On April 1, exactly one week after a committee stuffed with pro-Beijing electors chose Leung Chun-ying to be the third post-colonial Chief Executive of Hong Kong, thousands of people took to the streets and vented their anger toward mainland China for meddling in the city’s affairs. Some even donned large replicas of Chinese tanks, presumably symbolizing the fear that Beijing had started cracking down on the former British colony. It seemed as though people took to the streets to express the worry that the city they had always known – free, vibrant, and open – was gradually slipping away. And they wanted to do something about it.
As the recent “election” shows, Hong Kong has a complicated relationship with the mainland. In its dealings with China, the city has constantly balanced between accommodation and suspicion, belongingness and resentment, worried if it could retain its distinctiveness or risked becoming just one of many Chinese cities. Yet, in a larger sense, none of this is new, and one can’t understand the dynamics being played out today simply by referencing the anger toward the “small circle” election or Beijing-friendly tycoons. Instead, it’s necessary to explore the experience of a city that, for most of its history, has routinely felt the pressure of living under someone else’s control.
A short tale from the Cold War will, perhaps, provide some color to this relationship:Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Looking back before the “election,” emotions were already running high weeks before Leung won the leadership pick. Back in January, a Hong Konger started berating a mainland tourist for eating on one of the city’s subway trains. The local man noticed shreds of noodle bits falling on the floor, and proceeded to lecture the visitor for violating Hong Kong’s widely observed civility rules. All this was captured on video, and what ensued was a widely-circulated public rantby Kong Qingdong, a literature professor at China’s Peking University, calling Hong Kongers “running dogs” for treating their mainland brethrens with disrespect. Some Hong Kong activists, in turn, took out ads in papers, calling mainland tourists “locusts.”
In the midst of the escalating rhetoric, few outside of the city will remember that there was a time when Hong Kongers, living as colonial subjects in an undemocratic British territory facing a seething communist regime to the north, feared every day a Chinese invasion. Border clashes happened occasionally between the city and the mainland. In the summer of 1967, at the height of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a gun fight, involving revolutionary Red Guards, killed five Hong Kong police officers. And while political banners like “Down with American Imperialism” dotted the landscape on the Chinese side, the British side was described as:
“a set of three, steel-link fences, topped with barbed wire. One hundred yards back from the fence are gun emplacements for Gurkha troops. Land Rovers filled with Scots Guards and the Black Watch drive by, along single-lane roads. British regiments are in full battle garb; weapons are on loaded and ready.”