Tea Leaf Nation
Why It’s Dangerous to Say ‘We Are All Chinese’
A starlet discovers the hard way how much Hong Kongers dislike their mainland bretheren.
When 34-year-old Hong Kong singer and actress Ella Koon penned a column for the respected local paper Ming Pao on Jan. 24 entitled "Kick Out Hatred and Discrimination," she was trying to beseech her fellow Hong Kong residents to be more tolerant toward mainland Chinese visitors. Instead, she has found herself pilloried online in a display of hatred toward mainlanders that’s become eerily typical over the past several years.
Hong Kong, a financial center and Special Administrative Region of China, is culturally and linguistically distinct from the mainland. Hong Kongers speak Cantonese while mainlanders mostly speak some form of Mandarin; Hong Kong has a history as a British colonial outpost that China lacks; and Hong Kongers still generate far more income per capita than their mainland counterparts. In her column, Koon wrote, "In the face of unavoidable cultural differences, we" — meaning Hong Kong residents — "should have a tolerant heart" for mainlanders, because "we are all Chinese." Accordingly, Hong Kongers should not mock those who are "of their own kind." Koon compared the cultural schism with her experience of studying in the United Kingdom as a high school student, when she noticed that locals often laughed at her ignorance of social mores, like the unspoken requirement to hold back a burp after a satisfying meal.
Koon’s column might sound uncontroversial to the politically correct. But correctness is not the order of the day in Hong Kong, where the opinion piece went over like a lead balloon: Netizens besieged Koon’s Facebook fan page with messages of hatred and intolerance soon after the article’s publication. (Koon’s Facebook page, which has over 280,000 fans, was scrubbed of all content posted after Jan. 13, but the vitriol lives on in mirror sites, Chinese-language articles, and discussions elsewhere on Facebook.) Writing in webby English, one user, whose comment was typical, called for Koon to apologize for her column because "the Truth is, Chinese from The Red Soviet-China r intentionally invading us," (sic) an incursion which includes "raping the civilization we built." Hong Kongers also raged against the star for preaching tolerance for what users called mainland "locusts" who are "invading" Hong Kong and "taking its resources." Some took special offense at Koon’s suggestion that Hong Kongers and mainlanders are "all Chinese."
Anti-mainland sentiment had been running high in Hong Kong, as the former British colony struggles to adjust to its status as a special Chinese city. The United Kingdom returned the city to the mainland in 1997, with the caveat that the city would continue to operate much as before for 50 years, before being fully absorbed into the much larger, Communist-controlled People’s Republic. But many believe Beijing is going back on its word. Critics point to encroachment of Hong Kong’s freedom of press, the lack of direct elections of Hong Kong’s chief executive — which presumably give Beijing greater opportunity to meddle — and Beijing’s control over Hong Kong’s immigration policy. But ordinary Hong Kongers are more likely to be angry at the quotidian: Photographs of mainland tourists crowding city streets, eating on Hong Kong subway, or cutting in line regularly go viral on Hong Kong’s social media. (The rancor goes both ways: Influential Chinese commentator Kong Qingdong infamously called Hong Kongers "dogs" in January 2012.)
Hong Kongers can at least be forgiven for feeling outnumbered. Approximately 40.7 million mainland tourists visited Hong Kong in 2013 — more than five times Hong Kong’s population of 7.2 million. While the Hong Kong government estimates that mainland tourists created more than 110,000 jobs in the region in 2012 alone, several surveys have shown that ordinary Hong Kongers do not believe that they have benefited from the influx. Instead, they resent mainland tourists for overcrowding subway cars, driving up commercial rents, and emptying store shelves of baby formula. New immigrants to Hong Kong face even more ire for taking jobs and the benefits given to residents, like school spots for children and hospital beds.
Koon’s foray into Hong Kong-mainland relations proved a bit too much to handle; the star broke down in tears at a Jan. 27 public appearance under what mainland paper Guancha called "the pressure of public opinion." It’s a force that is sure to have other would-be peacemakers on notice. Mainland Chinese will continue to flood into Hong Kong, but those seeking a warm welcome may want to wait a while.