Economy, Talking Point

Who let the dogs out?

Hongkongers angered by Chinese tourists and professor’s canine slur

Who let the dogs out?

That’s rich: Hongkongers begin to see the downside of Chinese wealth, with Dolce & Gabbana store a flashpoint

The Lunar New Year is traditionally a time of togetherness for the Chinese, and a chance for familial ties to be respected and renewed.

But the festive period this year is showing signs of something different in Hong Kong as relations sour between the Chinese visiting the territory and its permanent inhabitants. There, the sense is more of growing discord, after a series of angry flashpoints, some captured on camera but all then discussed widely on social media.

Fifteen years after Hong Kong’s return to China under the “one country, two systems” philosophy, are we entering a tenser period of relations between Hong Kong and people of its mother country?

What is all the fuss about?

In one of the latest incidents, a young girl from China was asked by a passenger from Hong Kong to stop eating noodles on the city’s subway (known as the MTR). A wider argument then flared up between Chinese visitors and Hong Kong locals on the train. It is captured on video: the Chinese are mocked for their poor English and scolded for disobeying the rules about eating onboard. The mainlanders laugh at the Mandarin skills of the Hong Kong passengers and wave away their complaints. Then a railway official is called upon to throw the tourists off the train. “No point speaking to them. That’s what mainlanders are like,” one local passenger shouts.

The clash on the MTR is far from an isolated incident, following a series of protests outside Dolce & Gabbana’s flagship store in the city, after an incident in which a local woman claims to have been prevented by security guards from taking photos outside the shop. The rumour circulated that D&G was stopping Hong Kong people from taking photos but not those from China itself. Other stories then spread that the real reason for the heavy-handed security was that a senior Chinese official was inside the store and didn’t want to be photographed on his shopping spree.

The accusations come as Hongkongers complain about local shops being replaced by luxury outlets targeting cash-rich mainlanders. But whatever the truth in the D&G case, the local mood was ugly enough for hundreds of demonstrators to turn up to protest outside the store, prompting a public apology from the Italian fashion brand’s management.

And frustration over mainland mothers too?

This is the other grievance to bring protesters onto Hong Kong’s streets this month – local anger at the number of mainland women coming to the city to give birth.

Some mothers-to-be want to take advantage of the medical facilities on offer or dodge the one-child policy restrictions in place within Chinese borders. But most see long-term benefits in their children being born in the territory, especially the right to live in Hong Kong, and get an education there.

According to local health officials, births from mainland mothers numbered “in the hundreds” six years ago. In 2010, almost 40,000 children, or about half the total number of babies born in Hong Kong, were born to mothers from China, leading to complaints that local women must battle outsiders for maternity beds. “We have to compete with the mainlanders for bed space in hospitals, for prenatal care services, postnatal care, the education of our children… everything,” one demonstrator told AFP at a protest march this month.

In response, Hong Kong authorities have capped the number of maternity beds for non-local mothers at 34,400 annually, and mainlanders are also being charged almost HK$48,000 ($6,187) to give birth in the territory.

But visitors are often happy to pay the fee, and there are also many cases of “gatecrasher” births in which expectant mothers turn up at hospitals unannounced. Last week Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily reported on another row when a mainland couple did just this. The husband was furious that his wife then had to wait at the emergency ward. “I have money! I can pay more! Treat my wife first,” he demanded, getting into a shouting match with a Hong Kong man in the hospital waiting area.

The problem is that Hongkongers don’t feel Chinese?

There is no question of Hong Kong people not thinking of themselves as Chinese, says Oiwan Lam, writing on the Zhongnanhai blog last week. In fact, they are very proud of their ethnicity. Some even make the case that parts of Hong Kong are “more Chinese” than the mainland, having retained customs and traditions that were eroded north of the border under Mao Zedong.

But Hongkongers do see themselves as distinct, says Lam, not as just Chinese but more as Hong Kong Chinese.

Despite this, most residents of Hong Kong will accept that their view of mainlanders can be snooty, stemming from years of much higher incomes and wider international exposure.

This sense of superiority is now showing a new tinge of resentment, as China’s own rise in wealth and influence starts to have more of a day-to-day impact on Hong Kong life. One of the epithets used to scoff at mainlanders – calling them “locusts” or 蝗蟲 – reflects this change of mood. In part it’s an attempt to ridicule the perceived incivility of many of the Chinese tourists in the city. But it also hints at unease at the sheer number of visitors, as well as an awareness of their new buying power. From snapping up the bulk of luxury property to the emptying of supermarket shelves of milk powder (mainland parents want ‘safe’ brands; see WiC95 for something similar happening in Macau), the feeling is of huge, remorseless tide that cannot be turned back.

This anxiety then feeds into a growing “them and us” mentality in the city, with a survey published by the University of Hong Kong this month suggesting that twice as many respondents termed themselves as Hongkongers first, rather than Chinese.

Just 16.6% saw themselves primarily as Chinese citizens, the lowest level on record. The gap between Hong Kong and the mother country was supposed to narrow once the former colony was regained from the British in 1997. But in the survey at least, it seems to be getting wider.

What do the Chinese think of Hong Kong?

Of course, the mainland media is sensitive to any criticism of its homeland, and just as prickly when it comes from its own countrymen.

Even the more urbane China Daily slammed the Hong Kong survey results as “preposterous” and “intent on messing up Hong Kong”. Other pro-mainland media in the city got in on the act by warning of unspecified “evil political aims” behind the polling.

City newspaper Wen Wei Po also attacked the survey’s coordinator as a “slave of black political funding” who was trying to “divide Hong Kong people from their compatriots”.

Just when there were signs of tempers starting to cool, enter Kong Qingdong, an academic at Peking University who claims to be a direct descendant of Confucius. He reacted to footage of the spat on the MTR with an extraordinary diatribe of his own on an internet TV show.

Hongkongers were thieves and cheats, Kong railed, and stupidly arrogant given that millions of them lived in tiny apartments that were more like “animal cages”. In fact, the animal references came thick-and-fast, in a Noah’s Ark of insults. Kong couldn’t stand these “black sheep” in the Chinese family, nor disguise his disgust at these “dogs of imperialism”. Adds Kong: “And how did the British deal with those Hong Kong dogs? By spanking them in a raw manner!”

Hongkongers need China much more than China needs them, the punchy professor insisted. “If the mainland doesn’t provide your water, vegetables, fruit and rice, could you survive?” he taunted. “Could you find your English daddy?”

Hong Kong was “useless now” he concluded, and only “survived” because of mainland tourists.

Soon enough the remarks were being picked up in Hong Kong, and locals gathered to protest once more last Sunday, this time outside the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, Beijing’s main representative office in Hong Kong. Some chanted that it was better to be a dog in Hong Kong than a human on the mainland, according to media reports.

So, signs of a fraying relationship?

Henry Tang, a candidate to become the territory’s next leader (a title known as ‘chief executive’), then did his best to downplay the row. The recent misunderstandings between Hong Kong and people from the mainland were being caused by a small number of individuals, he suggested. But whether local anger really is limited to a few cases is debatable. The various flashpoints, the demonstrations, all the online debate and even the dinner party talk around Hong Kong point to an increasingly surly outlook among local citizens.

Of course, Beijing won’t want to see a further souring of Hong Kong’s mood. China has been determined to show that it can govern Hong Kong as an international city since 1997. It also helped it to recover from the devastating SARs outbreak five years later (ironically, by relaxing travel restrictions for Chinese visitors to the city, and so launching the wave of arrivals that many Hongkongers now grumble about).

Hong Kong has also been through growing pains in its relations with China in the past, usually reinventing itself in step with developments across the border. Yet the case can easily be made that Hong Kong’s dependence on China is now greater than ever. City property prices are pretty much driven by mainland buyers (especially at the luxury end) and the retail sector is soaring on trade with Chinese shoppers – which accounts for 40% of retail sales, according to the South China Morning Post and creates as many as 250,000 jobs.

Hong Kong’s airlines carry an ever-growing share of Chinese traffic. And most of all, its financial services industry trades on its status as a window on China – highlighted once again by its current role as launch pad for the Chinese currency, the renminbi, to internationalise.

News this month that Shanghai will delay plans for international companies to launch IPOs in the city (see page 6) suggest Hong Kong’s reign as China’s international financial capital is going to persist for a while.

Still, some things are changing. In the past Hong Kong’s ties with the mainland have usually been that of the senior party – investing in the factories of Guangdong in the eighties; brokering deals with multinationals going into China in the nineties; and arranging huge privatisations for mainland companies over the last decade. Thus for much of the past 30 years the contact with China was conducted on Hong Kong’s terms – an unusually influential role for a city of just seven million people.

But now the situation is starting to look a little different and Hong Kong and its people are taking time to adapt. The city has been happy enough to grow rich on its geographical and cultural affinity with mainland China. But now it will have to adjust to the new realities that this relationship brings, including a lot more contact with the mainland Chinese themselves.

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