My moment of awakening came one morning on a crowded Hong Kong subway from Tsuen Wan to Central.
There were four “strong country people” sitting together, three adults and one boy aged about five. He began to feel uncomfortable and his father quickly pulled out the plastic bag he had prepared: the boy did his business and father caught it in the bag. Then his mother produced an iPad; playing on it, the boy was immediately distracted.
Everyone in the crowded carriage saw this unusual event but did not say a word; they were either too polite or too shocked. If I had taken a photo, it would have made the front page of Apple Daily.
That was my experience of what I read about every week in the newspapers and hear from people in taxis and restaurants. “They are dirty and have no manners. That is how they behave at home. I have no relation to them – they are mainlanders, I am a Hong Konger,” is what I hear often.
There are similar stories in Taiwan. A mainland tour group was on Alishan, one of the most beautiful mountains and a popular spot for visitors. When one of the “strong country” people spat on the ground, a Taiwanese told him: “You can do that at home but not here, please. This is Taiwan.”“Why not?” he replied. “Taiwan belongs to us and will soon be ours.”
The situation is similar in the two places. In the first half of this year, 21.82 million mainlanders visited Hong Kong, an increase of 16 percent year on year, accounting for 77 per cent of all tourists.
In the first five months of the year, 1.65 million mainlanders visited Taiwan, up 38 percent and accounting for 41 percent of all visitors. Taiwan imposes a ceiling of 5,000 a day on mainlanders who come in groups.
Because Hong Kong is smaller and the number so much higher, the impact is greater. The debate in both places is fierce, the arguments are the same.
The business community, especially hotels, restaurants and shop owners, welcome the visitors and say the economy would decline sharply without them. But individuals who reap no personal benefit complain.
We stayed in a hotel in Kaohsiung. In the breakfast room, the only guests were from the mainland. “I had been to all the provinces of China except this one,” said a middle-aged lady from Shanghai. “It is not bad.” The waiter, a supporter of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), contained himself with difficulty.
“We welcome the people’s money but not the people,” he said.
Beijing’s aim in encouraging mass tourism is integration of the economies of Hong Kong and Taiwan with that of the mainland. This process is far advanced in Hong Kong but slower in Taiwan. The student occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March torpedoed implementation of a cross-strait Service Trade Agreement, which would have accelerated the process.
The societies in Taiwan and Hong Kong are split down the middle. One side sees integration as inevitable and desirable and the only economic future; in Taiwan, most of these people belong to the ruling Kuomintang.
The other side sees integration as “mainlandization”, which will also lead to a restriction of civil society, media and religious freedom and political control by Beijing and its supporters. In Taiwan, most of these people belong to the DPP; some say they are willing to sacrifice economic growth as the price of staying separate from the mainland.
The visitors are the top of the iceberg and the most visible sign of this integration process. Beijing hopes that they serve as “ambassadors” to bring people, separated for many decades, closer together.
Evidently, this does not work with group tourists. Since 2011, Taiwan has allowed individual visitors, who are usually better educated, more sensitive and make better ambassadors; they stay longer, meet and talk to individuals.
The people of Hong Kong have limited means to show their opinion since the scope of democracy is restricted. This December, in Taiwan, the residents of seven cities and districts will vote for their mayor. The DPP is hoping to win at least five; if they do, they will slow down the “mainlandization” and the gap with Hong Kong will widen.
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