In a taxi to the China ferry terminal, the driver is eagerly sharing his ideas on political reform and blaming the government for the soaring property prices, saying his newly married son cannot afford to buy even a small apartment.
Seventy minutes by ferry later, we are in a taxi in Zhuhai. No talk of political reform nor criticism of the government; the cabbie is wondering if a city leader will fall into the “tiger’s net’ laid by Wang Qishan, the anti-corruption chief in Beijing. Late-night business has been badly hit by the government crackdown, he says; officials do not dare to have lavish dinners and karaoke parties as they did two years ago.
It is 17 years since the handover. Like Shenzhen, Zhuhai is a special economic zone and the closest city to Hong Kong on the western side of the Pearl River Delta. Many Hong Kong people go there for business and tourism and stay in second homes; many Zhuhai residents cross the other way for work, pleasure or buying luxury goods, computers, cosmetics and milk powder.
But, despite this proximity and easy access, the two cities feel like a world apart. Take language for one — Zhuhai belongs to the Mandarin-speaking mainland world. The majority of its 1.6 million residents are migrants from other parts of China; while those who grew up in Zhuhai speak Cantonese, most of them do not. You can live without it.
In Hong Kong, Cantonese remains the dominant language, despite the teaching and promotion of Mandarin since 1997. “When I go to Hong Kong, I avoid speaking Cantonese,” said Liu Ling, a secretary who is a Guangdong native. “People there hear my accent and look down on me.
“Beijing is already generous to Guangdong, allowing the broadcasting of programs in Cantonese. No other province in China has this privilege. In Sichuan or Hunan, there are no programs in Sichuan or Hunan dialect,” she said.
Despite the availability of Hong Kong television stations, most Zhuhai people receive their news through the state media. Theirs is a mainland mindset; they do not talk of political reform because there is none to talk about. “Be careful what you say,” said one taxi driver. “This is the heaven of the Communist Party.”
In Hong Kong, on the other hand, Cantonese has become a symbol of the city’s separateness from the mainland. “Strong-country people” walking down the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui or Causeway identify themselves by their words even before their dress and mannerisms.
Hong Kong people see Cantonese language, sayings and culture as what distinguishes them from the “lower-grade” culture of the mainland. Mandarin does not mean the poems of Li Bai or Su Dongpo or the novels of Lu Xun but the political slogans of the Maoist era and the double-speak of official news bulletins.
The International Book Fair was held in Hong Kong in July; it is the only city in China where such an event could be held. One of the stars was veteran Beijing lawyer Zhang Sizhi, who defended Jiang Qing in her trial in 1980. During his eight days in Hong Kong, he gave many interviews, explaining how the legal system can never be independent in a one-party state.
Born in 1927, he first served as a judge in post-1949 China before becoming a lawyer. He spent 15 years of “reform through labor” as a “rightist”, before defending Jiang Qing, Bao Tong, Wei Jingsheng, Wang Juntao and many others in politically sensitive cases. No one understands the Communist legal system better than he does.
Zhuhai media, of course, did not report a word about Zhang or his visit. While there is intense debate in Hong Kong over political reform, housing policy, immigration and the “strong-country people”, the public mood in Zhuhai is one of contentment.
In a report earlier this year, the China Academy of Social Sciences rated it as the most pleasant city in the country to live in – with a small population, beaches, large areas of park and green area and good air quality.
According to official figures, the city’s per capita GDP in 2012 was 96,725 yuan or over US$15,000; this qualifies it as an upper middle-income economy by world standards and ranks it first in the PRD and China.
The population density is 918 people per square kilometer, compared to 5,282 in Shenzhen and 18,516 in Macau; the average per capita living space is 28.6 square meters. The slow industrial growth looks bad for the GDP figure but has turned out to be a blessing; living in a garden city, the residents have the benefits of a urban center but few of the drawbacks.
As we took the boat back, I thought about how politicians in Hong Kong and Beijing talk about the “integration” of the SAR with the rest of China. The economic integration has already occurred; but, in terms of culture, ways of thinking and identity, Zhuhai is much further from Hong Kong than the distance we covered in the boat.
The writer is a Hong Kong-based journalist and author.
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