THE BLOG

Phone Cams and Hate Speech in Hong Kong

30/08/2013 11:45 | Updated 27 October 2013

*Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong [2007] was a Gates Scholar at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, where he received a PhD in Sociology. He is currently Lecturer in Media & Communications at the University of Leicester. His research is on media ethics and hate speech. He has a forthcoming book entitled The Poverty of Television (Anthem Press: London & New York). Picture credit: posterize and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

In Hong Kong, antagonisms toward mainland Chinese are at a fever pitch. From mass to digital media, political debate to everyday talk, ordinary people from mainland China are targets of intense yet also unthinking ridicule and criticism. The South China Morning Post, an otherwise respectable daily, even boasts of a genre of "rude mainland Chinese" stories that its editors gleefully observe "go straight into the site's top 10 most read articles".

While in social media, a viral video parody of Psy's "Gangman Style" entitled "Nasty China Style" displays the most extreme stereotypes of mainland Chinese people as rude savages lacking in manners and civility. Its lyrics include: "I've just pooped...Picking up my poop is you Hong Kongers' responsibility". In mainstream and social media then, we see not only a rehash of old stereotypes between "uncivilised" mainland Chinese versus sophisticated Hong Kong cosmopolitans, but also an increase of recent anxieties about the supposed effects of mainland migration on rising costs of housing and competition for jobs.

While city/province stereotypes have long been present in public discourse, it wasn't too long ago that Hong Kong people expressed great optimism and positivity about closer interactions with mainland Chinese people. The 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China took place in the context of the Asian financial crisis, and Chinese tourism and trade were then viewed as new economic opportunities. As recent as 2006, surveys indicated that people with direct interactions with mainland Chinese have "higher pride and affection" for mainland China. However, shifting practices in the "One Country, Two Systems" political framework as well as post-recession economic challenges are generative resources to the fashioning of a hostile public environment for mainland Chinese in Hong Kong.

In my own research as media sociologist, I have found that social media make up a crucial part of this hostile public environment in their everyday use as both 1) technologies of surveillance and as an 2) archive of hate speech. As technologies of surveillance, mobile phones become ideal tools for the recent popular practice of phone-cam shaming. This involves ordinary people taking surreptitious, or "ambush", photographs of other people they view as loud, rude, unfashionable and all forms of shameful going about their business in malls or public transport. These images are then uploaded and shared in social media and are taken-for-granted as undeniable evidence of mainland Chinese misbehaviour. Among the most shared photos is this image of a (supposedly mainland Chinese) child urinating in the middle of a shopping area.

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Unfortunately, there is very little public reflection on the ethics of phone-cam shaming, as debate has centred only around people's rights to use their phone-cams. In December 2012, when security personnel of Dolce & Gabbana in the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district forbade locals from taking pictures outside of their stores - presumably to protect their mainland Chinese customers from being photographed with their designer spends and shamed by locals for their "new rich" excesses - Hong Kongers staged demonstrations to reclaim their rights as citizens.

Absent in the discussion is talk about their own responsibilities toward migrants or tourists, the fairness of ambush photography, and the validity of images as evidence of mainland Chinese misbehaviour: As Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese share similar physical markers of Chinese ethnicity, how can anyone be certain that the objects of photographs are always of mainland people?

As an archive of hate speech, social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and other Cantonese-language message boards are used as spaces of image collection, display and collective public discussion that, by their very structure, exclude possibilities of debate and dissent from mainland Chinese users. YouTube hosts a widely popular user-submitted video called "Locust World" that re-splices the aforementioned photographs into a music video that laments the mainland migration as a "locust invasion" of their imagined once-pure and prosperous city. The video contains emotionally charged language such as "Locusts come out of nowhere / overwhelm everywhere / Shouting, screaming, yelling / Like no one could hear". It is also misleading in how it repeats and magnifies evidence to make generalisations about mainland Chinese behaviour, such as in reusing one photograph of a defecating child on a train several times within a four-minute montage to illustrate an entire group's uncivilised behaviour.

The video has over one million views, thousands of comments and a depressingly large number of "likes" over "dislikes". The skewed and self-affirming nature of users' comments is largely a function of the strategic choice of YouTube as the space to carry out the discussion in spite of being (or precisely because it is) a censored website in mainland China. Structurally, these social media platforms exclude the possibility of direct engagement, as mainland Chinese people are spoken about but not spoken with through audio-visual hate speech.

By lacking any sort of access to these videos and forums, mainland Chinese visitors are unable to present counter-evidence, challenge stereotypes, or even learn about the criticism in the first place, as for the most part they arrive in Hong Kong with great confusion as to locals' chilly reception.

Discrimination is, of course, far-reaching and extends beyond social media and shopping malls: in the university where I taught for two years in Hong Kong, it was unfortunate to see clear divisions among locals and mainland students both inside the classroom and in their friendship groups.

While it is crucial to call out individuals on their everyday bigotry and morally irresponsible (though perfectly legal) use of personal technologies, Hong Kong policymakers and media pundits are faced here with a great dilemma to facilitate cultural inclusion either through policy measures of redefining hate speech claims, creating more positive images of mainland Chinese people in local news or even soap opera and opening up spaces for public dialogue that not only allow for dissent but even just basic participation. Hong Kong's ambitious claim to be "Asia's World City" must be backed up not only by snazzy branding, but by a more comprehensive agenda of social and cultural inclusion through policy and media representation.