Tea Leaf Nation

Viral in China: A Bittersweet Farewell to Hong Kong

One mainlander explains why he's leaving the city after seven years to chase his dreams in Shenzhen.

A Chinese national flag set up by demonstrators supporting the government electoral roadmap is seen outside the city's legislature in Hong Kong on June 17, 2015.  Hong Kong lawmakers laid bare the city's entrenched political divide as they locked horns over a reform package ahead of a key vote that pits democracy campaigners against the government.  AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A Chinese national flag set up by demonstrators supporting the government electoral roadmap is seen outside the city's legislature in Hong Kong on June 17, 2015. Hong Kong lawmakers laid bare the city's entrenched political divide as they locked horns over a reform package ahead of a key vote that pits democracy campaigners against the government. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Hong Kong’s declining influence is water-cooler conversation in mainland China once more. On June 20, an article from Chinese online investment publication Gelong Hui titled “Hong Kong, Please Forget Me” appeared on the popular chat platform WeChat — it promptly received over 100,000 views, and was widely shared and discussed elsewhere.* The post, by an anonymous mainland citizen who spent years working in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong and now works in finance in the nearby Chinese megacity of Shenzhen, reads as a melancholy goodbye to the former, although it also takes some digs at Hong Kongers, particularly those in the middle and lower classes.

By focusing on Hong Kong’s economic decline and increasing hostility to mainlanders, the article, since widely shared and discussed in Chinese cyberspace, hit a nerve that’s been raw for some time. In August 2014, a report by a Chinese consulting firm about Hong Kong’s slide toward “second-tier” status went viral on the mainland. Such talk only intensified after protesters took to the streets in Fall 2014, a movement sometimes called Occupy Central — ultimately, protesters gained few tangible concessions, and the rift between Hong Kong and the mainland grew wider. 

Foreign Policy translates and publishes with permission.

***

The night before leaving Hong Kong, I once again climbed to the summit of Victoria Peak, gazing one last time at the reflection of row upon row of neon lights reflected in Victoria Harbour, I suddenly felt a thick sense of disappointment: for me, for Hong Kong. This place held the dreams of my youth, once lofty, now silent.

Last week I was busy moving, then went to my new employer in Shenzhen to report. I had to change my ID from a Hong Kong resident to a Shenzhen resident. This year was my seventh in Hong Kong, and according to immigration regulations there, I could have applied to be a permanent resident. I don’t know what it means to have given up on this future. But while it was painful to walk away, I do know that today’s Hong Kong is not the home for me.

My affection for Hong Kong began with its martial arts films. When I was growing up, Hong Kong’s film industry was in a golden age, and a lot of films from then are now classics. Many Hong Kong stars affected my life; when I looked for a girlfriend, I was subconsciously looking for someone like Angie Chiu [now aged 60, most famous for her role in 1980 hit TV series The Bund]. Actor Chow Yun-Fat’s role in [1986 John Woo-directed gangster thriller] A Better Tomorrow represented everything I thought a hero should be. I was young when my family moved to Hong Kong, before the handover [from the U.K. to China in 1997], and I’ll never forget the joy on people’s faces. Many years later, when I came to Hong Kong for research and saw my childhood playmates, there was a distance. I couldn’t tell if it was the passage of time or the effects of Hong Kong society, but our communications were polite, but with an ineffable distance. Over time, we fell out of touch. But I still liked Hong Kong; it was neat and clean, and the quality of its people was visible in every detail.

But after seven years, I decided to leave. I didn’t have a family there, or generations there before me; just young dreams. I felt cramped, without anywhere to put my energies, like it was time to finish.

My friends in Hong Kong were not astonished I had decided to leave. They just sighed, “there goes another.” It takes a certain courage to treat Hong Kong as your home, but you also have to be able to afford to buy a home, and that’s not something I ever did anything more than idly chat about. I had dreams — of literature, of love, of traveling the world. And Hong Kong is a good place to dream: its tolerant culture, clean government, highly capable public servants, its rule of law. But mostly, we [mainlanders] talked of returning home, to find a spouse, to seek new opportunities. In chats about Hong Kong and the mainland, we always reached a consensus: if you want to develop, you can go to the United States, or back to the mainland, but there is no future in Hong Kong.

Lots of people lament the passing of the golden days of Hong Kong; and perhaps it was never the Far Eastern financial center we had invoked with such pride. But in recent years, its decline has happened with shocking speed. At the time of its handover in 1997, its per capita GDP was twice that of Macao. But it hasn’t grown a cumulative 40 percent in the last 17 years combined; now, Macau’s per person GDP is three times [sic] that of Hong Kong. [Ed.: It is actually between two and three times as large.] At the time of its return to China, Hong Kong’s GDP was 18 percent of that of the mainland [Ed.: it was actually 16 percent]; by 2013 it had fallen to three percent. In 1997, neither Beijing, Shanghai, nor Guangzhou had GDPs approaching that of Hong Kong; now all are higher, as is that of Shenzhen [Ed.: Guangzhou’s and Shenzhen’s GDP are roughly equivalent to Hong Kong’s]. Tianjin is said to be poised to surpass Hong Kong too.

Behind the economic stagnation is a brain drain. In my personal experience, I have seen many well educated Hong Kong elites slowly make plans to move; to the U.S., Canada, Australia, or England. Only a handful of classmates from Hong Kong University have stayed. For some years, this was offset by elite mainland students who felt coming to Hong Kong to study was a huge honor. But now, it’s clearly no longer the case.

This brain drain has been driven by the worsening of Hong Kong’s social atmosphere — complacent, lethargic, lazy. My youthful image of Hong Kong was one of vitality; it represented struggle, rigor. That was mostly true then; opportunities were many, and hard work eventually paid off. But now, as its major industries disappear, lower-class Hong Kongers are like dried salted fish; no hope of turning over. The rich-poor gap is wider than it’s ever been, its resources have been monopolized, home prices are increasingly warped, apartments are ever smaller, wages for new college graduates seemingly haven’t risen in ten years, but products are ever more expensive. To quote a classmate, it’s getting harder to see any hope.

You can feel the shift clearly in the workplace. After graduating, I happily found a job at a foreign investment bank in Central [Hong Kong’s office district]. What I remember most is relations with Hong Kong native coworkers; at first, there were no obstacles to communicating, and we joked freely. But as the Hong Kong economy struggled, and the rhetoric of ethnic conflict [between Hong Kongers and mainlanders] was being bandied about, an invisible barrier arose. You could feel it; civilized and polite on the surface, but with a defensiveness, even hostility behind it. The subtext was a tough one: You’re not one of us.

I know I was often used as a punching bag for mainland-Hong Kong frictions. Every year, mainlanders numbering four times the population of Hong Kong have been flooding in. Mainlanders used to be bumpkins in the eyes of Hong Kongers, but they are now tuhao [Chinese slang for nouveau rich], buying Louis Vuitton and gold as if they were cabbage. As one Hong Kong friend told me, it’s like the poor member of your family parading his new wealth before your doorstep; who can stand it? Hong Kong businessmen like tycoon Li Ka-shing, once models of hard work, are now described as obstacles to progress; it’s self-made entrepreneurs like Jack Ma from the traditionally poor mainland guiding the way.

Speaking heart to heart, in my experience in Hong Kong, I’ve learned that the average Hong Konger is worthy of pity. The pressure is so huge, the income is so small, the cost of living is so high. You go home and live like birds in a cage with your kids and parents; how can you stay balanced? If we can’t stand it, we go back to the mainland. If we can’t stand a big city in the mainland, we move to a small city. China’s big, so there’s a place for everyone. But Hong Kongers don’t have a way out. That helps us understand why some Hong Kong students took part in Occupy Central, or marched in protests; if graduation is the same as unemployment, don’t you need to vent somehow? In any society, when students take to the streets, it implies there’s a sickness at the heart of society; students are naturally inclined to spending time in the library, to writing, debating, dating, to dreaming and then realizing those dreams.

When people are excited by an external environment but unable to change, they tend to close themselves off and reject information from that external environment. In my view, this more or less represents Hong Kong at present. With vague fears and dominated by a lingering sense of confusion, some Hong Kongers have started to escape — hating the influx of mainlanders, of Filipinos, hating all change, pining for a past in which they were dominated [by the British] but could also live in [comfort]. This attitude is clearly expressed among the middle and lower classes in Hong Kong; because I speak Mandarin, I’ve endured hostility and nasty glances from service people in [restaurants and supermarkets], and had several instances where I heard my taxi drivers insulting me in Cantonese. I wanted to get angry, but ultimately tolerated it. They think I can’t understand Cantonese, but thanks to my seven years in Hong Kong, I not only can understand but can speak fluent Cantonese. It’s just that I normally insist on speaking Mandarin — it’s my mother tongue, I’ve already spoken it for 20 years before coming to Hong Kong, and it’s my habit. If I need to change it to be accepted, to fit in, doesn’t that show that Hong Kong society is sick?

But Hong Kong wasn’t like this seven years ago. Then, people were refined and courteous, and eager to help. People took that for granted. I remember clearly that  almost anywhere I went — whether it was a school campus, or a small alleyway — people would eagerly help me as soon as I opened my mouth, even if they didn’t really understand my Mandarin and I couldn’t understand their Cantonese at all. So I’m very grateful toward Hong Kong, for helping a mainland student who couldn’t communicate to assimilate so fast. Even if a lot of people treat me with inexplicable hostility now, I am still grateful; it’s just that this gratefulness can no longer turn into acceptance, even closeness.

Even competitiveness in finance, constantly invoked as the pride of Hong Kong, has in fact become a bit doddering. Besides the cluster of tall buildings in Central and the hordes of suit-wearing white collar workers that remind us of how this used to be a financial center, the major software [i.e., human talent] has already been thrown off into the world and into the mainland, not just on a few streets. Hong Kong finance hasn’t evolved with the times. On the other side of the river, Shenzhen is like a black hole, sucking in all of the scientific and technical talent. If this continues, where is Hong Kong’s future?

Starting next week, I’ll be chasing my dreams in the young and vibrant city of Shenzhen. Whatever happens, I wish you well, Hong Kong. You are the city to which I entrusted the dreams of my youth. I hope we all have a bright future.

*Correction, June 27, 2015: The original title of the Chinese essay is “Hong Kong, Please Forget Me.” A previous version of this article misstated the title. (Return to reading.)

AFP/Getty Images

David Wertime is senior editor of Tea Leaf Nation. David joins FP after having co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a news site dedicated to Chinese citizen and social media, which was acquired by the FP Group in Sept. 2013. A former lawyer in New York and Hong Kong, David first encountered China as a Peace Corps volunteer. He has appeared on BBC television, Al Jazeera English, Public Radio International, Voice of America, and other outlets as a commentator on China. Originally from the Philadelphia area, David holds a law degree from Harvard and an English degree from Yale, where he was executive editor of the Yale Herald.

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