Two months of sit-ins in Hong Kong ended in December 2014, but the discontent that motivated the protests is far from gone. In some ways, in fact, things have gotten worse. While the “Occupy Protests” focused their attention on politics, recent activism has crossed the line into full-blown anti-mainlander sentiment.
Reuters reports on a recent protest by a group of roughly 100 activists against mainland tourists. The protesters targeted New Town Plaza, a shopping mall frequented by mainland Chinese, armed with banners telling the “locusts” and “barbarians” (disparaging term for mainland Chinese) to leave. “Go back to China! We don’t want you!” protesters shouted at shoppers presumed to be from the mainland. Hong Kong police used pepper spray and arrested over a dozen protesters.
Anti-mainlander protests have hit especially hard at Hong Kong universities, where mainland students make up over 11 percent of the total student population. When mainland student Lushan Ye tried to run for a position in the University of Hong Kong’s Students’ Union, it sparked a furious backlash when a video outed her as a former member of China’s Communist Youth League. Ye herself protested that she had come to Hong Kong “because I admire the freedom and democracy” but the damage was done: Ye and her cabinet (students run as groups for the election) were trounced in the election after opponents painted her an as agent of Beijing.
The election sparked a wider debate about the role Chinese mainlanders play at Hong Kong universities, particularly as Hongkongers do not receive the same type of “national education” that is taught at mainland schools. This has led to broad accusations that mainlanders are brainwashed stooges of the CCP. One flyer posted on HKU’s Democracy Wall was particularly blunt: “To brainwashed Commie-loving Mainlanders, we despise you!”
The anti-mainlander sentiment in Hong Kong has sparked a parallel backlash from mainlanders. “Mainland students somewhat hate local students as well because we feel this hatred from them,” one HKU student explained to Reuters. Mainlanders outside of Hong Kong are especially outraged by the treatment of their compatriots. The Global Times ran an op-ed warning that “McCarthyism” was infiltrating Hong Kong’s schools. The anti-mainlander protests even became the top trending term on Sina Weibo last week, with mainland netizens decrying Hongkongers as “spoiled” and “arrogant.” Many mainlanders argue that China is in fact the source of Hong Kong’s prosperity and compared Hongkongers to ungrateful children.
The current tensions echo previous flare-ups between Hongkongers and mainlanders, such as the heated online debate over a video of a mainland couple allowing their child to defecate on the street. Hongkongers denounced the couple (and, by extension, all mainland Chinese) as uncouth and unwilling to recognize Hong Kong’s distinct customs; mainlanders attacked Hongkongers as snobbish and uncaring.
There have long been tensions between the mainland and Hong Kong, sparked in part by real cultural and linguistic differences between the city and the mainland. However, there is also an element of economic discontent. Many Hongkongers believe mainlanders are actively making life more difficult by raising real estate prices, monopolizing birthing wards in hospitals, and buying out necessities like baby formula (hence the term “locusts”). The mall protests were mainly aimed at protesting the practice of “parallel trading,” wherein mainlanders buy Hong Kong goods in bulk with the aim of reselling them on the mainland.
There are also rising concerns that Beijing will grow increasingly heavy-handed in its treatment of Hong Kong in the wake of the “umbrella movement” protests. That includes a possible return to the idea of mandatory national education, an idea previously roundly rejected by Hongkongers. Among some Hongkongers, it seems, those worries have contributed to a backlash against all mainland Chinese. Now real policy concerns risk being outweighed by simple cultural chauvinism.
As Alex Lo put it in an op-ed for South China Morning Post, “in our politically charged city, you are either for Hong Kong or you are a ‘locust’ lover.”