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Gabrielle Jaffe

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One Country, Two Peoples: Rising Tensions Between Hong Kong and China

Posted: 27/03/2012 00:00

The fight in the run up to Sunday's elections in Hong Kong was a nasty one. Mud was slung and neither of the two main candidates for the post of chief executive came away looking good.

Among the accusations levelled was the charge that both are too close to their political overlords across the border in Mainland China. The loser, Henry Tang, was known to have family connections to China's top politicians. Meanwhile, it was whispered that the winner, CY Leung, is secretly a member of the Communist party.

Not since the handover of the territory from Britain to China in 1997 has their been a worse time to appear pro-Beijing. A recent study by The University of Hong Kong has shown, the number of Hong Kongers identifying themselves as Chinese has fallen to a 12-year low.

In the months preceding these elections, Hong Kongers have made protest after protest against their Chinese neighbours: against pregnant Mainlanders taking up Hong Kong hospital beds, against rich Mainlanders pushing up property prices, against boorish Mainlanders misbehaving by eating on the subway and, most recently, against the new threat of Mainlanders being allowed to drive their cars over the border.

Behind these numerous remonstrations is the shared sentiment that Hong Kong is being over-run. At worst, these invading mainlanders are characterised as 'locusts', who are draining the city of its resources. At best, they are passed off as ah chan, or country bumpkins, who spit, squat, throw rubbish on the ground, push in line and generally don't understand the niceties of Hong Kong society.

These feelings of cultural superiority are not new. As Gordon Mathews, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of Hong Kong, China:Learning to Belong to a Nation, reports, "When Disneyland opened in Hong Kong in 2005, all the newspapers ran on their front pages images of mainlanders pissing in the bushes and generally behaving in uncouth ways. Hong Kong people love this. It's a chance to say, 'We Hong Kongers are more civilised than that.'"

What is new is the large increase in the numbers that are coming to Hong Kong (in 2011, 28.1 million Mainlanders visited the territory, that's over double the number visiting in 2006 and four times the population of the city itself) and the accompanying shift in the balance of economic power.

Hong Kong was hit heavily by the global economic slowdown in 2008. To keep their economy afloat, Hong Kongers became increasingly dependent on the spending power of their Mainland cousins. But this development did not leave all Hong Kongers grateful. "On one hand, Mainland money more or less rescued the Hong Kong economy. On the other, many Hong Kongers complain that wealthy mainlanders who come here are pushing up property and retail prices to a point at which locals can't compete," says Professor Wong Yiu-chung, at Hong Kong's Lingnan University's political science department.

As Mathews puts it, "Now the country bumpkins are earning more than Hong Kongers - and they hate this. There is a new sense of inferiority as well as the ongoing sense of snobbery." With Hong Kongers being made to feel less and less important in their own city, one incident in particular this year struck a sore point: in January, 1,000 took to the street by Dolce & Gabbana, to protest against the store's policy of banning Hong Kongers from taking photos of its shop front but allowing Mainland tourists to carry on doing so.

In many ways, the situation echoes the decline of the aristocracy alongside the rise of the rich industrialists at the beginning of 20th century Britain. As the old guard's star wanes, some of them have protested and desperately clung on to their own rules of etiquette as proof of their cultural superiority. Others have accepted the situation and sought union with the newcomers to ensure their own coffers remain filled. One such Hong Konger is 30-year-old Leslie Chow, who runs a pre-audit business helping Chinese companies go public in the US. He says, "We Hong Kongers grew up thinking we were superior to people in China. We've had to adjust that attitude."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 'us versus them' divide in Hong Kong is that many Hong Kongers, like Leslie, have parents and grandparents who were born in the Mainland. Or, like Professor Wong, they were born in the Mainland themselves.

In a way, Hong Kong is a society of Chinese immigrants. After the territory was ceded to the British in the 19th century, small waves of immigrants arrived from the rest of China. By 1945, there were 500,000 people of Chinese origin living in Hong Kong. By 1953, four years after the communists came to power in the Mainland, this number had jumped to two million. These early immigrants, together with the few that continued to trickle over the border through the 1950-70s, not only integrated, but became an integral part of Hong Kong society. So why, if these early migrants were so easily included, are Mainlanders today treated so differently?

Professor Mathews believes it is a case of older migrants who've assumed a Hong Kong identity not wanting newer migrants to come in and destroy what they've managed to build up for themselves. He says, "It's like Mexican immigrants in the US who are sometimes against allowing more Mexicans in."

Seeming to agree with Professor Mathews, Professor Wong, who moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1959 when he was eight years old, says, "I am grateful to Hong Kong for giving me everything. If I had stayed in Shanghai, my education would have been disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. Here, instead, I was given a grant to study. I definitely consider myself as a Hong Konger. When I go back to the Mainland, I have no feeling of belonging."

After the 1997 handover from Britain, the Chinese government declared a policy of 'one county, two systems'. Hong Kongers found themselves part of a nation that many of their ancestors had run away from. But though they are now officially citizens of China the country, as these recent demonstrations show, many still see themselves as a separate people.