Hong Kongers' resentment of mainland Chinese is on the rise, stoked by the latter's growing affluence and movement to the city in search of a better life
By Ching Cheong
THE escalating tension between Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese boiled over late last month over a pack of instant noodles - or where not to eat it, to be exact.
The incident started with a Hong Kong man telling a group of mainland tourists not to eat it on the train because it is not allowed. It soon flared into an angry exchange during which the man was mocked for his bad Mandarin and a sarcastic remark made about one of the Chinese women apologising in English.
The war of words soon spread to both sides of the Shenzhen River, which separates mainland China from its Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.
The ugly incident went viral after a video of it appeared on the Internet. Nearly 15 years after Hong Kong's return to China and despite its economic integration with the mainland, a cultural disconnect remains.
Peking University professor Kong Qingdong, known for his ultranationalist views, added fuel to the fire by labelling Hong Kongers who do not speak Mandarin 'dogs trained by colonialists', 'worshippers of the West' and 'bastards'. Tellingly, 59 per cent of Chinese netizens surveyed by popular portal Tencent agreed with him.
Mainland Chinese supporters of Professor Kong blame Hong Kongers who, in their view, have a superiority-inferiority complex that makes them hostile to mainlanders. Before 1978, when China first embarked on reforms to open up its economy, the people of Hong Kong were a thriving colony under the British, and felt superior to and contemptuous of their poor and backward mainland cousins. But feelings of inferiority and envy among Hong Kongers grew after the 1997 handover as they saw their mainland compatriots becoming more affluent.
These mainlanders view many Hong Kongers as 'hopelessly poisoned' by more than 150 years of colonial rule and yet to learn to become 'proper' Chinese citizens. Their lack of nationalism explains their mainlander resentment, the group adds.
Hong Kongers deny this. While economic integration with China is welcome and many benefit from it, they are only too aware that integration increasingly exposes them to such spillover risks from the mainland.
The tainted milk scandal is one example. A society that allows toxic milk powder to be produced sends worried Chinese parents flocking to Hong Kong to stock up on the genuine stuff. Their desperate act then drives up prices in Hong Kong.
Unconscionable business practices in China affect many other products, as mainlanders drive up demand and the consumer prices for these in Hong Kong.
Another risk is immigration. Those with financial means from China seek residency rights in cities with better opportunities and living conditions. The growing number of pregnant mainland women vying for maternity services, hospital facilities and related resources has put a great strain on Hong Kong and deprived many local mothers-to-be of the very same services.
Mainland women admit that their motive for having their babies in Hong Kong is to secure Hong Kong citizenship for the children, ensuring that they grow up in a better and safer environment.
The mainland's problems have also spilled into real estate. Hong Kong property prices, already among the most expensive in the world, nearly doubled between 2007 and last year, jacked up by demand from newly rich mainland Chinese.
New property developments coming up in traditionally poorer areas of Hong Kong can command prices of close to HK$10,000 (S$1,600) per sq ft. At this rate, even middle-class Hong Kongers will struggle to afford a small flat, while low-income ones are priced out.
Some developers open their showrooms for deluxe projects only to mainland buyers. The much-publicised Dolce and Gabbana photo-taking fiasco, which led more than 1,000 Hong Kongers to protest in front of its store, is not the first time that a retailer has discriminated against locals.
Hong Kongers also find the conspicuous consumption patterns of mainland Chinese irksome. Many of the latter think nothing of paying cash upfront for a HK$10 million apartment.
As the Hong Kong authorities do not require reporting of cash movement across its borders or of large currency transactions above a certain threshold level, there are suspicions that some of the huge property purchases could have been funded with money of dubious origin. This in turn raises concerns that Hong Kong is being used as a conduit for black money from the mainland.
The cultural clash is borne out by a recent poll which found that only 16.6 per cent of Hong Kongers see themselves as Chinese citizens first, compared with more than 38 per cent three years ago. Instead, more and more consider themselves to be Hong Kong citizens or Hong Kong Chinese.
The survey findings angered Chinese officials who accused Dr Robert Chung, the director of Hong Kong University's Public Opinion Programme, which conducted the poll, of 'sowing the seeds of hatred' against the mainland in order to 'cultivate separatism'.
To Hong Kongers, many of whom refer to mainland Chinese as 'locusts', this reaction is another example of the blatant violation of the high level of autonomy promised Hong Kong under Beijing's 'one country, two systems' principle.
Hong Kong won't become a Tibet or Xinjiang, say analysts
Rising tension with mainlanders is over culture and values
BEIJING - Relations between Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese are at their worst in nearly 15 years, but scholars do not see China's special administrative region (SAR) becoming a political hot spot.
Hong Kong will not go the way of restive Tibet or Xinjiang, they say, even though a small minority in the city has questioned whether it will be better off independent.
Tempers flared and tensions rose after a spate of incidents in recent weeks, from an online video of a Hong Kong subway spat that went viral, to a Peking University lecturer's disparaging insults and an inflammatory newspaper advertisement portraying mainlanders as locusts.
The verbal clashes and name-calling are over culture and values, and livelihood issues, rather than deeper fissures like race or religion, say the scholars.
'There is no religious or identity problem. It is mainly about livelihood issues,' said Professor Yin Hongbiao, a historian from Peking University.
Tibet and Xinjiang are more complicated as they involve ethnic minorities, he noted. Armed clashes have broken out between the locals and the authorities in these two regions, with reports of unrest in Tibet in just the past week.
Hong Kong is also not like Taiwan, said Prof Yin. After losing a civil war to the Chinese communists in 1949, Kuomintang forces set up a rival government in Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province to be eventually reunified with the Chinese mainland.
Other scholars interviewed by The Straits Times agree, saying they do not see residents of the former British colony agitating for independence.
'The overwhelming majority of people in Hong Kong do not think about independence. They know this is not an option and do not explore it as something worth their time,' said Professor Steve Tsang, an expert in contemporary Chinese studies at Nottingham University.
Not to mention that Hong Kongers abhor violence, he added. 'Violence or anything that is not peaceful demonstration is generally deemed inappropriate and unacceptable by the overwhelming majority of people in Hong Kong,' he said.
On its part, Beijing has refrained from wading into the fray and has not reacted to an anti-mainlander ad published in Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper on Wednesday.
A day earlier, Dr Peng Qinghua, director of Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, expressed regret at the remarks by Peking University lecturer Kong Qingdong, in which he referred to Hongkongers as 'dogs'.
Online, however, some Chinese accuse Hong Kongers of being ungrateful despite owing their living to the mainland.
But analyst Hung Ho-fung from Johns Hopkins University said that such mistaken views of Hong Kong's one-sided reliance on the Chinese hinterland, widely propagated in the mainland media, have irked many of the city's residents.
Instead, as political analyst Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong pointed out, both sides need each other.
'Hong Kong still requires economic backing from the mainland. And Beijing also draws substantial benefits from Hong Kong, a leading financial centre, plus other software expertise from the SAR,' he said.
Assistance from the mainland helped Hong Kong's economy bounce back from the 2008-2009 financial crisis to chalk up growth of 7 per cent in 2010 and 5 per cent last year. Unemployment in the third quarter of last year was 3.2 per cent, a 13-year low.
Big spenders from China also helped prop up retail and property sales, accounting for up to half of new home sales in Hong Kong. But the gains have not trickled down to the masses. While the likes of property developers or luxury stores have benefited, the average Hong Konger feels the pinch instead, as surges in demand drive up prices for goods from milk powder to homes.
Professor Anthony Cheung, a public administration expert, noted in the Hong Kong Journal that despite the growth, the wealth gap has widened. The city's Gini co-efficient, which measures income disparity, with one being the worst, rose from 0.518 in 1996 to 0.533 in 2006. Median household income in 2009 stayed at HK$17,500 (S$2,800) per month, the same level in 1999.
This week, the Hong Kong government, which has seen its reserves boosted by tax income from increased property sales, announced measures like tax cuts and increased pensions to help its citizens cope with rising costs.
But fundamental problems need to be dealt with to ease tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland, say scholars.
'If the Hong Kong government does nothing to reduce increasing visitors' impact on local livelihoods, and if the Chinese government does not restrain its media in promoting mistaken views about Hong Kong-mainland relations, tensions are set to worsen further,' Prof Hung warned.