hong kong skyline at night

The Great China/Hong Kong Divide

Given China’s own complex situation, granting Hong Kong universal suffrage seems highly unlikely. Perhaps it is likely later on future when democracy, civil participation, voting and free speech are more understood and developed in China.

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hong kong skyline at night

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Recently, the streets of Hong Kong were flooded with protestors demanding their new leader, Leung Chun-Ying, to resign because of his alleged illegal renovation of his luxurious mansion. Many have utilised the opportunity to vent their other discontents such as demanding gay rights, rising property costs, housing issues for growing families and the sluggish economy. Protestors accused him of being a lackey for the Chinese government, merely doing Beijing’s bidding while ignoring the needs and priorities of Hong Kong citizens. Leung has a bigger challenge than resolving his building breaches; could he foster positive relations between Hong Kong and China? Since 1997, Hong Kongers have grown more defensive of their distinct identity and remain very suspicious about the Chinese government and somewhat unwelcoming to mainland Chinese.

Criticisms of Leung being too close to China

Leung Chun-Ying was appointed as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong on 1 July 2012, beating opponent Henry Tang, who was the former Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong. Tang’s popularity plummeted because of his illegal construction of a basement on his property at 7 York Road, Kowloon Tong.

Leung’s road to leadership has not been a smooth ride. In Hong Kong media, Leung is aligned with the personality of a wolf because of his apparent ruthlessness in politics. In April 2012, demonstrators demanded Leung to step down because of his seemingly pro-Beijing stance and he would only be an instrument for the Chinese government. A citizen name Lam Sim-Shing commented “Beijing blatantly interfered in our election,” and “he will be a ‘yes’ man for Beijing…”.

Some pro-capitalist politicians and media and anti-Leung protestors have accused him of being a loyal member of the Chinese Communist Party, to which Leung firmly denied. He responded: “I am not a member of the Communist Party. I am not a so-called underground member of the Communist Party. In fact, I’m not a member, and have not been a member of any political party anywhere in the world”.  He was once asked whether Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, deserved the award and he answered former Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, should be the first Chinese Nobel Laureate. Leung addressed his inauguration speech in Mandarin, rather than Cantonese as the previous Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, had done. Most Hong Kongers see Cantonese as the dividing line between them and mainland Chinese. Many Hong Kongers may interpret their leader would only serve to please the Beijing elites. Moreover, Leung’s introduction of Beijing’s controversial education reforms, which were announced in 2012 (will be discussed later), further reinforced anti-Leung citizens’ opinions about him.

Mass protests erupted in early January when Leung was accused of illegally renovating his flat that breached the Buildings Department regulations. According to The Guardian, Hong Kong media discovered he had constructed “a trellis, a metal gate, a canopy over his garage” on his property just six months after winning his election. Now Leung is facing pressure from protesters and authorities to give an explanation.

Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Hong Kong. According to The Guardian protesters held up signs that depicted Leung as a wolf, and calling him a liar. From other sources, some illustrated Leung with a long nose – resembling Pinocchio and one protester wore a wolf costume with the Chinese Red Guard uniform. One of the protesters claimed Leung “is not honest. As chief executive, he cannot convince the public that he is leader with credibility” and “I don’t want Hong Kong to be led by a person without credibility”. Another citizen complained they have not the right to vote for their own leader; “we don’t even have a vote, he is elected by a small group of people. We cannot use our voting right to express our view no matter how his performance is”.

The Great Divide Between Hong Kong and China

The protests clearly show us there is still a deep divide between Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong was ceded to British rule when the Qing Government was defeated in the First Opium War (1839-1842). After signing the Treaty of Nanking 1842, influence and connections from China became very limited and Hong Kong had lived under western-style democracy. The sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred back to China in 1997, ending more than 150 years of British control and China had agreed to have a “one country, two systems” policy. Yet, since the reunification, many Hong Kongers are still concerned Beijing would meddle in its affairs and enforcing laws that would threaten their free speech and democracy.  Some protesters were seen waving the British colonial flag; a clear indication that democracy and free speech were guaranteed when they were under British jurisdiction. However, one must note that even during the colonial days, Hong Kongers could not vote for their Governor.

According to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong in 2011, it revealed that Hong Kongers do not perceive themselves as Chinese citizens but rather, ‘Hong Kong citizens’. Only 16.6% identified themselves Chinese citizens.  Despite a majority of Hong Kong citizens being of ethnic Han descent, writing Chinese characters and retaining aspects of Chinese traditions, they see themselves as been distinct from their mainland Chinese counterparts.

Several incidents reflect contemporary relations between the two sides. In 2011, the popular song sung by Hong Kong singer and actor Eason Chan, Under Fuji Mountain, was replaced with lyrics (by Hong Kong citizens) that deride mainland Chinese people as “stealing, cheating, and lying” and “thanks to Mainland China, Hong Kong is now deteriorating inch by inch”. This edited version, called Locust World, has become a big hit in Hong Kong.  According to China Smack, some Hong Kongers would sing this song to mainland Chinese.

Many Hong Kongers are resentful towards increasing Chinese immigration, seeing them as threats to Hong Kong’s identity and holding them responsible for raising property prices. Lots of Chinese tourists come to Hong Kong and although this brings great economic benefits, yet some local residents cannot withstand some of the tourists’ unrefined and discourteous behaviours. There have been growing incidents where heavily pregnant Chinese mothers travel to Hong Kong to give birth due to Hong Kong’s better medical facilities and for their children to gain residency in Hong Kong. With the growing number of Chinese mothers, Hong Kong’s soon-to-be mothers have been, unfortunately, shunned aside by hospitals.

Last year, there was an incident on a train in Hong Kong which reflects contemporary attitudes of Hong Kong people to mainland Chinese people. A man saw a child eating on the train and he told the mother eating is not permitted on trains. Rather than being praised for his efforts in abiding by the law, a fellow passenger (from the mainland) derided his Mandarin and a heated argument exploded. Another passenger intervened and stated “don’t bother. Mainlanders are just like this”. This confrontation was caught on video and went viral and Hong Kong viewers praised the man as a hero.

To many Hong Kongers, they feel they should not be pressured to be ‘Chinese’ in the way that is expected from mainland China. Margaret Ng, a legislator, commented:

“We are Chinese without being only Chinese. We can accept western civilisation without identifying with the west. We observe universal values without losing our own cultural identity”.

Controversial National Education Reforms 2012

In September 2012, thousands of angry protesters marched against the national education reform policy introduced by Beijing. Demonstrators indicted Beijing of trying to ‘brainwash’ students and young people on patriotism to China, supporting a one-party system and implementing education policies that would wipe out free and independent thought.

One protestor named Joshua Wong claimed “we’re here on a hunger strike…because the government is not listening to the people’s voice”. Beijing maintained the reforms aimed to educate Hong Kong youths more about Chinese history, culture and forging positive links between the two sides. These are the following aims  the Beijing government claimed:

“The government council’s guidelines on the new curriculum highlight goals for improving morality, positive attitudes, self-recognition, judgment, identity, and responsible decision-making. Those moral qualities included “Chinese values” such as “benevolence, righteousness, courtesy and wisdom,” but also an interest to “foster universal values, including peace, benevolence, justice, freedom, democracy, human rights.”

Leung did not oppose to the education reforms. But seeing the intensity of the protests, Leung announced  the reform would not be compulsory but up to schools to decide. He declared: “we’re giving the authority to the schools,” and “this is very much in line with our school-based education policy”.

With growing discontent about China and mainland Chinese, mounting property prices, poverty, housing issues and Hong Kong citizens demanding universal suffrage, Leung has a difficult and gruelling job.  Hong Kong-China relations remain convoluted as there is an interesting interplay of political and cultural differences due to 150 years of separation and different values and many Hong Kongers not referring themselves Chinese citizens but insist they have their own unique identity. It seems positive relations are hard to achieve now. However, Hong Kong has just been returned to Chinese administration for a mere 16 years and in this generation of Hong Kong citizens, they are still adapting to the transition.

On the other hand, China has only recently emerged from political turmoil, social instability and an impoverished economy which it had experienced decades ago and is still dealing with priorities such as poverty, improving education in regional and rural areas and corruption etc. However, this is not to say Hong Kong is not an important region to China. Last year, the Chinese government announced new plans to assist Hong Kong with its social and economic development.

Given China’s own complex situation, granting Hong Kong universal suffrage seems highly unlikely. Perhaps it is likely later on future when democracy, civil participation, voting and free speech are more understood and developed in China.

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One thought on “The Great China/Hong Kong Divide”

  1. This is a very insightful article Hsin-Yi, and I really enjoyed reading it. There are definitely some reasons that we can speculate why some modern Hong Kongers don’t call themselves Chinese citizens despite being Chinese and with Hong Kong being a special administrative region of China. Perhaps one reason is because, as you mentioned, is really because of the “one country, two systems” policy that allowed Hong Kong to have a different, more independent government system than mainland China, essentially making the former a non-communist country (correct me if I am wrong here, my political knowledge of Hong Kong ain’t that much; I am sure Hong Kong’s government is extremely complex and has been tainted by unfavourable incidents in the past). Hong Kong generally has quite a lot of freedom to make many political and hence economic and social decisions/laws by itself, and this has seemingly been the case over the last few decades.

    I would wager that many Hong Kongers pride themselves for their city having such autonomy, in particular the autonomy to be their own city and people. Being unique is awesome. But on a more serious note, this system has worked well for Hong Kong in terms of urban development and living. Hong Kong is today one of the cities that is the most livable and economically booming. What’s more, the native people in this region pride upon speaking Cantonese – meaning that Hong Kong is a region steeped in preserving traditional cultures AND the way current things are in their city. And that’s coming from the people.

    For this, I give the protestors a thumbs up for protesting against their new leader who might be a “yes” man for Beijing.

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