The View

Who needs Chinese customers? When money doesn’t talk in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 10:42am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 10:42am

I once worked with someone whose favourite expression was “Money focuses the mind”, a playful twist on Samuel Johnson’s observation that when a man “knows he is to be hanged… it concentrates his mind wonderfully”.

Transferred to business, the idea is that the prospect of monetary gain inspires talent and pushes aside unnecessary distractions.

One common distraction in economic exchange, as in all human relations, is prejudice. From antiquity to modern times, trade is credited with facilitating exchanges between different cultures, ideas and peoples. Thus it has been said that commerce is the mother of multiculturalism.

Yet research and experience shows that prejudice still often wins out over money. Popular opinions on immigration and trade, for instance, are often dominated by cultural preferences rather than economic self-interest.

READ MORE: Hong Kong is losing its lure for mainland China’s luxury shoppers

One might think such topics are of only academic interest to Hong Kong, a seemingly homogenous society comprised of 94 per cent Chinese, and one of the freest trading hubs in the world. Yet the tensions between Hongkongers and mainland Chinese provide a fascinating case study of the intersection of cultural and economic interests.

Those in the pro-Beijing camp often warn that anti-mainlander passions are driving away opportunity, pointing as one example to the recent drop-off in tourist arrivals and plunging retail sales. Others say that locals have a rational fear of displacement by mainland economic muscle and political clout.

Anyone who lives in Hong Kong sees this question tested in little everyday daily dramas.

Just last week I was getting my hair blow-dried when a mainland woman peeked in and inquired about a haircut. “Too busy,” my Cantonese stylist said, though I was his only customer.

After she harrumphed and left, it was explained to me that “such customers” aren’t worth it. First they will begin with a ritual sniffing of the shampoo bottle, along with an inquisition into the quality and brand of the product. The demands will continue throughout the haircut, prolonging the misery as well as the time it takes to deliver the service.

Any sentient being in Hong Kong has witnessed similar efforts to deflect or discourage mainland customers.

Where I live, on Lamma island, a restaurant manager recently groused that he had a group of 11 visitors from the Motherland occupy two tables on a busy Saturday; they ordered just a couple bowls of chips to share, washing it down with water.

READ MORE: Mainland Chinese shoppers not the only market for Hong Kong retailers

“They squeeze the vegetables for no reason,” a Lamma shopkeeper complained to me once as a group of Mandarin-speakers lurked near her produce. “Watch them haggle over a can of Coke, they want discounts,” she added indignantly.

Still, it is the very definition of discrimination to judge individuals based on group stereotypes. And whatever the case, one can’t imagine a prosperous future without further economic integration.

In attempt to better concentrate minds on the opportunities for shared prosperity, policymakers have invested a lot of time and money promoting a “united China” narrative which emphasises 5,000 years of shared history.

Why haven’t such educational efforts been more helpful? Lee Siu-yau, an assistant professor in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, thinks the answer may be found in the concept of “group malleability”.

Group malleability “refers to the extent to which the core character, morality, and competence of groups are shaped by context and can be changed and developed through effort, practice, and experience,” says Dr Lee.

The broad literature on social psychology shows that those in malleability camp are more accommodating of outsiders than those who believe that behavioural traits are inherent.

Unfortunately, a “unified Chinese narrative” may have the unintended consequence of supporting a belief system that culture is fixed, not malleable.

It might be better for Beijing and Hong Kong to spend their propaganda dollars on narratives that emphasise the heterogeneity of various Chinese experiences, instead of the homogeneity. Dr Lee is currently conducting research to explore this idea.

His results are not expected for another two years. In the meantime, we are left to ponder: is a propensity for squeezing vegetables or sniffing shampoo hardwired into the DNA, or are we to blame 50 years of Communist Party rule?

Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong-based financial writer