Hong Kong and China tensions: one country, two solitudes

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.  

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