Asia Life

Self-Perceptions Strain Hong Kong-Mainland Relations

Differences in culture and social perceptions are informing the current political tensions.

Self-Perceptions Strain Hong Kong-Mainland Relations
Credit: Hong Kong protest via coloursinmylife /

A new resolution granting Hong Kong universal suffrage has received little welcome from locals, as it stipulates Beijing approval of the nominees. The region’s ongoing electoral reform debates are aimed at the 2016 Legislative Council and 2017 chief executive elections, with political tensions deeply informed by the differences in culture and social perceptions between mainland Chinese and the people of Hong Kong.

The “One Country, Two Systems” principle guarantees Hong Kong’s way of life until 2047. Thus Hong Kong maintains non-interventionist economic policies, an English common law system, and a British education model. As a result it boasts the world’s freest economy, extensive civil liberties, and some of the best schools on the planet. These factors, along with 150 years of British rule, have left an indelible mark on the way Hong Kong people think and have helped foster the notion that Hong Kong natives not only enjoy a better life but are better people for it.

And this is the source of much of the conflict. Anyone who has seen pictures of Hong Kong’s cage homes knows life there isn’t always a pleasure cruise, but the idea that it is stirs equal measures of envy and contempt. On the one hand, many mainlanders are eager to move there and view Hong Kong as an example of what the rest of China might achieve. On the other, the people of Hong Kong are often seen as an ungrateful lot filled with a sense of their own superiority.

Attitudes by Hong Kong residents toward mainland China are also mixed, although not as evenly. While the pro-Beijing camp remains strong, most consider themselves Hong Kong Chinese rather than Chinese and view Beijing’s authority as little more than colonial rule. Mainlanders, meanwhile, are often portrayed as parasitic louts with the term “locust” now commonly slung at them as anti-China sentiment rises.

The conflict came to a head at the start of 2012, beginning with a New Year’s Day protest over a 2001 court decision that children born in Hong Kong to mainland mothers were entitled to right of abode. Hospitals have since cited insufficient resources to deal with the ensuing flood, while local mothers have had trouble making obstetric appointments. The protest was followed that month by an incident on an MTR subway in which a Hong Kong passenger asked a mainlander and her child to stop eating as it is against MTR rules. The woman began screaming and made fun of his poor Mandarin accent, resulting in a heated argument that went viral. Also in January, Beijing University professor Kong Qingdong gave an interview attacking locals for identifying as Hongkongers rather than Chinese, calling them “bastards” and saying, “you are dogs. You are not human.” He added that mainlanders could cut them off, leaving them to the will of their “British daddy.” Then in February an ad appeared in the tabloid Apple Daily igniting fury for its depiction of mainlanders as a giant locust. One retaliation threatened to cut Hong Kong’s water and food supplies as a result.

This year’s electoral reform debates have reignited the tensions. Part of what troubles reconciliation here is that neither side is entirely off base. Hong Kong is not without a palpable air of superiority, partly the effect of wealth and partly the facility its people enjoy with English, a language Chinese are increasingly desperate to learn. Hong Kong can also point to economic freedom and civil liberties. Still, it doesn’t lead in every measure: Illiteracy in Hong Kong hovers at 6 percent, whereas in most mainland China’s provinces the number is closer to 2 percent.

Compared to their mainland counterparts, Hong Kong natives feel they have better manners. They don’t jump queues or bark at waitresses, nor do they make headlines for letting their children defecate on airplane seats. Walking through the streets of Hong Kong, mainlanders are often identifiable by their loud and pushy demeanor. Yet again, one wonders how much money plays a role here. And then there is the hand of religion, with almost half of Hongkongers practicing traditional Chinese faith and the other half comprising mostly Buddhists, Taoists and Christians.

Given these differences, relations look likely to remain strained until either Hong Kong wins true democracy or China earns itself an economy that is strong enough to put its people on equal footing.

David Volodzko has provided cultural analyses for various publications including the Washington Monthly, openDemocracy, and 10 Magazine.