Fireworks are a theme of Hong Kong’s Chinese New Year celebrations. But this year has been more explosive than usual, as a nasty debate has flared over Hong Kong’s place in the Chinese cosmos. The spat has left relations between Hong Kong and the mainland, for all the cheerful astrology of the newly dawning Year of the Dragon, at their ugliest in nearly a decade.
Animals less seemly than dragons have been stalking the conversation between mainland commentators and their Hong Kong interlocutors. A trigger for much of the recent acrimony was a January TV appearance by Kong Qingdong, a Beijing academic, in which he described Hong Kongers as “running dogs” and “bastards” in reaction to a Hong Kong University poll suggesting that fewer Hong Kong people now identify themselves as Chinese citizens than at any time since the 1997 handover.
Though cynically provocative, Kong’s remarks reflected Beijing’s quiet frustration with Hong Kong’s insistence on remaining outside the Chinese mainstream. They also drew a fierce backlash from the sizeable section of Hong Kong society that regards the mainland’s influence as something to be resisted rather than embraced. Ever since the British exit, the city has been uncomfortable with what some perceive as the insidious erosion of the “one country, two systems” framework designed to cushion its return to the Chinese fold and to protect its most cherished rights, such as a free press, the right to protest, and an independent judiciary.
Lately, these concerns have assumed a demographic focus, with mounting alarm about mainland immigration and, in particular, the trend of pregnant mainland women travelling here (for the most part legally) to secure automatic Hong Kong citizenship for their babies. This angst was illustrated most graphically recently when a full-page advert in the Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s punchier newspapers, called for an end to what it termed “birth tourism.” The ad memorably depicted a gigantic locust looming over the city, conjuring images of creepy mainlanders poised to swamp Hong Kong once and for all.
The Hong Kong government, which runs the city’s affairs autonomously while answering ultimately to Beijing, had already placed a cap on the number of mainland mothers allowed to give birth here this year (at 34,000, down from 40,000 in 2011 – which was nearly half of all the babies born in the territory). However, a stricter limit, if not an outright ban, now appears likely in response to the public outcry: no less shocking for Hong Kong lawmakers than the infamous locust was the sight of hundreds of pregnant women and mothers marching on a brisk January day to bemoan their need to compete with mainlanders for space in the city’s hospital delivery rooms.
These are practical concerns in a densely populated city with finite healthcare resources, and they have practical solutions. However, the reason the immigration issue has been so inflammatory is that it represents a challenge to the sense of separateness – partly economic, partly political, and partly social – that Hong Kongers are anxious to preserve. And these fears will be harder for local politicians to allay unless Beijing gives Hong Kong political guarantees that it has so far withheld.
Hong Kong’s existential worries flow from a nagging awareness that the city’s destiny doesn’t lie in its own hands, but rather in those of remote mainland politicians. Beijing has never communicated a vision for Hong Kong beyond the starchy “one country, two systems” formula that the people here have never wholly been able to trust. As a result, Hong Kongers are unsure whether China’s rulers are content for the city to retain, and perhaps extend, its qualified freedoms; or whether they would sooner bring Hong Kong’s days as a semi-democratic outlier to the Chinese system to a gradual end, and have it drift into a state of social and political normalcy.
The prickliness of Hong Kongers towards the mainland – which isn’t new, and surfaces sporadically – is an expression of this insecurity. Part of the problem is that Hong Kong is defending an evolving identity. The city’s economic prosperity used to be the defining feature of that identity; but China’s own economic successes have blurred the city’s economic self-image, according to Gordon Mathews, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of Hong Kong, China: Learning to Belong to a Nation. “Mainland Chinese were viewed as country bumpkins 20 years ago,” he explains, “whereas now they’re seen as the nouveau riche – and that’s a source of resentment.”
Resentment at the bumpkins’ newfound prosperity bubbled to the surface in another notorious episode last month, when security guards at a Dolce & Gabbana store in Hong Kong sparked outrage by discriminating against local customers (who, as the guards perhaps knew, throw less cash around these days than their mainland cousins).
As things stand, Hong Kong has a splintered view of the mainland as a chimera of peasants and princelings – and it self-consciously identifies with neither end of mainland spectrum. The sense of culture clash has been heightened by a string of tit-for-tat encounters, posted online and viewed by millions, between Hong Kongers and mainland tourists. In one cringe-worthy exchange, a mainland family unwittingly provokes confrontation by eating noodles on the MTR, something that isn’t permitted here and is considered antisocial. For Hong Kongers, it was a classic case of mainland crassness; for people on the mainland, it was Hong Kong snobbery in a nutshell.
These kinks in the relationship could fade as the two branches of the Chinese family adjust to one another’s expectations, and the inequalities between the two societies even themselves out. However, it’s likely that Hong Kong citizens would be much more forgiving of mainland foibles if they felt politically empowered to keep their city the way they like it. Most important to the modern Hong Kong identity, Mathews suggests, is the city’s sense of political individuation from the Chinese mainland. “Hong Kong is an open society; it’s not fully democratic but it’s close to being a democracy, and the mainland isn’t,” he says. It’s that political otherness that Hong Kong treasures, and wants to protect.
Mathews identifies 2003 protests against a proposed anti-subversion law as the epiphany in Hong Kong’s post-colonial life. Then, hundreds of thousands of residents took to the streets – successfully – to oppose a measure that threatened to undermine civil liberties; and the Chinese government, belatedly recognizing that the Hong Kong public had its own red lines, has subsequently been wary of attempting to roll back any of the rights enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the framework agreed by China and the U.K. at the time of the handover.
Politics are in some ways a tenuous foundation for Hong Kong’s modern identity, given that the territory has been prevented from fledging fully as a democracy in the way that Taiwan has done, for example. The beacon of democracy in southern China these days is arguably not Hong Kong at all, but rather Wukan, a village 100 miles down the coast in Guangdong whose people are busy electing new leaders after forcibly ejecting the corrupt officials who previously ran their affairs. The election of a new Hong Kong chief executive in March will look distinctly oligarchic by comparison. An electoral college of just 1,200 individuals will decide the appointment, and no one is under the illusion that the democratic inputs of ordinary Hong Kongers, such as regular opinion polls, matter as much as the upward- or downward-pointing thumbs of Communist Party grandees.
Yet Hong Kong’s democratic trajectory does at least appear more promising than the rest of China’s. Local elections are free and open, while the number of Legislative Council members who are directly elected is gradually rising, as the Basic Law requires. There’s also an understanding that Beijing will allow the chief executive to be universally elected in 2017, although the central government is still liable to determine who makes the shortlist.
But Hong Kongers wouldn’t necessarily be too uncomfortable with that arrangement, argues Ho Lok-sang, a professor at Lingnan University and an expert on Hong Kong politics and society. “[Voting for candidates vetted by Beijing] will not completely satisfy Hong Kong people – they’d like to see the whole process opened up,” he explains. “But they’re realistic enough to know that’s not going to happen. Hong Kong people prefer stability over everything else, and they don’t want a chief executive who won’t be trusted by Beijing. They think that stability and living well is more important than democracy: Hong Kong is very realistic in nature, there’s not that much ideology.”
The unplanned democracy experiment in Wukan, as well as China’s own upcoming leadership transition, may ultimately influence how much more democracy Beijing is willing to drip-feed Hong Kong over the coming decade than the current bout of name-calling between the city and the mainland. What Beijing’s new leaders ought to recognize, however, is that Hong Kongers care even more about the rights they already enjoy than about securing incremental political gains. “The main concern is the rule of law – that’s Hong Kong’s core value,” argues Ho. “People are concerned about corruption, about press freedoms, about the way police handle demonstrations. I have no doubt that Hong Kong people would prefer the rule of law to being richer, for example.”
Any sign of back-sliding on these cherished rights therefore badly shakes the city’s confidence. The heavy-handed policing of the 2011 visit of Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, for example, was viewed as being profoundly un-Hong Kong. Similarly, the recent appointment of a mainlander as editor of the South China Morning Post, the city’s most iconic newspaper, though not necessarily a retrograde step, has raised fears about the erosion of the Hong Kong media’s independence. But the ultimate test, argues Ho, will be the continuing independence of the courts – which so far, in his assessment, has not been tampered with.
Right now, Hong Kong needs a few practical safeguards to protect its basic resources from demographic overload. Soon, it will also need some political safeguards to backstop its most prized freedoms. Hong Kong needs Beijing to show it cares. In return, Beijing will find a Hong Kong that is a lot less jumpy about being part of the China, and that no longer sees locusts on the horizon.