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The uglier side of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement pits Chinese against Chinese

Pro-democracy demonstrators scuffle with a man (C) holding a Chinese flag who came to the protesters' barricade to oppose them blocking roads at Mongkok shopping district.
Reuters/Damir Sagolj
Pro-democracy demonstrators scuffle with a man holding a Chinese flag in Mong Kok.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

HONG KONG—In Hong Kong, the mainland Chinese don’t always assimilate easily. “It’s unusual for a mainlander to be friends with Hong Kong-ese,” says James Gao, 30, a lawyer in Hong Kong originally from Shanghai, who only after five years in the city has managed to make a few good local friends and learn a bit of Cantonese. “You always try to avoid talking about politics,” he says.

That hasn’t been easy since the outbreak of the so-called Umbrella Movement, which has paralyzed the city and dominated conversations between Gao and his friends for over a month. The pro-democracy demonstrations, triggered by China’s limits on the city’s first direct elections in 2017, carry a hidden edge that most protesters and supporters have tried to downplay: the deep and growing resentment toward millions of mainland Chinese immigrants and tourists, seen by many Hong Kongers as invaders who are irrevocably changing their city for the worse.

AP Photo
Pro-democracy protests stand in the rain near government offices in Hong Kong on Sept 30, beginning the Umbrella Movement.

Much of the anger among protesters is directed toward Chinese officials, who are determined to pre-vet top candidates through a pro-Beijing nominating committee, and the Hong Kong government that accepted that decision. But there’s more to it than that.

“The second kind of resentment relates to economic and social issues, the perception that Chinese groups in Hong Kong…behave in an ‘uncivilized manner’,” says Willy Lam, who analyzes Chinese and Hong Kong politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Many Hong Kongers accuse the Chinese of pushing up property prices and pushing out small mom-and-pop businesses to make way for luxury stores and jewelry shops catering to them. They also deride mainlanders for eating on the subway, cutting in line, and most famously letting their children defecate in public spaces, including sidewalks and subway trains. Others object to expectant mainland mothers who crowd Hong Kong hospitals, since giving birth to children here gives them Hong Kong residency, along with students that take up precious quota at universities and the thousands of tourists—about 40 million last year—who collectively dwarf Hong Kong’s population of 7 million.

Thus, for some protesters, a main reason for fighting for the ability to freely elect their own leaders is the chance to end policies that have “opened the floodgates,” as some say.

As the protests drag on and clashes winnow the crowd, the movement’s idealistic tone has started to shift.

“The Chinese people coming to Hong Kong. Their culture is different. They go to the toilet in the streets,” says Arthur Pang, 44, standing on the edge of a group of protesters listening to speeches in Mong Kok, one of the movement’s three protest sites. Motioning to Nathan Road, a shopping street that the protesters have blocked with tents and makeshift barricades, he says, “There used to be little shops. Now it is all drug stores and jewelry shops. It’s a shopping mall for mainlanders.” His wife, standing next to him, leans over and says: “I doubt whether we are still in Hong Kong sometimes.”

“Hong Kong for Hong Kongers”

Compared to past demonstrations in Hong Kong, the Umbrella Movement, also known as Occupy Central, has been notable for its absence of open anti-Chinese vitriol. “I have actually been struck by the lack of a strong anti-mainland sentiment overall,” says Dan Garrett, a PhD student at the City University of Hong Kong who has been researching Hong Kong protest culture. Demonstrators have focused instead on electoral reform, their demands for democracy, and an emerging sense of Hong Kong identity.

Since the protests began, signs that say, “Hong Kong is not a part of China,” can be seen more often and in more places around the city, Garrett observes. ”I think most people don’t like mainland Chinese and want to limit them coming,” says engineer Vivian Lau, 25, sitting on a curb in central Hong Kong, along a luxury shopping street that demonstrators have since had to cede to police.

But that identity depends on distinguishing Hong Kong from mainland China. As the protests drag on and clashes with pro-Beijing groups and police have winnowed the crowd down to only the most committed demonstrators, the movement’s’ once idealistic tone has started to shift.

“The Chinese people coming to Hong Kong. Their culture is different. They go to the toilet in the streets.”

In Mong Kok, more radical organizations like Civic Passion, a localist group that has called for the downfall of China’s Communist Party (CCP), have a strong presence. During clashes between demonstrators and anti-Occupy protesters last month, the pro-democracy demonstrators chanted, “Go back to China.” And on National Day, on Oct 1, when tens of thousands of Chinese shoppers poured into Hong Kong’s luxury districts, protesters set up a site in the shopping district with signs that read, ”Hong Kong for Hong Kongers.”

Recently, even some of the student leaders have let slip their less than favorable feelings toward the Chinese. Responding to a suggestion that Beijing would curtail the number of mainland visitors to the city as economic retribution, student leader Joshua Wong said on Twitter last week, “You call that punishment?” A sign in the main protest site in Admiralty criticizes the Hong Kong government’s open tourism policy toward visitors from major Chinese cities:

Sunny Chen
A sign in Admiralty reads, “Mainland Chinese tire Hong Kong people. Open travel [a policy that allows mainland visitors to travel to Hong Kong independently] hurts the city.”

Locust Nation

Tension between Hong Kongers and mainlanders has simmered ever since the former British colony’s return to China in 1997. For every Hong Konger who sees mainlanders as rude and uncouth, there is a mainlander who sees Hong Kongers as arrogant and bitter that their once-poor cousins to the north are now growing prosperous.

In 2007, China’s then-president Hu Jintao called for a new generation of Hong Kongers who love China.

But that generation never arrived. Over the last five years as Chinese tourists and immigrants to the city have grown exponentially, frustration toward mainlanders boils over more often—an average of 380 tour groups from China visited the city per day since the beginning of October.” Spot the mainlander” is something of a past time among some bloggers. Mainland Chinese have earned their own derogatory slur in Cantonese, wong chung, or “locusts” that critics say are ravaging Hong Kong. The term is also the subject of one popular satirical song, “Locust World” in which a man croons, “Invading across the Hong Kong border and taking our land, that’s your specialty..Locust Nation.”

Heated confrontations and physical fights are becoming more common—in February a group of protesters taunted Chinese shoppers, calling them them wong chung and shi na, a racial slur used to refer to the Chinese during World War II. Hong Kong protesters at a train station near the Chinese border in 2012 held up a sign that said “Chinese people eat shit,” prompting mainland Chinese travelers to attack them. Footage of a Chinese couple and a local wrestling over a memory card containing footage of the parents letting their son urinate on a sidewalk went viral this spring, leading Chinese netizens to declare a boycott of Hong Kong.

“Many Chinese students, we are fed up with the CCP. We understand their anger.”

Daily life in Hong Kong is at times uncomfortable for mainlanders living here. ”My friends used to just stay three or four years, and then go back to China. I didn’t understand why until after I started working,” says Anika Wong, a 25-year-old English teacher, originally from Tianjin. Working and living away from home is already difficult enough. She’s not sure whether she has imagined or experienced discrimination in her three years here—a group of locals speaking in Cantonese near her suddenly bursting out in laughter or a rude waiter. ”You get used to it,” she says.

Not all Hong Kong appear to have much sympathy for those who feel discriminated against: in a poll done by the South China Morning Post, 83% of those surveyed said no to the idea of outlawing discrimination based on immigration status or nationality—mainland Chinese are not covered by a Hong Kong law against discrimination and harassment of a person based on their race or ethnic origin.

“I am not Hong Kong-ese”

Reuters/Bobby Yip
A woman poses with a cardboard cut out of Xi Jinping at the Umbrella Movement protest site in Mong Kok.

Ironically, many mainland Chinese who live in Hong Kong are impressed by the protests. Mandarin can often be heard at the main protest site in Admiralty almost as much as Cantonese, as Chinese visitors and residents walk along Harcourt Road, taking selfies with the many cutouts of Xi Jinping holding a yellow umbrella, a tongue-in-cheek symbol of the pro-democracy movement. After student leaders speak, shouts of support in Mandarin can sometimes be heard.

“Many Chinese students, we are fed up with the CCP. We understand that their anger, Hong Kong people’s anger, is toward the CCP. It’s not all about mainlanders,” says Mark Wang, 25, a journalism student at Hong Kong University, who has been attending the protests.

Gao, the lawyer, spends many of his conversations with his Hong Kong friends arguing that the protesters should accept a compromise with the government, or else gain nothing at all. He tries to convince his friends and family back in China that the protests are not chaotic and violent as Chinese state media have made them out to be. ”I don’t agree with [the protests], but I appreciate their orderliness. We can’t imagine having such a protest in the mainland,” he says.

But it’s also another example of how different and how separate Hong Kongers and mainlanders remain. Gao, who says he loves Hong Kong and his life here, explains: “I went to university here. I met my wife here, and my daughter was born here, but I am not Hong Kong-ese. Even if I get permanent residency here, I will not be Hong Kong-ese.”

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