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Hong Kong saw some 28 million visitors from mainland China last year – or four tourists for every resident. (BOBBY YIP/REUTERS)
Hong Kong saw some 28 million visitors from mainland China last year – or four tourists for every resident. (BOBBY YIP/REUTERS)

Great Mall of China: Why Hong Kong resents a mainland invasion Add to ...

If people are rude on the Hong Kong subway, blame China. Do the same if the hospital emergency room is overcrowded, or there’s no yogurt at your local grocery store.

That’s what the locals do. When this former British colony was handed back to Beijing in 1997, there was widespread celebration, but also nervousness: Could Hong Kong maintain its separate identity – particularly its freer media and unfettered business environment – once it was part of the massive People’s Republic?

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Fifteen years later, Hong Kongers worry less about China’s nominally Marxist rulers than about China’s capitalist masses, who tend to treat this densely populated city of seven million as a giant mall.

Shopaholic tourists from mainland China, often spotted moving in packs behind an umbrella-waving tour guide, are vilified for emptying store shelves, driving up real-estate prices and crowding maternity wards and schools. And if that wasn’t bad enough, uncouth mainlanders eat on the subway – prohibited in orderly Hong Kong – or spit on public streets. They simply ignore the painted markings that show where lineups are supposed to begin at taxi ranks and bus stops.

These faux pas are not easily dismissed in a city that has long viewed itself as culturally superior to the rest of China because of its traditions of civility and free expression. A video showing a train of Hong Kongers scolding a mainland woman, and eventually calling in transit authorities, for letting her daughter eat noodles on the subway went viral. In another, a crowd of Hong Kongers are seen surrounding and shouting at a Chinese trader they accuse of buying up goods to sell at a profit back home.

“Chinese people are quite selfish. They don’t line up, they spit, they think that money makes them kings and queens,” complained Roy Tam, a prominent local environmentalist. He said the city needed a quota system to restrict the influx of mainland Chinese. “As a Hong Kong person, I care about living space. But on Saturdays and Sundays, we can’t go to the shopping malls or to the park because they’re too crowded. Tourists from all over China coming to such a small space – it’s over the capacity of what Hong Kong can handle.”

Animosity toward mainlanders is such that many refer to them as “locusts.” A modified version of the colonial-era flag has even shown up at anti-mainland demonstrations in recent months – an act of protest against a local government many see as being too accommodating to Beijing.

It’s the opposite of what was supposed to happen when the city joined the People’s Republic under the promise of “one country, two systems,” with Hong Kong allowed to preserve its relative freedoms under Beijing’s loose rule. Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese, long-separated siblings, were expected to gradually get used to living with each other. Instead, Hong Kongers have come to dislike their constantly visiting relatives.

Hong Kongers, who already live in one of the world’s most densely populated places, feel they’re being overrun by mainland Chinese. Some 28 million visited last year, or four tourists for every resident, taking advantage of the city’s tax-free status to go on buying binges. Though mainlanders injected a whopping $263-billion (U.S.) into the local economy, residents are frustrated that it is the mainland Chinese authorities, not the government of this Special Autonomous Region, that decide who and how many can visit Hong Kong.

Polling done by Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Programme found that more than 45 per cent of residents identify themselves purely as Hong Kongers – the highest level in 15 years of asking – compared with less than 20 per cent who see themselves solely as Chinese citizens. (The rest saw themselves as either “Hong Kong Chinese” or “Chinese Hong Kongers.”)

Beijing first relaxed restrictions and began encouraging mainlanders to visit Hong Kong in 2003, as part of an effort to rescue Hong Kong’s economy after it was devastated that year by the SARS outbreak.

A more controversial plan introduced in 2009 allows residents of the neighbouring city of Shenzhen to apply for year-long, multiple-entry visas.

“While a lot of Hong Kongers are condemning the influx of Chinese visitors and immigrants, one has to remember the reason why it was possible for Hong Kong to achieve a swift recovery from the financial crisis,” said Ip Kwok-him, a pro-Beijing member of the city’s legislative council, which is part elected, part appointed by elites with close ties to the mainland. “It was the mainlanders who revived Hong Kong’s economy so quickly.”

Few disagree that the influx of Chinese tourists has bolstered the local economy. But many say the costs to the way Hong Kongers live outweigh the financial benefits. Cross-border shoppers snapping up luxury goods are tolerated, but many here complain that medicines, milk powder and the popular Yakult brand of yogurt have occasionally become scarce as mainland Chinese – responding to worries about the reliability of products on their own store shelves – bulk-buy basic goods in Hong Kong and then sell them for a profit back home.

The shoppers have transformed historic neighbourhoods like Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Shui, as local chains like cosmetics retailer Sa Sa International and jewellery giant Chow Sang Sang jostle for space with foreign brands like Zara and H&M, as well as supersized Watsons and Mannings drugstores. Causeway Bay, once a fishing village on Hong Kong Island, is now the world’s third-most expensive shopping strip by cost of retail space, after Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Many larger stores have signs only in the simplified Chinese characters used on the Mandarin-speaking mainland, rather than the traditional characters used in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong.

Mainland property speculators are also blamed for skyrocketing real-estate prices in many districts of Hong Kong. “Twenty per cent of the flats sold this year were bought by mainland residents,” said Mr. Tam, the environmentalist. “Meanwhile, I cannot afford to buy anything with my teacher’s salary.”

The 30,000 mainland Chinese mothers who sneaked into Hong Kong last year to give birth – thereby giving their children Hong Kong passports and access to the city’s better education and social welfare systems – fuelled more resentment. The local government has now moved to bar such trips.

Political worries remain a factor. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets this summer to successfully beat back a plan that would have seen pro-Beijing curricula introduced in all schools. Many are worried the Communist Party will renege on its promise to allow universal suffrage the next time the city selects its top official, or chief executive, in 2017.

But the anti-mainland protests could also be held up as proof that “one country, two systems” is working. First demonstrators pushed the government to crack down on the mainland mothers, then they defeated the patriotic education program.

“People power is working,” said Chin Wan, a professor at Lingnan University who founded the Hong Kong City-State Autonomy Movement, the group that started waving the controversial old flag (identical to the colonial banner, but without the Union Jack in the corner). “When Hong Kong people gather and go into the streets and demand their rights, [Beijing] has no way to answer, because we’re only demanding rights that are already granted to us under our Basic Law.”

And, Prof. Chin added, the same overcrowding that Hong Kongers are angry about actually works to the protesters’ advantage. “If we just stand on the streets or [the metro] during rush hour, the city will stop … . It’s very congested and very weak. If there is large public unrest or rallies, the government has to give in.”

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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