First the missing book store owners, then an indie film that miraculously beat out Star Wars: The Force Awakens, followed by protests at Pikachu’s name change, and now a Tiananmen Rally boycott – all these events have to do with the growing tension between Hong Kongers and Chinese Mainlanders. But why exactly is there such a divide between two peoples of the same country, China?
Well, to put it bluntly: Hong Kong is afraid of being assimilated by China.
This sentiment is echoed throughout daily life. Mainlanders receive hostile stares on the MTR, they are scoffed at on the street, they are even filmed and subsequently shamed on the internet. Of course, there are many factors at play as to why this is so – mainlanders further congesting traffic and driving up prices of goods and properties, or their tendency to commit faux pas, to name a few. But ultimately, it all boils down to the simple fact that Hong Kong, as many believe, is at real danger of losing its identity and becoming another generic Chinese city.
But isn’t Hong Kong already part of China? Well, yes and no.
When Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, a structure was put in place for Hong Kong to remain mostly autonomous – ‘one country, two systems‘. This meant that Hong Kong could join China yet maintain it’s own economic and political systems founded during British rule, thus making it a Special Administrative Region (yep, now you know what SAR stands for), at least until 2047.
Though it may never be fully extinct, Cantonese has arguably become a dying language.
In recent years, however, it appears Hong Kong may have less autonomy than initially thought. For example, there’s been numerous cases in which reporters and media outlets who have been openly critical of China were threatened or outright attacked. None of these cases were solved by the police. More recently, a total of 5 book store owners disappeared, widely believed to have been abducted by mainland security for working on a book about China’s General Secretary (thankfully, Quasi-Local will never be anywhere near popular enough for me to be targeted for a kidnapping).
While none of those events had any hard evidence of Chinese intervention, they instilled a sense of fear into the population and displayed a level of censorship that Hong Kong was supposedly free from. To further understand Hong Kong’s lessening identity, we can look at language.
Sans Lingua Franca
As you know, Hong Kong’s primary language is Cantonese – which is spoken by about 55 million people in China, whereas Mandarin (primary language of China) is spoken by a whopping 1.2 billion. If you want to do business in China, you learn Mandarin. If you speak Mandarin to someone who speaks Cantonese, they should still be able to understand. If you’re a foreigner who wants to learn Chinese, Mandarin is the easier language to pick up. Even as a Cantonese speaker, I realize that there is no real benefit to choosing Cantonese over Mandarin. Though it may never be fully extinct, Cantonese has arguably become a dying language.
One fear is that, one day, Hong Kong locals may be forced to phase out Cantonese and switch over to Mandarin. Something similar nearly happened in 2010, when the Chinese government proposed to drop Cantonese TV programming in Guangzhou (television is bilingual there) in favor of Mandarin, which was ultimately met with huge outcry. Even in Hong Kong, international schools are forgoing the region’s native tongue, instead teaching it’s students only English and Mandarin, which means a portion of the next generation could be cut off from their own people.
The lost of Cantonese is one of the scenarios depicted by the indie film, Ten Years, a dystopian drama about the effects on Hong Kong if mainland China beings to exert more influence over the next 10 years. The movie struck such a chord with the local audience, who have long craved an outlet to their collective worries, that it beat out The Force Awakens in ticket sales at the Yau Ma Tei theatre where it first released. Ten Years was naturally censored by Chinese authorities.
Hong Kongers may dislike mainlanders, but that’s simply a symptom of much larger problems dating all the way back to the handover of 1997.
Even Nintendo seems to be in on this. You’ve have heard that in order to unify their games, Nintendo will no longer publish different versions of Pokemon for Hong Kong and China. Instead, the Hong Kong version will now use the existing Mandarin names. In particular, Pikachu, Bei Kar Chiu (比卡超), will become Pi Ka Qiu (皮卡丘). While they sound similar in English, when pronounced in Cantonese, the new name is actually Pei Kar Yau. This may seem like a trivial change, but it’s another small nail in the Cantonese coffin.
Further controversy struck this year, when the Hong Kong Federation of Students joined other ‘localist’ organizations in boycott the annual Tinanmen memorial held in Hong Kong. As mention of the Tinanmen Massacre is strictly censored in China, this makes the Hong Kong memorial – the largest of its kind in the world – all the more important. However, the boycotters argue that though the event is meaningful, to take part is to accept Hong Kong as part of China, whereas people should instead distance themselves from the mainland and focus on developing Hong Kong’s independence.
However, not everyone shares anti-Chinese views. In fact, a vast amount of the population – especially the older generations – believe Hong Kong will be better off under China’s direct control. This, as you can imagine, leads to further conflict within Hong Kong’s own population.
In The End
These are just some of the reasons why there’s so much tension between Hong Kong and China, and this article barely skims the surface. Hong Kongers may dislike mainlanders, but that’s simply a symptom of much larger problems dating all the way back to the handover of 1997. Hopefully, I’ve been able to help you gain some insight into the source of all this drama rather than muddle the matter further. If you have any interest at all in these issues, I wholeheartedly recommend you do some research and form conclusions of your own. However, with most of us being visitors of Hong Kong, we might not have much say in its destiny anyway. That said, it doesn’t hurt to gain some awareness of current happenings – who knows, maybe it’ll come in handy at the watercooler.