Hongkongers resist being “just another Chinese coastal city”

Fear and anger over Beijing’s political agenda for the former British colony have run high again, when Hongkongers took to the streets to protest the planned introduction of mainland-style patriotic education.

Student protests at HK government HQ // Friday September 7, 2012 // Photo: Kin Cheung AP

Admittedly, the powerful pro-Beijing wing sacked its reform plans fearing voters might vent their anger at the upcoming election. But patriotic education is only the most recent of a number of issues that have brought to light Hongkongers’ anti mainland sentiments and quarreling with its growing influence. This bears the question: What is at the core of these sentiments?

Hong Kong became a British colony in the mid-19th century during the opium war and was handed back to China in 1997. To date it maintains a “One country – two systems” structure with more political freedom than the mainland, including a multi-party system and the rights to peaceful assembly and free speech. It has been a major financial and business center for years, and ranks higher than most of the developed world in terms of GDP per capita, economic freedom and life expectancy. Recently, Hongkongers have expressed their discontent with a number of issues that relate to its relationship with mainland China.

Capacity. More than 23 million annual visitors from the mainland stretch the city’s transport, health and education services. A fair share of these visitors are mainland businessmen who exploit the price gap between Hong Kong and Shenzhen by purchasing goods in Hong Kong and commuting back and forth multiple times per day.

Birth tourism. More than half of all babies born in Hong Kong have mainland Chinese parents, many of which spared neither cost nor effort to get a hospital bed in the city and a permanent Hong Kong residency permit for their child. Hongkongers claim they have difficulty securing hospital spots as a consequence.

Price level. Property prices are driven up by mainland investors who lack investment opportunities in China due to strict regulation.

Whether justified or not, these (and other) issues have fostered hostile feelings towards Beijing politics but also the mainland Chinese population.

Given China’s political system and human rights issues, it does not come as a surprise that Hongkongers are anxious about their homeland’s future and personal freedom. Even though Beijing has guaranteed Hong Kong’s special status for another 50 years as of 1997’s handover, the local population remains skeptic.

I cannot help but think that there might also be a bit of jealousy involved. Hongkongers have grown up in one of the wealthiest and most convenient places in the world, and this might have led to some feeling of superiority towards their mainland neighbors. However, with China’s extraordinary economic growth the former colony has lost some of its uniqueness. The local center of economic gravity is shifting towards Shenzhen and wealthy Chinese businessmen outnumber their Hong Kong peers. China’s nouveau riche youth is pouring into Hong Kong with a newly gained confidence and limitless credit cards, enjoying the city’s amenities.

Of course, this is a highly generalizing and one-sided picture. There is no acute danger to Hong Kong’s economic importance and its status as a major financial center and business hub. Beijing has a great interest in using the former colony as a “lab” to test steps towards market liberalization. In 2007, the off-shore RMB bond market commenced in Hong Kong and is likely to remain restricted to the SAR (special administrative region), with trading volumes growing rapidly.

Now, is it personal feelings or anxiety about the political and social future? Probably a bit of both. Hong Kong and China have to find a way to deal with each other not only on political and economic dimensions. The very people have to get their act together and find a common ground.

Sources & background reading

http://live.wsj.com/video/hong-kong-takes-swing-at-mainland-with-locust-ad/FE95000B-7D7F-44DE-9305-292A5D76EED9.html#!FE95000B-7D7F-44DE-9305-292A5D76EED9

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-19537452

http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/101east/2011/11/201111298154826963.html

Check South China Morning Post on Factiva for more articles on the topic.

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