Protests expose the gulf between Hong Kong and mainland China. But could they also be a bridge to better understanding?

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 04.09, 18/09/2019
Protests expose the gulf between Hong Kong and mainland China. But could they also be a bridge to better understanding?

When I travel around the world, people like to guess when I am from. "Hong Kong?" "The mainland," I like to correct them, and add: "We are all Chinese."

Ethnically, we are all Chinese. But mainlanders' reaction to the Hong Kong protests tells me that there's a deep divide between the two - a geopolitical one.

There's no poll on the carefully censored topic on the mainland. From measuring the pulse on the internet and talking to friends, I sense that there's indifference, confusion, anger, fascination, and even admiration. Overall, I would say that most are not sympathetic to the protests.

The propaganda has certainly played a role. Some have readily bought the government line that the protests are being fuelled by foreign influence - the "black hands".

A lot of ordinary Chinese simply don't understand why millions of Hongkongers would take to the street over the extradition law. "They already enjoy a lot more freedom and rights than us. What's the fuss?" asked my brother-in-law, a small-business owner from Nanjing.

Interestingly, even some well-educated Chinese who have access to international reports don't necessarily support the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

Nick Shen, an English tutor based in the southern city of Zhuhai, has been following the developments from the very beginning, reading reports from both domestic and international media, partly because he can see Hong Kong from the sea front, a sling shot away from his apartment.

"These silly young people," he said in a phone interview. "They are wasting their time. They are going to achieve nothing, but to destroy Hong Kong's economy and ultimately hurt the mainland itself."

The problem is that mainlanders and Hongkongers have little understanding of each other since they come from drastically different places.

Until the opium wars in the mid-19th century, Hong Kong was ruled by Imperial China. After the wars, China was forced to cede Hong Kong to Britain, with a significant part of the territory ceded in perpetuity.

Through negotiations, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, and was supposed to continue its existing governmental and legal system under the principle of "one country, two systems".

For mainlanders, the handover was a moment of national joy and pride. I was in Hong Kong to witness this historic moment with friends.

In some ways, the handover marked the beginning of China's rise. The country's remarkable economic achievements, with its greatly improved living standards and significantly reduced poverty, have not only handed the Chinese Communist Party its legitimacy, but have also given rise to patriotic sentiments among mainlanders. Hongkongers don't really share such sentiments.

In an article that was hugely popular on Chinese social media, titled "Can Hong Kong Be Saved?", its author Zhao Haoyang, a social commentator with a master's degree from a Hong Kong university, describes Hong Kong youth as "not bad", "just stupid" or "naive".

He points out that Hong Kong people didn't have the right to vote under British rule, and believes protesters were influenced by Western values; taking part in demonstrations gives them a false sense of satisfaction.

Not everyone appreciates Zhao's patronising tone, but the piece clearly resonated with readers. His post has now been taken offline and his facts and figures disputed. But his arguments have been frequently cited, in one form or another.

Once upon a time, Hong Kong, or "the fragrant city" as it is known in Chinese, was a haloed world, representing prosperity and freedom. Everyone wanted to visit, and better yet live there.

That fortune has been reversed. Now, Hong Kong's economy relies increasingly on tourists from mainland China who splash out on luxury goods.

Tension between people on both sides of the Shenzhen River has been bubbling over the past decade. Many Hongkongers blame rich mainlanders for pushing property prices sky-high.

Some see mainland tourists as rude when they let their children urinate in the street and jump queues. Some have even likened mainlanders to "locusts". In retaliation, the slur "running dogs" has been hurled at Hongkongers.

As the relationship soured, the percentage of Hongkongers who identify themselves as Chinese has fallen to a record low, according to a survey by the University of Hong Kong, conducted in June after the protest by 2 million people.

The survey shows 53 per cent of interviewees regard themselves as Hongkongers, a record high, and only 11 per cent see themselves as Chinese.

Bian Yiyang, a liberal-minded engineer in Nanjing, took part in the 1989 democratic movement. He supported the current protests when they first broke out, but changed his mind after witnessing the vandalising of the Legislative Council, the waving of Union flag and the attack on two mainland travellers at the airport.

"It made me question the motivation of those youngsters," he said. "We took to the streets in 1989, hoping to make China a better place. What do these young Hongkongers want? To go back to colonial rule? They have forgotten who their ancestors are!"

The protests have sparked some curiosity in China. A series of articles explaining the relationship between the two places by Hong Kong scholar Leung Kai Chi was widely circulated. And human rights lawyer Chen Qiushi's video diary of his visit to Hong Kong in August attracted attention before he was forced to return.

More than a century's separation has created gulfs between the mainland and Hong Kong that are not easy to bridge. Hopefully, the recent events in the city may inspire people from both sides to understand each other better. But it may take a long time.

Bian, the Nanjing engineer, has already predicted the fate of the ongoing protests. "A movement without the support of 1.4 billion people on the mainland has no hope of succeeding."

Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus

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