Hong Kong must see beyond the worry of a mainland influx

Bernard Chan says historic forces are at work that we shouldn't ignore

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Friction between Hong Kong people and mainlanders continues. We hear complaints about the effects of the influx of mainland tourists, especially about crowding and high rents driving local businesses off our streets. There were reports a couple of weeks ago of local young people raising money to publish an ad demanding fewer mainland students at our universities.

This newspaper recently published an article by a mainlander about the discrimination she faced when studying here in the 1990s. For example, if something went missing in the student dormitories, her Hong Kong counterparts assumed that she had stolen it. The arrogance she encountered made her quite hostile to the local culture.

Whatever 'nativists' think, the Hong Kong economy would not exist without the mainland

As part of China but not part of the mainland, Hong Kong is inevitably on the front line of China's emergence in the world. We were the first economy to lose its manufacturing base to the mainland, the first to find big opportunities there as an export location, and the first to see China's new consumer power as mainland shoppers poured in. China's arrival as a big player - economically, politically and socially - is ongoing, and we are part of it.

But let's put this in context. This is not a unique phenomenon. Our grandparents saw it happen with the post-war United States, as the new superpower started sending goods, popular culture and "ugly Americans" around the globe. I can remember the impact of Japanese shoppers here in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s, and the fears of corporate Japan taking over the world.

We even hear some of the same stories. Fifty years ago, American tourists had a reputation for being loud and behaving badly; today, a Chinese hits the headlines for defacing an ancient Egyptian monument. In the 1990s, thieves in Europe targeted Japanese; today, it's the same story with Chinese.

American industry and capitalism seemed unstoppable, and then it lost competitiveness and ended up as a rust belt. Japanese inventiveness and productivity seemed invincible in the field of electronics, but the Finns, then the South Koreans, came along.

Nothing is fixed or assured. The US - not to mention Japan - faces a nightmarish fiscal situation. And much poorer China has to integrate several hundred million workers into urban housing and welfare systems just as a serious demographic imbalance creates a rapidly ageing population. Nobody has an easy ride ahead.

Where does Hong Kong fit in? We are not in a bad position. Our close ties with the mainland give us unique opportunities. At the same time, our autonomy as a special administrative region insulates us from some of the social challenges the mainland faces. But - whatever "nativists" and others think - the Hong Kong economy would not exist without the mainland.

There are nearly 9,000 mainlanders currently at our universities, many at postgraduate level. Many are the cream of a huge pool, so it is easy to see why locals see them as a threat for grades and jobs. At the same time, an international city like Hong Kong cannot be self-sufficient in talent. We should welcome those who can make contributions to our economy.

The influx of tourists is a problem. Ideally, we would curb the numbers to give other sectors back some space to breathe. Indeed, a reduction in economic diversity and opportunity is probably encouraging the protectionist feelings among local students. If local residents' quality of life and economic opportunities are being damaged, there can be no question about it: the government has a duty to act.

However, we should keep this in perspective. The world presents us with unknown future challenges and probably great opportunities. Mainlanders in Hong Kong are a relatively small side-effect of large-scale and historic changes.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council