Pride and prejudice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am


In 2005, while living as a student in Hong Kong, I had a conversation with a classmate that betrayed the deep tensions between residents of the former colony and their cousins up north.

Over coffee with the Hongkonger, I mentioned plans to travel to the mainland. A pause. 'Be careful,' the girl warned ominously. The mainland, she relayed with a knowing nod, was not only filthy but full of thieves.

I was puzzled. Dirty? Maybe. Unsafe? Rarely. Had she ever visited? No, she replied. Why would she want to do that?

Seven years later, ingrained prejudices on both sides of the border have flared up spectacularly. On the mainland side, there's Peking University professor Kong Qingdong calling Hongkongers 'bastards' and 'dogs of British colonialists', and in Hong Kong the particularly rabid bunch who took out a full-page advert in the Apple Daily showing a locust gazing at the city's skyline.

The ad's message was clear: mainlanders who come to Hong Kong to give birth, shop, sight-see or work are pests. As Beijing is well aware, the ad reveals niggling insecurities.

The central government is confident that in the not-too-distant future it will be Hongkongers feeding off the mainland, not the other way around. The recent D&G controversy - in which one of the store's security guards stopped locals taking pictures while allowing mainlanders to do so - is a case in point.

An op-ed piece in the China Daily hit the issue head on. Mainlanders' manners and etiquette, ran the piece, don't meet Hong Kong standards. But the real gripe comes from the fact that their greater spending power 'has in some way hurt the Hong Kong people's self-esteem and quality of life'.

This new self-assurance is reflected online. 'Kong Qingdong points out a fact by calling Hongkongers dogs,' said one Sina Weibo user cooly.

'Hong Kong people are always claiming to pursue freedom of speech, aren't they?' ranted another. 'Then why do they lose their temper with Kong?'

Problems persist for mainlanders trying to carve out a life in the former colony. Xiao Shuang, a film student at Baptist University, feels isolated from local students who have posted pictures on Facebook showing mainland visitors behaving badly.

'Local people call themselves 'Hongkongers' but not 'Chinese' - they also [call us] 'you mainlanders'. This makes us feel we are not one of them after several years studying in Hong Kong,' she says.

But the time may come when this hardly matters: on the mainland the overriding feeling is that this decade is Beijing's.

'[Hongkongers] always say they need freedom, not power,' Xiao says. 'But they forget that freedom itself is power.'