Since 1997, when Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese control, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of people from the Chinese mainland living here, many arriving on a special one-way permit administered by Beijing. The recent arrivals who have settled here make up 1 in 10 of the population now, a share that’s only predicted to grow.
Longtime locals, already chafing under the lack of democratic progress in the past 20 years, have begun fearing the sheer power of these numbers. In the downtown areas of Hong Kong island, next to the stock exchange, Mandarin, the language spoken in China, is heard more frequently than Cantonese, the local tongue. It isn’t uncommon to hear locals refer to the mainlanders as “locusts,” who will consume everything from schools to housing.
It’s worth remembering, though, that the waves of people fleeing mainland China to settle in Hong Kong have furnished generations of new Hong Kongers in the nearly 180 years since it first became a British colony. Over time, they were absorbed and even if one generation was more “Chinese,” the next generation proudly identified as from here.
If for some mainland newcomers the attractions of Hong Kong are purely practical—the cleaner air, greater predictability of the legal system, and the international standing of its institutions—for others, the city’s freedoms are as dear to them as any other Hong Kong person.
“If I were to decide where I live purely on how convenient a city is, I’m not sure Hong Kong would really rank so far above Shanghai nowadays,” says Kang Yi, a professor of political science at Baptist University. “But for my research, I appreciate being here.” Professor Kang says that a lot has changed since the 2014 Umbrella Movement—but for the better. “Since then, people pay much more attention to the social atmosphere, to politics and to public affairs… everybody does, and I find this very impressive,” she says. After nine years in Hong Kong, Kang has also grown way too accustomed to a free internet to know how to function in a controlled one: “When I go back home, I don’t work. I read my books, but I don’t bother to do research online. I have no idea how my Chinese colleagues do it,” she quips.
For others, the attractiveness of Hong Kong’s freedoms may come at a higher price. “I came here initially to do a master’s at Chinese University. It shocked me very much: my professors were talking about human rights. My fellow students were challenging some of the professors’ statements,” says a master’s student from Urumqi, still with a slight look of amazement on her face. “Everything I know about politics, I learned in Hong Kong.” The student, who didn’t want to be named, added that during eight years here she has met a lot of professors and activists, “people who dedicate themselves to improving society, here, and in China.” But things took a serious turn for her, she says, when her association with some of the most renowned pro-democracy academics in Hong Kong attracted unwanted attention.
As is the case for many Chinese students abroad, having left China does not necessarily mean having left all controls behind: in campuses in the US or Australia, through various Chinese student associations, or interactions with the local Chinese embassy, the mainland makes its influence felt. This kind of pressure is reported in Hong Kong too, perhaps even to a greater degree. People she describes as “security,” without providing further details, got in touch and began asking questions about her contacts. “They found me through social media, and we met, and I was asked if I was colluding with foreign forces, or how close I was with the pro-democracy activists. I got really scared,” she says. She later changed university, and began to keep her interest in local political movements to herself.
“I used to publish quite freely on WeChat [a Chinese messaging app] telling my contacts what was happening in Hong Kong. I have become cautious now: during Occupy, I still spoke out. I read uncensored news and I talked to my friends about it,” she says. “Now that Beijing has taken a much tougher stance towards Hong Kong, I feel scared. But I have always had a very liberal mind, and I would not fit so well in China.”
“Here, you have less fear,” says Isaac Mao, an IT entrepreneur from Shanghai who calls Hong Kong home, and says he feels less weighed down away from the mainland. Hong Kong’s freedoms and its legal system are a guarantee for him, and, he says, “if I can, I want to help keep the city as it is, help it develop even more and not lose its edge.” He lives with his young son, and while he appreciates the local education system more than the one on the mainland, he says that he decided to take his son out of the school he was in after he came home reciting “I am Chinese.” Local leaders in Hong Kong have been considering using schools to promote a sense of Chinese identity; an earlier effort to do that in 2012 was strongly opposed by Hongkongers as “brainwashing.”
“This is a big problem in the mainland, too: the education makes you unable to distinguish between Party, people and country. So I told my boy: you have choices. If you want to be a global citizen, you can be. Do not fall for anyone’s fictional reality, because it is not reality. China is a story, but you can choose your own, and choose your own way to tell it.” Mao admires Hong Kong’s resilience in this respect, in spite of the recent years of political strife and polarization, and compares it very positively with the “political smog” of the mainland, that allows people to do “very little underneath it.”
For a 43-year-old accountant from Fuzhou, it was the need to maintain a range of political and personal connections that was unbearable. “Here, everything is more pleasurable: the air, the food, the water. But most of all, my time is my own. For this, I love Hong Kong,” he says, “I don’t have to be kept away from my work or my passions by the need to cultivate relationships in the mainland in order to make sure that a parallel network keeps me and my family protected. I can talk about what I want, and I can choose not to talk about what I’m not interested in. It’s very liberating.”
He expresses admiration particularly for the young political activists of Hong Kong: “They have a very clear idea of what they need to protect and develop. And at the same time, I am so glad to let my daughter go to school without the political pressure that everybody faces in the mainland. I am ready to help to defend these freedoms, but I also think that Hong Kong people have their own wisdom.”
He, like the others, shares a certain apprehension for the future of Hong Kong. But while they see the risks to their new home from a China that is trying to exert greater control, they also expressed hopefulness about Hong Kong’s character. “Right now, Hong Kong is still useful to China,” said the accountant, “and Hong Kong people know how to fight.”