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Hong Kong localism and independence

Stereotypes and misperceptions Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students have of each other: what’s true, what’s false?

Mainland Chinese students ‘are all spies’ while their Hong Kong counterparts are all ‘agitating for independence’. How do these preconceived notions stack up to reality?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 9:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 9:37am

Since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the number of mainland Chinese students enrolled annually in publicly funded university programmes has soared from 1,000 to more than 12,000, amounting to more than 70 per cent of all non-local students enrolled in these programmes.

The actual number is probably larger as not all mainland Chinese students, especially postgraduate students, receive public funding.

Take the University of Hong Kong as an example. In the year 2016/17, the 2,814 mainland Chinese students taking programmes funded by the University Grants Committee (UGC) represented less than half of the 5,749 mainland Chinese students at all levels in the university.

In the past 10 years, disputes between the two groups have ranged from competition for dormitory places to clashes of political beliefs.

Here is what several local and mainland Chinese students said when they were asked by the Post what preconceived notions the other side has about them, and how those preconceptions stack up to reality.

Mainland Chinese students claim: “Some local students think we are here with some ‘special political tasks’, like spies.”

Given its strategic location, Hong Kong is no stranger to the world of international espionage.

“Hong Kong’s first spy” John Tsang Chao-ko was the highest-ranking ethnic Chinese officer within the colonial Hong Kong Police Force until his deportation in 1961 following accusations of espionage. Tsang died in Guangzhou on December 18, 2014 and was lauded as a “comrade” by the state-run Guangzhou Daily.

But students said this perception of them was unfair as they were here to study and possibly work and live in the city. Others noted that agents had other avenues to get information. Bookseller Lam Wing-kee, for example, told Hong Kong media last year that he was abducted by mainland agents and spent eight months in “mental torture”.

Unlike Taiwan, Hong Kong has never charged a student from mainland China with spying.

Why the campus feud between Hong Kong and mainland students?

Mainland Chinese students claim: “Some local students think we have been brainwashed to be patriots or nationalists.”

Critics of the Chinese government have often accused its “national education” curriculum as an exercise in brainwashing – and the students’ behaviour during times of tensions between China and another country seems to attest to that. There are few voices in mainland China that criticise the central government, social activists are often banned and punished and mainland Chinese media is often full of nationalistic stories.

However, there are also indicators that these attempts to control the population have fallen on deaf ears, such as mainland Chinese taking part in Hong Kong’s democratic movement.

A Facebook page named “We Support Hong Kong”, or “Mainland Students Support Hong Kong” in Chinese was set up during the Occupy movement for universal suffrage in 2014 and got more than 5,700 followers. The page, whose introduction thanks Hong Kong for “planting a flower of liberty in our minds”, is still active.

Local students claim: “Some mainland Chinese students think we all support Hong Kong independence.”

Hong Kong independence is not widely supported even among the younger generation, according to a survey by Chinese University in June. The survey of 1,028 Hong Kong citizens aged 15 and older found that 11.4 per cent wanted Hong Kong to separate from China after 2047, when the city’s status as a special administrative region is set to expire, while 71.2 per cent wanted the “one country, two systems” to be extended.

The same survey also found that 15 per cent of the group aged 15 to 24 was for the idea of independence, dropping by 25 percentage points from last year.

Local students claim: “Some mainland Chinese students think that we are troubling society by taking part in politics.”

The Hong Kong generation born in the 1980s and 1990s was found to value democratic ideals, free speech, environmental protection and historic conservation more than previous generations, who were concerned more with economic progress and social order, according to a 2016 study by Francis Lee Lap-fung, chair of the journalism and communication school of Chinese University.

The image of those who take part in social activism, whether they are students or not, is often framed by the nuisance – and at times violence – they cause during protests.

However, that generalisation was found to be invalid, according to research done by the Centre of Youth Studies of Chinese University. A survey of 829 youngsters aged 15 to 29 conducted from October to November in 2016 found that the political participation by most of the young people was done online, including sharing articles or relevant information, instead of taking radical action, such as joining protests or cosigning petitions.