chinese have become a welcome lifeline for Hong Kong’s struggling economy, filling hotel rooms and emptying designer stores (their shopping sprees make up one-third of retail sales). On the other hand, their speculation in Hong Kong’s property market is widely resented. Mainland Chinese buyers are behind 30% of all luxury-home sales, and there is a perception that they are driving up overall property prices, leaving even middle-class Hong Kong people struggling to afford exorbitant rents or mortgage down payments. Hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese migrants — many of them the spouses and children of Hong Kong residents — have meanwhile put pressure on housing and school places in an already overcrowded city. Even milk formula has at times become scarce in supermarkets. After the 2008 tainted-milk scandal in China, mainland Chinese crossed the border to stock up on imported formula in Hong Kong, denuding shelves and leaving local parents fuming. The net result is increasingly open antagonism that can be triggered by seemingly minor pretexts. Earlier this month, hundreds-strong protests took place outside the shop front of luxury Italian brand Dolce & Gabbana because a security guard told locals only mainland Chinese and other tourists were allowed to take photos in front of the store.

The area of greatest contention lies in the numbers of pregnant women from the mainland entering Hong Kong to give birth, which automatically grants the babies residency, as well as the free schooling and high-quality health care that goes along with it. In 2010, 37% of babies born in Hong Kong were to mainland families, in which neither parent was a Hong Kong resident. It has become alarmingly difficult for pregnant women, local or otherwise, to reserve hospital beds in the maternity ward, even after the number of mainland women allowed in Hong Kong hospitals was capped at 34,400 for this year.

A week ago, dozens of pregnant women marched in protest in the cold and rain. The women, along with hundreds more husbands and other supporters, were calling for a legislative change to overturn automatic right of abode through local birth. “If [mainland people] come here for the resources and welfare and are not contributing, then it’s a problem. It is out of control now,” said Zumi Fung, an expectant mother who was part of the protest. The 80,000-member Facebook group that organized the demonstration has become a forum to vent vitriol at the mainland Chinese in Hong Kong, who are called by the derogatory term “locusts” and much worse.

The issue of mainland mothers has become a central talking point for Hong Kong’s election in March, when the Chief Executive will be selected by an electoral committee of 1,200. The two front-runners have both vowed to improve the situation with tighter border control and quotas. One of them, former Chief Secretary Henry Tang, has also called for a more “inclusive” mind-set to create a more “harmonious society.” But it is doubtful that Hong Kong people will adopt harmonious attitudes toward China or their mainland brethren any time soon. “I think it will only happen when China becomes a democracy,” says Mathews. “And I’m not holding my breath on that.”

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