Behind Hong Kong’s resolve: Locals’ view of a city under siege

Anti-government protesters, wearing masks to protect against tear gas, stand in front of Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong’s skyline.
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For much of the past two centuries, Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese have lived in different worlds. 

During 150 years of British rule, Hong Kong was never a democracy, but absorbed liberal values and developed a robust civil society. China, meanwhile, turned to Soviet-inspired communism – and many Hong Kongers descend from refugees who fled Mao’s revolution.

Why We Wrote This

There’s nowhere quite like Hong Kong. But in part, the protests stem from a feeling that is just as universal as it is uniquely local: concerns about forces reshaping their culture, language, and identity – simply put, their home.

Today, as Hong Kong enters its sixth month of unrest, many protesters’ complaints stem from the mainland’s efforts in recent years to tighten control over the semi-autonomous territory. There is also widespread concern over a growing influx of mainland Chinese people, companies, and investment, and their influence on Hong Kong’s distinct culture and economy.

But the protests have also brought to the fore those older, deeper divides of culture and identity, which have set the stage for rising nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border. A more assertive Hong Kong identity is evident across generations, classes, and regions of the territory – from border towns and traditional clan villages, to densely inhabited neighborhoods and business districts, according to interviews with scores of people in Hong Kong. 

Those nationalisms may also set the stage for a protracted struggle between the world’s biggest communist power and the quasi-democratic territory on its southern flank – a struggle that has taken an ominous turn in recent weeks.

Roy Chen glances down a street teeming with mainland Chinese shoppers in this market town 2 miles from the mainland border and shakes his head. A native of Sheung Shui, the young entrepreneur resents the onslaught of outside consumers that he says is overwhelming his hometown and making him feel like a second-class citizen. 

“This used to be a street where we could buy cheap toys – now it’s all pharmacies” that cater to mainland Chinese traders, he says. “The prices are very high, and if you’re from Hong Kong and need to buy a little medicine, the clerks just ignore you.”

Down the block, throngs of mainland buyers pack the stores, lining the sidewalks with their ubiquitous roller bags. “It’s like this every day,” says a saleswoman in a navy-blue smock, as she hands out big canisters of baby formula. 

Why We Wrote This

There’s nowhere quite like Hong Kong. But in part, the protests stem from a feeling that is just as universal as it is uniquely local: concerns about forces reshaping their culture, language, and identity – simply put, their home.

Millions of mainlanders, some with multiple-entry permits, take advantage of Hong Kong’s tax-free status and lower prices to snap up medicine, cosmetics, infant formula, and other goods with brand names trusted by mainland consumers. Many of them, known as “parallel traders,” repackage the goods in small parcels to avoid taxes and resell them for a profit across the border.

The voracious appetite for such products stems partly from the mainland’s problem with counterfeit goods. “They don’t trust the Chinese formula. Many things in their country are fake,” says one Hong Kong pharmacist. She describes the industrious traders derisively as working “like so many ants, [to] move things from place to place.”

The brisk trade, while profitable for some, has caused rising prices and shortages in baby formula and other key goods for Hong Kongers. It has also driven out small businesses and raised rents as large retailers move in, leading to protests by local people like Mr. Chen. 

The border scene is emblematic of the social, economic, and cultural effects of a growing influx into Hong Kong of mainland Chinese people, companies, and investment since China regained sovereignty over the British colony in 1997. As China has stepped up efforts to integrate Hong Kong with the mainland, Hong Kongers say they feel threatened, facing what they describe as pressure on all fronts.

While more than five months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have focused on Beijing’s political encroachments, they have brought to the forefront deeper divides of culture and identity between Hong Kong and the mainland. Combined with rising nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border, these forces portend a protracted struggle between the world’s biggest communist power and the quasi-democratic territory on its southern flank. That struggle has taken an ominous turn in recent days and weeks, as police have shot three protesters, and another protester died after a fall, fueling widespread anger and more demonstrations. Beijing warned this week that Hong Kong is slipping into “terrorism,” and has signaled plans for stepping up security while tightening political and legal controls over the territory.

Mainland Chinese visitors to Hong Kong have surged from 2 million in 1997 to about 50 million last year. Meanwhile, under a program that allows up to 150 mainlanders to move to Hong Kong on a one-way permit every day, more than 1 million mainland Chinese have moved to Hong Kong to become permanent residents – a significant addition to the territory’s population of 7.4 million. 

Mainland shoppers, taking advantage of Hong Kong’s tax-free goods, swarm markets near Hong Kong’s border with mainland China.

While the flow of mainland labor has contributed to Hong Kong’s overall economic growth, many Hong Kong natives stress the negative impact, such as competition for jobs, resources, transport, services, and housing. They use ominous – even discriminatory – language, comparing mainlanders to a plague of locusts.

The more they live cheek by jowl with mainlanders, the more Hong Kong people are embracing their own distinct local identity – with many stressing how different they are from their northern compatriots. Politically, they say, Hong Kong people value the rule of law, and the freedom to speak their minds and question authority; mainlanders are brainwashed by propaganda and blindly follow Beijing. Culturally, they stress, Hong Kongers speak Cantonese, which is unintelligible to Mandarin-speaking mainlanders, and have different standards when it comes to social etiquette, hygiene, and civility. 

“There is an emergence of a very strong local identity in this movement ... that I have never seen before,” says Stan Hok-Wui Wong, a social scientist at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

This more assertive Hong Kong identity is evident across generations, classes, and regions of the territory – from border towns and traditional clan villages in the New Territories, to the densely inhabited neighborhoods of Kowloon and the business districts of Hong Kong Island, according to interviews with scores of people in Hong Kong. 

It is amplified by Hong Kongers’ concerns about Beijing’s efforts in recent years to tighten its grip over the semi-autonomous territory, and the erosion of their rights and freedoms. 

“The [mainland] Chinese pressure is everywhere,” says Stephen, a history student, as he attended a large rally one night this fall in downtown Hong Kong’s Edinburgh Place on the shore of Victoria Harbor.

“Young people are discontent over this cultural and social invasion of Hong Kong,” as well as the economic influence, he says. “Here is a very iconic example,” he says, pointing behind him to the growing number of Chinese state-owned companies visible on Hong Kong’s glittering skyline.

“We are afraid that the speed of the colonization will be faster than we expected,” he says. (Stephen and some other people interviewed for this story provided only their first or last name, or a pseudonym, to protect their privacy.)

Such broad concerns about mainland encroachment have fueled this year’s mass political activism. Deeply distrustful of Hong Kong’s government and police, Hong Kongers have banded together and repeatedly taken to the streets to defend their interests, with by far the biggest wave of protests erupting in June. The protests began over a proposed extradition bill – withdrawn last month - that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to the mainland for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party. Protesters also demand that the government allow an independent investigation of police conduct and institute universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong’s chief executive.

A mainland visitor poses for a photo along Hong Kong’s harbor.

Those who don’t take to the streets often provide logistical or moral support. Mr. Chen, the small-business owner from Sheung Shui, backs Hong Kong’s protesters by giving them water and supplies. “My little brother is on the front lines” of the demonstrations, he adds proudly.

“If Hong Kong is not free in the future, then we will be no different from the mainland,” he says. Mainland people “don’t understand us. They say, ‘Don’t wage revolution in Hong Kong!’ But then they come and take advantage of what we have.”

Economic tensions

Along Women’s Street, mainland immigrants sell purses and watches, silk robes and Spider-Man backpacks at outdoor market stalls that line the narrow road in Mong Kok, a densely populated neighborhood on Hong Kong’s Kowloon Peninsula. 

A sudden rain sends the mostly female clerks scurrying to hoist blue tarps to protect their wares. Wearing a white T-shirt and jeans with her hair in a ponytail, one clerk, Ms. Liu, sums up her priorities since moving to Hong Kong from the mainland a decade ago. “You make a living. That’s all that matters,” Ms. Liu says, reflecting an attitude common among mainlanders here. 

Mainland immigrants like Ms. Liu generally have a lower level of education and job skills than Hong Kongers, and come to the southern city in search of economic opportunity, better wages, and a higher standard of living. 

But although they provide an injection of younger laborers that Hong Kong needs, the immigrants can undercut local workers by accepting lower pay. “They take your jobs!” exclaims Alex, a Hong Kong resident and tour guide, explaining how his father lost his painting job because a mainlander agreed to work for half the wage.

In the eyes of many Hong Kongers, mainland immigrants are also consuming social services – and public housing – that are then unavailable for needy locals. Many of the immigrants are younger women and children who come to reunite with Hong Kong spouses and do not work. They are allowed to join their spouses living in public housing, while longtime Hong Kong residents must meet strict income criteria and wait more than five years to gain access to low-income flats. 

“It’s not fair,” says Mr. Wong, a civil servant in Hong Kong’s Housing Department who is critical of government policy. “The Chinese [immigrants] don’t have to show their income to get housing and social benefits,” he says, as he stands on the sidelines of a recent rally in downtown Hong Kong.

Pro-China supporter Alex Yeung, owner of Wah Kee Restaurant, takes a selfie next to a giant Chinese flag as he and others celebrate National Day of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 2019.

The shortage of the heavily subsidized public housing is a dire issue in Hong Kong, where the high-rise apartment buildings are home for 3.3 million people – or about 45% of the population. Meanwhile, sky-high prices put private property out of reach for most. Hong Kong is the most expensive place to own a home in the world, according to data from the World Economic Forum. At current rates, it would take about 20 years for the average skilled service worker in Hong Kong to afford to buy a 650-square-foot flat in the city center. Average rents are close to the average monthly wages of workers.

The problem is rooted in a shortage of land for development, and government policy, but has been exacerbated in part by growing demand from wealthy mainlanders. Hong Kong is the favorite offshore property market for mainland buyers, according to an October survey by the Swiss investment bank UBS.

“Chinese people move to Hong Kong just looking for resources – housing, medical care,” says Jimmy, a real estate broker on Hong Kong Island. “If they contribute to Hong Kong we don’t mind, but if they simply take things, we don’t like it. The money is all from our taxes.”

Immigration programs that attract wealthy investors and professionals from the mainland have also drawn concern from Hong Kong’s more highly educated, white-collar workers, who see big Chinese firms filling jobs with mainland employees.

“In the recruitment, they prefer mainlanders rather than locals, especially when the daily operation of the enterprise will use Mandarin,” says Nicholas, a Hong Kong native who will soon enter the workforce as a college graduate. “That causes a disadvantage for Hong Kong people to compete for jobs,” he says.

Feeling besieged economically, Hong Kongers blame the north. “From the local perspective, many of the mainlanders are in direct competition with locals,” says Professor Wong. “The superrich and the low-skilled are competing away the resources that are supposed to be for Hong Kong people.” 

Apartment buildings loom out of the hills of Hong Kong, the most expensive place to own a home in the world.

Such blame is shortsighted, some say, noting that young immigrants help rejuvenate Hong Kong’s aging population. “If we do our job properly, to make sure they are welcome, their skill set can be fully utilized,” says Paul Yip, chair professor in the department of social work at The University of Hong Kong. 

Moreover, Hong Kong’s government needs to “address the deep-rooted problems” such as housing and provide greater training and opportunities for Hong Kong’s youths, he says. In the absence of such measures, “the resentment goes both ways,” says Professor Yip.

As the us-against-them mentality toward mainlanders grows, so does Hong Kongers’ collective identity as a distinct people with their own culture, place, and destiny.

'One country, two nationalisms'

Tucked away amid the verdant hills of northwestern Hong Kong, an ancient village of the powerful Tang clan seems far removed from the high emotions and intensity of the neon city. 

Rural clan strongholds are traditionally conservative and pro-Beijing. But even here, pride in Hong Kong’s culture, unique character, and activism as distinct from the mainland is growing. “Hong Kong people are braver” than mainlanders because they dare to speak their minds, says one young clansman, Tang Kuho, as he stops to visit along a village path. 

Mr. Tang, who is training to be a Hong Kong firefighter, strongly supports peaceful protests in the territory. In contrast, Mr. Tang says, mainlanders keep quiet out of fear of government retribution, and also because propaganda and patriotic education give them an overly rosy view of their country and its history. “Mainland people can’t say what they think,” he says.

Farther down the path next to an elegant Tang clan ancestral hall, Ms. Yang, a mainland woman who married into the clan, sells traditional homemade sesame sweets. Since moving to Hong Kong from her hometown of Changsha in China’s Hunan province three years ago, Ms. Yang has also felt the widening divide between Hong Kong and mainland people. 

“Hong Kong people are relatively xenophobic,” she says. “They don’t want to have contact with us; it’s that simple.”

Mainlanders who arrived in Hong Kong after 1997 are considered “outlanders,” she says. Earlier waves of immigrants consider themselves “Hong Kong people,” she says, including her husband’s grandmother, who arrived some 80 years ago.

Feeling alienated, Ms. Yang relies on friendships with other young mainland mothers. “We have our own circle. We take the children to school together, so it’s easy to meet them. We support one another,” she says. Her overall feeling about Hong Kong? “I don’t like it. I want to return to the mainland – about 80% of us want to move back.”

“Hong Kong people are relatively xenophobic. They don’t want to have contact with us; it’s that simple.” – Ms. Yang, who moved to Hong Kong from mainland China

Although they share Chinese ethnicity, Hong Kongers and mainlanders have lived in different worlds for much of the last two centuries. During 150 years of British colonial administration from 1841 to 1997, Hong Kong absorbed liberal political values under a British legal system and, while never a democracy, had a robust civil society and saw the beginnings of representative government. 

“Hong Kong has been developing in a very liberal political environment. All these Hong Kong elites were educated in Britain, studying law at the best British universities,” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “That is part of the DNA of the Hong Kong people.”

China’s communist rulers, in contrast, adopted a Soviet-inspired style of governance and political culture. Many Hong Kong people belong to families of refugees who fled during China’s 1949 communist revolution and the political unrest that followed. “They knew their money would be confiscated so they came to Hong Kong,” Professor Cabestan says. “The anti-communist DNA is very strong in Hong Kong.” 

“This explains the gap ... between China and Hong Kong.” 

As China’s leaders have moved to tighten the Communist Party’s controls, especially since party chief Xi Jinping took power in 2012, Hong Kong has pushed back. Hong Kong has increasingly resisted Beijing’s ongoing efforts to impose national policies – from a draconian national security law to “patriotic” education – that many in the territory believe encroach on their rights outlined in the “one country, two systems” framework under which China resumed sovereignty in 1997. 

“China has tried to subsume Hong Kongers since 1997, but their stateless nationalism has, paradoxically, become more consolidated through their struggles,” writes  Brian C.H. Fong, a comparative political scientist at The Education University of Hong Kong, in an October article.

Mass protests for human rights and democracy in 2003, 2014, and this year have solidified the territory’s unique political identity. Meanwhile, nationalist sentiment has grown in the mainland, bolstered by party propaganda. To describe these trends, Professor Fong coined the phrase “one country, two nationalisms.” Each seems to be reinforcing the other: As Hong Kong’s protesters push for greater autonomy from Beijing’s autocratic regime, Chinese officials and state-run media denounce them as separatist rioters backed by hostile foreign forces who must be reined in. (The vast majority of Hong Kong protesters seek autonomy, not independence from China.)

“Ironically, instead of successfully assimilating Hongkongese into one Chinese nation, Beijing’s incorporation strategies are leading to a rise of peripheral nationalism in the city-state and waves of counter-mobilization,” Professor Fong writes.

Uncharted territory

These divergent outlooks are playing out in tensions between local and mainland students on university campuses in Hong Kong, which have intensified with a handful of recent violent confrontations between Hong Kong and mainland students. This, coupled with serious clashes between protesters and police on campuses over the past week, has led many mainland students to flee across the border, according to press reports.

Earlier this fall at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, rising on lush hills shaded by banyan trees and overlooking Tolo Harbor, Hong Kong student activists hand out pamphlets outside the light rail station.

“We want a real democratic society, where Hong Kong people have the right to vote for their government,” says Miss Chow. “We are seeing a lot of decaying in the system.” Posters and graffiti supporting the movement cover campus buildings, walls, and walkways.

Although some mainland students quietly support the pro-democracy protests, others vocally oppose them. “Some shout slogans, like ‘Hong Kong is part of China’ at our assemblies,” she says. “Others are a bit confused about freedom of speech in Hong Kong” because it is so novel.

Protesters hide their faces after trying to speak to the vice chancellor of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Indeed, asked about the protests, some newly arrived mainland students seem surprised by the level of openness on Hong Kong campuses. “This is a free university, with free speech,” says a first-year engineering student from Shandong province. Still, her reaction was mixed. “Sometimes what they say makes sense, but sometimes they overdo it,” she says. While Hong Kong students have welcomed her, she notes, “it makes me sad to see so many posters. I love my country.”

Miss Chow hopes more mainland students will back the movement, as they sift the truth from propaganda about Hong Kong. “In Hong Kong, they can have more exposure to freedom of speech and different media and information,” she says. “Some of them may change their minds.”

Many Hong Kong people believe the past five months of unprecedented protests mark a turning point in attitudes that has changed the territory forever. Opinion polls also suggest a tectonic shift in outlook. Only slightly more than 10% of Hong Kong people identify themselves as “Chinese” – a post-1997 record low, according to a June public opinion poll by The University of Hong Kong. A majority identify as “Hong Konger,” the poll shows. And Hong Kong people are gaining pride in themselves, a July survey shows. One possible outcome, say experts, is that pro-democracy and localist candidates will receive a significant boost in district elections scheduled for Nov. 24 and legislative elections to be held next year.

Prior to the latest huge wave of protests, Professor Wong’s research anticipated a gradual shift toward pro-Beijing conservatism in Hong Kong elections, as more mainland immigrants gained permanent residency and the right to vote.

But Hong Kong is now in fluid, uncharted territory. Some mainland immigrants have joined the protests and support the calls for greater police and government accountability. Several interviewed say they either back the protests or are neutral.

“There is a huge consensus that the government needs to do something to respond to the people’s demands,” says Professor Wong, who studies Hong Kong elections. “Many are unhappy with the performance of the administration. That may change their political orientation.”

Professor Yip agrees. “We have to move with the times,” he says. “You can’t put Hong Kong back in a cage.”

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