Earlier this year, The Diplomat magazine published an article about a televised rant by Kong Qingdong, a Peking University professor of literature, against Hong Kong, who denounced Mandarin-speaking Hong Kongers (predominantly Cantonese-speaking) as “running dogs”, a derogatory term used during class warfare raging in China during the 50s and 60s.
Kong Qingdong's televised rant related to an incident in which a young Mandarin-speaking girl dropped contents of her cup noodle she had been eating on a Hong Kong underground train. Her family, from Mainland China, was likely not informed that eating on the subway was banned in Hong Kong. When a Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong local objected to the girl's behavior, an argument erupted, and the scene -- recorded on a mobile phone -- soon went viral.
Speaking in defense of the Mainland Chinese family, Kong Qingdong ranted about Hong Kongers who "think they're not Chinese", saying such Hong Kong residents were "not human," but "dogs".
The subway incident illustrated the complex relationship between China and Hong Kong: because of the latter's history as a colonial holding of Britain until 1997, many residents continue to self-identify as only Hong Kong residents, different in both language and culture from Mainland Chinese.
Attitudes in Hong Kong toward Mainland China
Hong Kong is incorporated in the People’s Republic of China as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) in what has been dubbed as “One Country, Two Systems.” Even though they belong to the same country, several incidents point to the reality that they see themselves -- and are seen by others -- as being different.
On January 8, 2012, Dolce & Gabbana caused an uproar in Hong Kong by banning them (and not Mainland Chinese citizens or other foreigners) from taking photos inside and outside their new store. Hong Kong residents protested in the streets and swarmed the Italian designer store with digital cameras, demanding an apology (which the company promptly issued).
Buttressed by the highly status-focused culture in Hong Kong, the market for counterfeit designer products in Hong Kong is huge and profitable. However, Hong Kong locals weren't just angry about Dolce & Gabbana’s attempt to target local counterfeiters: Hong Kongers were specifically angry that they were being discriminated against, while the Mainland Chinese weren't.
"The experience of having been under British influence has embedded in the Hong Kong Chinese mentality a sense of superiority over Mainland Chinese even up to perhaps 10 years ago," a Vancouver-based realtor, who asked that her name not be used due to the sensitivity of the issue, commented. "Many Mainland Chinese once crossed the border illegally to Hong Kong for jobs as well as for a better life and future."
These days, however, the situation was arguably reversed.
In an email to the Vancouver Observer, a Hong Kong-based political risk analyst offered some insight into the view of Hong Kong residents towards ‘Mainlanders’, or those from China proper.
The attitudes are described as hostile, and mostly generic (i.e. aimed at the group) rather than personal.
“When introducing the ‘Mainland’ question with a group of non-Chinese and local friends last night over dinner, the discussion became animated and anecdotal," he said. "It is also revealing that the term ‘tourists’ is now almost exclusively used as a derogatory term for only Mainlanders.”
Mainland Chinese: the new "Americans"?
A Vancouver-born businessman who visited China and Hong Kong quarterly between March 2006 and July 2010, had an explanation that seems to illustrate this attitude well:
“When I was in Hong Kong again in mid-2010, the Mainland Chinese were taking over where the ‘Ugly Americans’ of the 1960s/1970s had seemed to leave off -- loud, impolite, and completely insensitive to how they were perceived," he said.
"They paid for hotel rooms at the rack rate in cash and loved to shop for brand names. In fact, their lavish spending has contributed to the rent hikes in recent years. Then there were the ones from Shenzhen who visited regularly to buy goods that they sold back in China, such as powdered milk, which sometimes led to a shortage in Hong Kong.”
Some deeper issues are also at play, possibly affecting the disposition of Hong Kong residents:
- There is a perceived pressure on Hong Kong medical services by Mainland Chinese mothers in advanced stages of pregnancy crossing the border in order to have their child born in Hong Kong and therefore obtain local ID for their babies to secure a better future. The facilities are also considered to be of higher quality, and the increased volume has meant longer waiting lists for Hong Kongers.
- Increased competition by Mainland Chinese students entering the Hong Kong school system, which had been previously contracting due to Hong Kong’s low recent birth rates.
- Beijing has recently issued an edict that Cantonese should not be used in any official capacity, including on China’s state-run TV or radio as well as in Guandong. Though long-standing state policy, its re-emphasis is unsettling and has caused protests. The diminished usage of Cantonese has also been felt by the Chinese diaspora abroad, with more young Chinese being encouraged to learn Mandarin rather than Cantonese.
- The real estate and consumer products market in Hong Kong is increasingly being driven into change by the preferences of Mainland Chinese shoppers, leading to huge profits to contractors, retailers, and real-estate agents, but inadvertently diminishing the financial prowess of Hong Kongers.
However, some geopolitical aspects may be at play as well.
When Hong Kong was handed over to China on July 1, 1997, ending Britain’s colonial era, the apparent security and stability of Hong Kong has always been in question. A 50 year transition period was agreed to, allowing Hong Kong to run as a Special Administrative Region of the Peoples’ Republic of China. In other words, many of the affairs of Hong Kong are run autonomously. Less than 35 years – a generation – remains.
What worries many Hong Kongers is the question of mortgages. The average length of a Hong Kong mortgage in 2010 was 23 years, which means a home owner buying today would be taken up to 2035, 12 years short of the formal merger of Hong Kong into China, and with it the end to its privileged status. This may still seem a long ways ahead, but no one could ever precisely predict what exactly can happen in that amount of time. The impact of the merger with China is already being felt on Hong Kong's extremely important property market.
Recent protests in southern Guandong province (predominantly Cantonese speaking and borders Hong Kong) against ‘arbitrary rule’ (CCP cadres, bureaucrats, and the police) such as that of the Wukan Village rebellion and factory unrest over working conditions, wages, and sudden closures, is also causing unemployment and affecting asset values in Hong Kong’s immediate hinterland, as over the years factories have been moving to lower-cost inland cities.
The southern region has always been a hotbed of subversive forces within the People's Republic of China. Many early Chinese emigrants originated from the south, and their subsequent successes abroad have been a source of resentment for some Chinese who consider such overseas residents to be "unpatriotic".
More recently, China’s favourite in the race for the Chief Executive position of Hong Kong SAR, Henry Tang, has been accused of being out of touch with Hong Kongers and playing to Beijing’s tune. His popularity has slumped after several crucial mistakes.
Against this backdrop, one can take a step back and consider Chinese communities around the world, where immigrant communities who have gained a level of economic and material success resent being challenged by a new group of wealthy newcomers fresh off the plane.
More on that in my next post.