Kidnap rumours reflect our uneasy ties with mainland
Rumours of mainlanders attempting to kidnap Hong Kong children are spreading here. It began with a small story in Sing Tao Daily on March 2 which claimed that a couple and a teenage boy boarded the MTR at Sham Shui Po, with the woman carrying a girl aged two or three.
The report said the girl was crying and trying to get away, and some people became suspicious because the couple - who looked like they were mainlanders - did not carry any child-care items. One passenger questioned the couple, but they ignored her. At the next station, the 'mainland' couple and the boy tried to leave and, in the scuffle, they dropped the child but got away. The paper said a woman appeared later, saying the girl was her daughter. The report ended by saying that although some netizens were sceptical about the truth of the story, most said it was better to be safe than sorry.
That principle - better safe than sorry - has helped the story get picked up by online news aggregators, and has led many Hong Kong residents to post the story on bulletin boards and to forward it by e-mail. Facebook groups critical of mainlanders are also spreading the story. Earlier incidents are now being reinterpreted as cases of mainlanders attempting to kidnap Hong Kong children.
The story is illogical, however. Kidnappings of children happen worldwide, but they are exceedingly rare. What would mainland criminals do with kidnapped Hong Kong children? It is not that easy to get them over the border. A mainland criminal seeking to kidnap a child would surely find it easier to do so on the mainland.
These stories were made more believable by a recent report in which the Ministry of Public Security said that it had rescued 77 children and arrested more than 300 suspects in swoops on child-trafficking gangs. But many cases of 'child selling' on the mainland are actually informal adoptions, because there is no legal avenue for it. When abductions have occurred, they have often been of poor children whose parents have no means to press for their rescue.
Rumours can be dangerous. Incidents of ethnic violence always begin with rumours that one group is about to attack the other; it happened in Sri Lanka and Rwanda. Our children are our most precious possessions, so an attack on them is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable. It is understandable that many parents are concerned, but we need to analyse why such rumours are spreading.
The government refuses to recognise mainlanders as an 'ethnic group', saying 'we are all Chinese', but ethnic differences do not have to be large to be significant. Mainlanders who violate Hong Kong etiquette by pushing, not getting in line, or eating on the MTR can be annoying, especially to the many local people who are not doing well economically.
These stories are spreading because they reflect many Hong Kong people's anxiety about the relationship with the mainland. There is the problem of the growing number of mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong. There is the fear of mainland drivers undermining road safety if they are allowed to drive in the SAR. There is uncertainty over the election for the new chief executive, and whether Beijing will interfere.
In each of these cases, there are many people in Hong Kong who fear, with some justification, that there are hidden forces in the North that Hong Kong cannot control.
If we understand this background, we will not panic but just take normal precautions to keep our children safe. We will realise that it is a mistake to make scapegoats of mainland tourists.
If this rumour continues to spread, it is just a matter of time before the police are called in because bystanders have ripped away a child from his or her parents simply because the child was having a temper tantrum. And that traumatised family may not be from the mainland: they could be any one of us. Hopefully, with more openness and democracy, such rumours will disappear.
Joseph Bosco is an associate professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong