Embrace of mainland China resisted by defiant Hong Kongers

April 21, 2015 9:11 pm

 All around Chow Tak-yee’s neighborhood in the working-class edges of
, the 26-year-old can feel the spreading influence of nearby
mainland on the prosperous, open-minded city she’s always called
home. The children of mainland families now fill her
neighborhood’s best schools, and she’s had to search for three months to
find a classroom spot for her young son. Chow, who works as an
accountant, and her electrician husband have to live at her in-laws’
cramped apartment, as a red-hot housing market flooded with Chinese
investment prices out many young buyers. Sometimes, she can’t even find
household goods in nearby stores, because Chinese traders buy them all
up to sell at a mark-up in the adjacent mainland city of Shenzhen.
For
Chow and many in this 7.2-million-person city, it all adds up to the
feeling that Hong Kong is being forever changed by the
1.4-billion-strong country just a few miles to the north, where many
feel life is cheaper and people are less educated.

A mainland Chinese tourist carries a suitcase as she walks at a shopping district in Hong Kong. Photo / AP

“They’re interfering with the rules of Hong Kong society,”
Chow said as her son played by her side during a visit to her childhood
home, a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing estate.
Eighteen
years after this world financial hub returned from colonial British
control to Chinese rule, many say they feel more alienated and less
trusting than ever of the central Chinese government and even the people
visiting from across the border. That has presented leaders in Beijing
with one of their biggest political headaches as they try to project a
more unified, confident image abroad.
The complaints range from
the small to the sweeping, from the perceived rudeness of Chinese
tourists to fears that leaders in Beijing are sabotaging the freedoms
and rule of law that have long distinguished Hong Kong from the rest of
China. The resentment grew when Beijing issued a policy paper last year
making clear the central government’s power to decide the city’s
affairs, and when it endorsed a hard-line approach to pro-democracy
activists who blocked streets in Occupy Central protests seeking
electoral reforms.
Recently, scuffles have broken out along the
northern border during protests over the influx of mainland shoppers,
and Hong Kong continues to seethe with anti-mainland tension as the
city’s government plans to unveil its Beijing-approved electoral reform
package as early as Wednesday.

Police officers try to control the confrontation between activists demonstrating against the mainland Chinese shoppers and local villagers at a suburban district of Yuen Long in Hong Kong. Photo / AP
Police officers try to control the
confrontation between activists demonstrating against the mainland
Chinese shoppers and local villagers at a suburban district of Yuen Long
in Hong Kong. Photo / AP
Failure to win the hearts and minds of sophisticated,
cosmopolitan Hong Kong bodes ill for Beijing’s plans to peacefully
reunify with the self-governing island of Taiwan as well as quell
divisions at home, said Mark Clifford, head of the Business Council
and the former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
“There
was a perception that Hong Kong would be more like the mainland,”
Clifford said. “There was a perception that the two places would merge.
But after 150 years of British rule, the interesting development is Hong
Kong’s own sense of identity.
“The policy of the Chinese
government and the Hong Kong government of trying to force more
integration, integration on every level, but especially economic, has
created a backlash among ordinary Hong Kong people.”
Warehouse
supervisor Ronald Leung, 39, said he had long been apolitical about his
home city until he saw firsthand the swarms of traders and outgoing
cargo near the Chinese border.
Called “parallel trading” because
it happens in a gray area alongside legal trade, such commerce has
become an especially visible target of Hong Kongers’ anger. Chinese
visitors cross into the city, which has no sales tax and a reputation
for authentic goods, to buy up baby formula, smartphones, luxury goods,
diapers and medicine and then resell them at a profit in the mainland,
warping the local economy and causing shortages.

A woman walks past cans of baby formula stacked in a shop at a district regarded as a hub of "parallel trading" near the Chinese border in Hong Kong. Photo / AP
A woman walks past cans of baby formula
stacked in a shop at a district regarded as a hub of “parallel trading”
near the Chinese border in Hong Kong. Photo / AP
Leung helped form the North District Parallel Imports
Concern Group, one of several organizations that have staged rowdy
protests targeting mainland shoppers.
Leung said seeing the
stifling education system on the mainland during his travels there is
another issue that “makes me think about my life” and appreciate Hong
Kong.
“If Hong Kong students get this kind of brainwashing, it’s
harmful for Hong Kong’s future,” Leung said in a mall in the city’s
Kowloon Bay neighborhood.
When Chinese President Jiang Zemin
welcomed the city back to the motherland in 1997, some observers in the
West hoped China might absorb some of Hong Kong’s liberal democratic
traditions.
Chinese officials granted Hong Kong political and
personal freedoms and its own governing system, with the idea of slowly
assimilating this Western-influenced society into the more repressive,
state-controlled mainland over 50 years, after which the territory would
officially lose its special status.
Much of the integration is already underway on the ground.
After
Chinese officials loosened visa requirements for repeat mainland
visitors in 2009, the number of Chinese traveling to Hong Kong jumped
from nearly 18 million a year to nearly 50 million last year. Hong
Kong’s stock exchange also linked up with Shanghai’s last year,
unleashing mainland investment that has driven Hong Kong share prices to
record levels.

A woman packs goods in front of a shop before taking them to the mainland China, at Sheung Shui district in Hong Kong. Photo / AP
A woman packs goods in front of a shop
before taking them to the mainland China, at Sheung Shui district in
Hong Kong. Photo / AP
More people from the mainland speaking Mandarin Chinese, as
opposed to the native Cantonese, fill the classrooms of not just
elementary schools but of Hong Kong’s most prestigious universities,
many getting their first taste of freedoms prohibited on the mainland.
After
Elaine Wang came to study journalism at Hong Kong University in the
middle of last year’s street protests, she discovered to her surprise
that text messages sent to friends back in China about the
demonstrations were being censored. Still, although she said she
understood the protesters’ grievances, in the end, she didn’t think Hong
Kongers would be able to resist the mainland’s enormous economic and
political influence.
“Hong Kong people will just have to figure out a way to work together with the government instead of fighting it,” she said.
Many
older residents in Hong Kong also have come out against pro-democracy
protesters, saying young residents should focus instead on working to
build a middle-class life.
Li Yim-miu, a 54-year-old housewife
who led a recent rally supporting the mainland shoppers, said she didn’t
blame them for buying safer, better-quality goods for children back
home. She also said Hong Kongers should be praising the mainland
government instead.
“Look at the Chinese government, don’t they
do a good job?” she asked. “So why would you criticize them? … You can
use reason in your criticism. You can’t use chaos.”

A woman who supports shoppers from the mainland China delivers leaflets in front of some mainland Chinese tourists who are queuing up outside a luxury brand boutique. Photo / AP
A woman who supports shoppers from the
mainland China delivers leaflets in front of some mainland Chinese
tourists who are queuing up outside a luxury brand boutique. Photo / AP
Lawyer Jason Ng, who has written two books about his home
city, said the tensions come down to the widespread fear among the
city’s young that they won’t be able to buy a home and build a future.
Prices for even the cheapest apartments can run about $1,250 a square
foot, pricing a 600-square-foot apartment at $750,000. Hong Kong’s
average monthly salary comes in below $2000 ($2615).
With such a
bleak outlook, fewer people can accept the other end of Beijing’s
bargain, of giving up self-determination and freedoms, Ng said. Already,
Hong Kong has seen press freedoms shrivel in face of economic and
political pressure, with the city’s press falling from 18th freest in
the world in 2002 to 70th this year in an annual measure by the advocacy
group Reporters Without Borders.
“If 80 per cent of people are
well provided for, and if 20 per cent want to do Occupy Central, it
would only be a very small minority of people and it wouldn’t gather as
much momentum,” Ng said. “But it’s the opposite here. Eighty per cent of
people are upset because 20 per cent control all the wealth.”
A
Chinese University of Hong Kong poll of city residents found that
people’s self-identification as Chinese fell from 38 per cent in 2010 to
31 per cent three years later.
“Younger people show more
dissatisfaction,” said Victor Zheng, co-director of the university’s
Centre of Social and Political Development Studies. “The main reason is
downward social mobility.”
Jewelry store saleswoman Sakura Tse,
30, said she longs for the days of colonial British rule, when the
city’s manners and even its architecture were classier. She said she
fears the political repression and violent police tactics that she sees
on the mainland could become common practice here.
Tse and about
30 others lead the grass-roots group Hong Kongese Priority, which calls
for independence from China, a stance she said infuriates her parents.
“They
just think it’s good enough for you to have food and your life,” Tse
said. “But I don’t think food and life are what I’m looking for.
Freedom. For me, freedom is the most important.”
Like Tse, Leung of the anti-traders group said he was prepared to fight for his city’s autonomy from the rest of China.
“We
need to get away from the communists to get our life back,” Leung said.
“It’s not Beijing who will take things away from Hong Kong. It’s the
Hong Kong people who, little by little, will hand it over to Beijing.”

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