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.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.