Why Is Hong Kong So Jumpy?

Trefor Moss writes for The Diplomat about the nasty debate flaring over Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China, and the root of Hong Kong’s recent uneasiness:

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.”

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.

Moss mentions several recent events that have fueled tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China. In mid-January, a quarrel errupted on a Hong Kong metro trainwhen locals called out a mainland family for eating dried noodles despite a subway ban on eating and drinking. Then, Beijing academic Kong Qingdong gave a TV interview in which he referred to the people of Hong Kong as “dogs” and “bastards.” Most recently, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily fired back with a full page anti-mainland ad which characterizes mainlanders as “locusts.” The ad was inspired by anxiety over the rising number of mainland women who come to Hong Kong to give birth and guarantee their child Hong Kong citizenship, anxiety which has led to protests by the local Hong Kong community.

See also “One Country, Two Systems? Not Really,” via CDT.


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