11 December 2018
Many Hong Kong people harbor negative feelings about visitors from mainland China. Photo: Bloomberg
Many Hong Kong people harbor negative feelings about visitors from mainland China. Photo: Bloomberg

Hong Kong-China relationship: It’s complicated

When the United Kingdom handed Beijing the keys to Hong Kong in 1997, the deal was that Hong Kong could do its own thing for at least 50 years before being fully “reunified” with the motherland.

With about a third of those years gone by, it’s still a politically sensitive hot potato as Hongkongers grumble they had no say in the handover, a fate sealed in 1984 by then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader.

Tensions with the mainland are running high, noted the Wall Street Journal. Concerns have grown among many in Hong Kong in recent years that the territory’s politics and free press are threatened by Beijing’s authoritarian ways and that its streets are being overrun by mainland Chinese tourists.

This past weekend, anti-mainland Chinese demonstrators marched down Tsim Sha Tsui with colonial Hong Kong flags shouting slogans against the “invasion” of “locusts”, a derogatory term for mainland Chinese visitors, who accounted for 70 percent of the 54 million visitors to Hong Kong in 2013.

Hong Kong lawmakers aim to stem the tide by levying a special tax on visitors, but only those arriving by land. The notion of a levy, 100 Hong Kong dollars or US$13, was quickly pooh-poohed by Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executive, CY Leung, viewed by many as a shifty, pro-Beijing politician.

For Hong Kong residents, it’s more than just distaste for Chinese tourists—it’s personal.

Nearly 32 percent of Hong Kong people have “negative” feelings for people from mainland China, according to a recent Hong Kong University public-opinion poll that has been conducted every six months since 1997. HKU noted that the average figure for 2013 was the highest since the exercise began. In comparison, only 14.9 percent harbored negative feelings towards Japanese people.

The rigid delineation between “us” and “them” is clear with the number of respondents identifying themselves first and foremost as Hong Kong citizens the highest in 10 years, while the number who saw themselves primarily as Chinese sank to a 12-year low.

To make matters worse, the People’s Liberation Army may soon begin constructing a new military base in Victoria Harbour.

On Friday, urban planners voted to pave the way for the construction of a dock for the People’s Liberation Army, reported WSJ. The site will sit in front of the walled garrison the army maintains in Central, the city’s main financial district, adjacent to Hong Kong’s current government offices. Talk about in-your-face.

According to reports, the plan faces significant local opposition, with some 19,000 parties registering objections. Some residents called the plans “visually obstructive”, while others declared such a military presence would create a “pressing feeling”.

Under the terms for its return to China, Hong Kong maintains its own independent political, economic and judicial systems, but defense and foreign relations are handled by Beijing. The People’s Liberation Army currently maintains several garrisons scattered across the small territory.

Hongkongers also freak out when the subject of Cantonese comes up, a language that 97 percent of the population speaks. Locals are sensitive to any hint that the mainland government is trying to phase it out in favor of a national language.

The Education Bureau caused a furor last month by briefly posting on its website the claim that Cantonese was a dialect of Chinese and “not an official language” of Hong Kong. After an outcry, officials removed the text, The Economist noted in an essay.

The essay pointed out that Cantonese is not a dialect of Chinese. Rather it is a language, as are Shanghaiese, Mandarin and other kinds of Chinese. Although the languages are obviously related, a Mandarin-speaker cannot understand Cantonese or Shanghaiese without having learned it as a foreign language.

In perspective, keeping Hongkongers happy isn’t at the top of Zhongnanhai’s to-do list.

The “one country, two systems” mandate is locked down for another 33 years and, for the most part, Beijing continues to hold up its end of the deal.


A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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