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Hong Kong Rethinks its Relationship with Mainland China

2012 will see the 15th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to mainland China. But Hong Kongers have little mood for celebration. A survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong in December 2011, found that the number of respondents who view themselves as Hong Kongers is more than double the number who view themselves as Chinese.

Over the years, it has been a received wisdom that blessing from the mainland underpins the development of Hong Kong. This is most apparent when China’s support helped Hong Kong endure the 2003 SARS epidemic crisis and the 2009 global financial meltdown. However, after recent social and cultural clashes with the mainland, the Hong Kong public is now questioning that wisdom.

Comical presentation of Professor Kong Qingdong, by Hong Kong cartoonist Cuson Lo

In January 2012, hundreds of Hong Kongers protested outside luxury store Dolce & Gabbana, which allowed mainland Chinese tourists but not local residents to take photos in front of the store. In a separate incident, disputes broke out between Hong Kong passengers and mainland tourists who ate on a train. It turned into a public fury when Peking University professor Kong Qingdong added fuel by saying that Hong Kong people are “running dogs”.

In fact, in recent months, news headlines in Hong Kong are all about how mainlanders ‘invade’ the city. Local hospitals are stretched to the limits as pregnant women from the mainland crossed the border to give birth with the hope of securing a Hong Kong passport for their offspring. Mainland buyers exhausted the Hong Kong baby milk powder market amid food scandals in China. And as millions of Chinese tourists visit the city every year, it seems that all local residents could feel is their disregard of civic values and rule of law.

Last year, Hong Kong netizens made a popular music video named Locust World, which described mainland Chinese as “locusts” who like to “jump queues, spit in public”, “shout in restaurants, hotels and shops” and would use up the city’s resources. A version with English subtitle could be found here:

A view which is very common among mainlanders is that “without China’s economic support, Hong Kong would have been dead long ago.” But many Hong Kongers now think that the “mainland invasion” has done more harm than good to Hong Kong. Certain sectors, like retail, finance and real estate, have benefited greatly from mainlanders, but the inflation and housing bubbles created make the rest suffer. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s public system is yet to be prepared for a large influx of mainlanders. There is also a fear of the erosion of traditional Hong Kong values like the rule of law.

These views are now prevalent among Hong Kong bloggers and social critics. It is a complex challenge facing Hong Kong, one interlaced with local vs. mainland and poor vs. rich conflicts.

At Asia Sentinel, Alice Poon, a former real estate professional and author of Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong, explores the value gap between mainland and Hong Kong, and the fact that only a narrow range of sectors could benefit from closer relationship with the mainland:

The unbridgeable gap seems to be between (Hong Kongers’) acceptance and (most mainlanders’) rejection of or aversion to universal values like rule of law, democracy, equality and liberty. It is not through the latter’s fault that they find these values alien; it’s just because they have been living under a political system that has infiltrated them with the idea that those are not Chinese values and therefore no good for them. The system has taught people that all they need worry about is the economy and how to make money and practically nothing else. Morals aren’t important. Corruption can be tolerated. There is of course no lack of intellectuals in China who have refused to be brainwashed and who truly embrace universal values, but most of them unfortunately are rewarded with either political exile or incarceration.

It goes without saying that the only Hong Kong people who welcome mainland tourists, immigrants and shoppers are developers and their cronies (real estate agents, contractors etc.), especially those who are large shopping mall landlords. Even for retailers, whether or not they can benefit from the influx depends on whether the products they sell are mainlanders’ favorites. As for the rest of Hong Kongers, all they can feel towards the swamping inflow is resentment.

Meanwhile, however, the influx of Chinese capitals and tourists could have some damaging long-term effects on Hong Kong’s economy. Stanley5’s Blog explains:

正正是因為「自由行」、中資企業來港上市,以及給境外人士投資地產 ,搞到香港白白失去產業轉型的機會。現在香港只有金融、地產與旅遊服務業,大量人才與資金被吸過去,地價租金又被推高,以至製造業消亡,其他產業也一蹶不振,就連我最愛的港產片也快要消失了。我經常說:論出口品牌,韓國有SAMSUNG,台灣有 HTC,新加坡也有CREATIVE,香港有什麼?山寨機?莎莎?屈臣氏?米蘭站?

It is because of Hong Kong’s dependence on mainland tourists, the listing of Chinese enterprises in Hong Kong, and Chinese investments in real estate that it loses the opportunity to transform itself. Today, Hong Kong can only boost its finance, real estate and tourism services industries, which suck in a large amount of resources and talents. The real estate bubble leads to the death of the manufacturing industry. Other industries and products, like my favourite Hong Kong films, are also dying. I always say: in terms of export brands, South Korea has Samsung, Taiwan has HTC, even Singapore has Creative. What does Hong Kong have? Copycat phones? Sa Sa? Watson’s? Milan Station? [Note: The latter three are Hong Kong retailers.]

但令我討厭的是,現在不少來自大陸的所謂「遊客」,其實並非來旅遊,也非欣賞香港,而是為了「辦貨」、帶水貨,賺兩地貨幣的匯率差價,還有不少人是挪用公款、洗黑錢 (例如 D&G 要保護的人)。但最難頂的是他們部分人的惡劣舉止與財大氣粗。你叫我要包容,我告訴你,他們很多人根本就沒有「自由行」的資格!

But what annoys me is that many of the so-called “tourists” from mainland come here not to tour, but to buy products only to resell them for a profit in the mainland. And a large number of them do this with black money (like those under Dolce & Gabbana’s protection). And what is most disgusting is their rude behavior. If you tell me to be tolerant, I would say that many of them do not qualify to be “tourists”!

Profile image of @leungmantao

If the abundance of natural resources is an economic curse for some countries, the closeness to Chinese spending power is another form of curse for Hong Kong. Hong Kong has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. This is where you can find the world’s third-most expensive shopping strip, while over 100,000 people have to live in 6ft by 2ft “cage homes”. As Hong Kong has gotten more and more wealthy, many local residents are left behind. Prominent social critic Leung Man To draws our attention to the decline of Venice as an ominous warning for Hong Kong:

想當年威尼斯衰落之後,只能憑觀光賺錢;但遊客一多,物價便升,地租更是貴得離譜,於是漸漸逼退老居民,終於鬧到今日這步田地,好端端一座輝煌千年稱霸地中海的貿易大城只剩下可憐的六萬個倖存者。至少在飲食上,如今我能看到香港「威尼斯化」的迹象,「價廉物美」變得愈來愈難,又貴又不好吃的地方反而日益增多;要是肯一擲千金,選擇倒是不少。眼見茶餐廳「餐蛋麵」那兩片餐肉愈切愈薄,北上定居的人群愈去愈多,你叫香港人怎能不生氣?怎能不感到危機四伏?

After its decline, Venice could only depend on tourism for income; but as visitors become numerous, prices of commodities and real estates skyrocketed. This drove away the local residents. Today, only 60,000 residents remain in this glorious city which once dominated the Mediterranean for a thousand years. I can see Hong Kong following the path of Venice, at least from its restaurants. It is increasingly difficult to find “value for money” eating out places, but it’s not hard to find places which are expensive but so-so. Of course, you still have many choices if you are willing to pay. As the piece of meat in the “meat-egg noodles” you get in restaurant becomes thinner, and more and more people around you migrate to the mainland, how can we not feel angry? How can we not feel perilous?

That being said, while Hong Kong could blame the mainland for all the social issues, it might have more to do with the policy failures of the Hong Kong government. In the opinion of blogger Grey Reporter:

香港作為一富裕城市,但貧富差距之驚人,基層生活的匱乏,以至中產的生活質素也好不到那裡。公義、多元性、市容、環保、文化創意…等都跟真正富裕城市相去甚遠,這一切和內地人也沒有關係。

As a prosperous city, Hong Kong has shockingly high inequality. The grassroots population lacks basic security, and the middle class is not much better. Justice, diversity, city planning, environmental protection, culture and innovation…… in all these regards, Hong Kong lacks behind other cities which can justly call themselves rich. All these have nothing to do with the mainlanders.

政府無長遠計劃鼓勵主流港跟少數族裔以至新移民共融,也沒有魄力去長遠解決香港的醫療人手不足,房屋及各項福利如教育學額不足等問題,仍是採取頭痛醫頭,腳痛醫腳,以及自生自滅的方式。於是,造成資源不足所出現的民粹意識,不深究政府的規劃缺失,把矛頭指向「外來者」爭資源。

The government has no long-term planning to encourage minority groups or immigrants from mainland to integrate into the Hong Kong society. It also lacks a comprehensive and long-term approach to tackle the lack of resources in health care, housing and education. It views them in bits and pieces. In the end, when cracks appear in the public system, populist opinion directs their anger at the “outsiders” who steal away their fair share. But what we should criticize is the government’s failure to plan for the long-term.

In the end, he hopes that ordinary Hong Kong people could realize the fact that they, like most mainlanders, live in an unjust political system under which the rich and the powerful collude. They share the same destiny, that is, to end this injustice:

其實香港人和內地人有著共同命運,就是對抗中共強權及與之勾結的富豪權貴,結束專制和不公義的執政狀況。相比之下,一些內地人的「不文明」舉動算不了甚麼。畢竟如果認為香港是一個包容的社會,便應該抱以寬容及「循循善誘」的態度。要知道,三、四十年前的香港也「文明」不了多少(現在也不見得香港人人文明守禮),大家還不是如此走過來。

Actually, Hong Kongers and mainlanders share the same destiny – to end the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party and the collusion between the rich and the powerful. Relatively speaking, the “uncivilized” behaviors of some mainlanders do not matter much. After all, if Hong Kong calls itself an inclusive society, it should be more tolerant and patient. Thirty or forty years ago, Hong Kong was not much better (and not all Hong Kongers now are civilized). We have gone through the same path.
  • James

    There are definitely some problems and conflicts existing between the Hong Kongers and Chinese from the mainland. However, as a Canadian Chinese who was born in Hong Kong and have been educated and worked in both places, I can compare what had happened before and after 1997. I was born in a not too rich family and had worked myself up to be a senior executive. I find that the British system was much worse in the areas of democracy and equality. No Chinese or dogs were allowed to enter or live in the mid-levels of Mount Victoria. Official language was English only when 98% were Chinese. Expatriates were treated much different than the local people. They enjoyed free boarding and special allowance and high income. Nobody had the right to criticise the Government or he will be detended or exiled. I still remember that a young Hong Konger who demonstrated his dissatisfaction for a price increase on the Star Ferry from 20 cents to 25 cents HKD. It was a very peaceful demonstration but he was thrown into jail for 3 months. Young people this day are disgruntled when they could not find a job with good salary after their college education. In our time there were only two universities instead of eight. Graduates were willing to settle witha low paid job and the unemployment rate was high. Now Hong Kong is enjoying an unemployment rate of less than 3 %. Do they know the difference? Do they aware of that there are many miserable poor aroungd the world even in the United States? Hong Kong is now known as the city of demonstration.
    Talking about the misbehaviour of the Chinese tourists, this is something that will be improved over time. They are not that much different than the Hong Kong locals dated back 40 years ago. Why do we expect that the Chinese could change and improve overnight?. I suspect that some Hong Kongers are either lack of patience or or have too short memory. What we should look for is a evolutionary change, not a revolutionary one.

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  • Charlie

    First thing first, when you say you’re Canadian Chinese, this just totally puts me off. Are you trying to tell us that, you, as a Canadian Chinese, who was just BORN in Hong Kong and have been educatED and workED in Hong Kong, know exactly what is happening in Hong Kong right now? I mean right now, at this moment. I don’t understand why you’re comparing before and after 1997 because this is not the POINT. And I don’t understand how can you miss a simple point like that, oh, wait… you’re CANADIAN CHINESE. Well hello, you little Chinese from Canada, let me tell you what this article is trying say.

    No one is saying we should totally go back to the time when all the British guys ruled us, no. All we’re asking is that the Chinese government should stay out of all the business except for militaries as it has promised.

    Do you actually know the minute just before 6.30 EVERY SINGLE DAY, the National anthem will be on television everytime? Do you know why? The Chinese government thinks we are not “Chinese” enough so they planned to brainwash us with the National anthem. And you’re welcome, just saved you from all the laughs when you tell people that you’ve given a comment on this issue.

    Oh, and let me tell you, we’re glad that there are tourists in Hong Kong and they just helped our economy. So? We should bring the whole *** China to Hong Kong? Have you realised that in such a small space Hong Kong will actually crack when there are too many tourists (and I promise 98% are people from Mainland China)? Especially when they’re not behaving themselves. Are you expecting us to tolerant them when they are just toileting anywhere they pick? Are you expecting us to tolerant them when they just ignore all the laws in Hong Kong and just eat and throw rubbish everywhere? And are you expecting us that to watch the babies who are actually qualified as a Hong Kong citizens to starve when all those people from China take away baby’s formula which belong to us? So you mean when they’re doing all those we should just sit here and think “Well, they will improve when time comes, so let’s just wait and watch all our babies die from starvation?”

    Do you know why all the rentals and price for apartments are so high? Well thank you for all of those people coming from Mainland China. If you don’t know, well shame on you. They lifted up the price by buying them and reselling them in a very hating way. I’m not an expert on this so I cannot tell you the exact process. But if you’re aware of the issue you should know.

    And do you know in past ten years, the salary has not been raised but all the things in Hong Kong have been raised like a horror movie? Do you know why? Because of all the tourists from Mainland China. Overloading them to Hong Kong has caused those problems.

    So now you’re sitting on chair and think you know it all?

    So now you’re telling us to what?

    I found your comment a piece of sh*t and recommend you not to comment on this kind of issue anymore.

    • Li hanhui

      So much hate and envy. Would it be better if no mainland tourist comes, no mainland company list on HK stock exchange so you can go back to your 6X2ft cage and live in the illusion that you are better than the mainland people.

      Grow up. HK people I meet on the mainland also talk loudly, gamble on the fast trains when bored and generally want everything cheap.

      Instead of hating the mainlanders, why not embrace them and be part of the bigger story, CHINA.

      On Christmas eve, i was in HK and I saw lots of youngsters milling around Jordan street with nowhere to go except the water front which is crowded. The TV presenter reported Christmas Eve in a shopping centre under a christmas tree.

      As blogger Grey reporter said, HK people have only themselves to blame for the mess. Do not blame outsiders.

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