It was a refreshingly sunny May afternoon in Cannes. The La Croisette boulevard was awash with jet-setters letting loose amid the festivities of the city's annual film festival. Cheery, and obviously at home in this cosmopolitan terrain, Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen emerged into the sunshine from the Hong Kong pavilion at the Marche de Film - the film market that coincides with the festival. No wonder he was cheery. He had spent the past week speaking to his Swiss counterparts and World Trade Organisation chief Pascal Lamy in Geneva. Then he whizzed through some of the world's best vineyards before descending into the French Riviera in a chartered private jet. But that worldly image dissolved with a few words he used in an interview. It was as if he suddenly began reading soundbites from Her Fatal Ways, the 1990s satire that poked fun at the rigid behaviour of mainland cadres. Mr Tang reverted to a language that is at odds with the international outlook he has always espoused. There he was, a US-educated industrialist, wine-lover and all-round bon vivant, resorting to a phrase that one commonly finds in Xinhua communiques. It happened as he described his chat with Gilles Jacob, the president of the Cannes Film Festival. Mr Jacob, he said, gave Hong Kong cinema a 'high commendation' (go do ping ga in Cantonese - or gao du ping jia in Putonghua). Mr Tang made the comment in a 10-minute interview with the South China Morning Post on his final foreign visit before he leaves his position to take over as chief secretary. So the four-character snippet could, of course, be seen as a minute detail. He talked broadly about the government's strategy to promote Hong Kong films abroad. But try Googling the phrase: you'll get a list of Web links that nearly always lead to press releases and newspaper articles from the mainland. Mr Tang's near-instinctive use of such language is not unique: throughout the past decade, many a top-ranking government official has used the same phrase in a wide range of contexts - from saluting the quality of the civil service (and departing chief executive), to praising the performance of Hong Kong's athletes. Just as small Freudian slips sometimes reveal a person's genuine, but suppressed, thoughts, such small expressions can reveal signs that define our times. Hong Kong hasn't plummeted into the worst-case scenarios predicted by doomsayers before the handover. They warned of our culture and values being overwhelmed by mainland dogma, Putonghua replacing Cantonese and stilted bureaucratic 'newspeak' becoming the norm. But Hong Kong's social and moral fabric has certainly been affected by the long decade of interaction - and, in the past few years, reliance - on our newly acquired compatriots across the border. There may be little tarnish on the basic principles that Hongkongers are proud of, such as respect for law and order and a vibrant (if slightly dishevelled) pluralism, but there is no question that Hong Kong has drawn closer to the mainland. Pragmatism is behind such changes, especially as the mainland becomes the make-or-break factor in Hong Kong's survival as an economic entity. Fluency in Putonghua, for example, is now seen as nearly essential for a person's career advancement. The same goes for the ability to understand political and social realities in what is widely seen as the world's largest market in the 21st century. In his policy address in January 2003, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa said Hong Kong's future development lay in its integration with other cities in the Pearl River Delta. It was a significant change from the more international outlook he envisioned four years previously, when he pictured Hong Kong competing with New York and London on the international stage. The Closer Economic Partnership Agreement - a 2004 free-trade pact with the mainland - impels companies and individuals to adjust their mindsets to the way our compatriots think. 'It used to be that Hongkongers defined themselves through a differentiation with mainlanders,' says Eric Ma Kit-wai, associate professor in journalism and communication at Chinese University. 'It was a binary opposition: the more one identified with their local status, the more they held negative feelings towards the mainland. The major difference today is that it's usually a double-positive correlation between the two identifications.' In other words, people feel good about being both Chinese and Hongkongers, according to opinion surveys Dr Ma has conducted over the past decade with colleague Anthony Fung Ying-him. 'More and more people have ventured into the mainland for business purposes during the past few years, and all these transborder connections provided us with much more experience with mainlanders,' Dr Ma said. 'Plus, we've had more contacts and relatives living up there for the past 10 years.' Hong Kong's widespread scepticism about the mainland - in its political institutions, culture and values - has slowly but surely lessened over the past decade. Dr Ma describes this as part of the 'nationalisation process'. His surveys have tracked a growing sense of allegiance towards national icons like the flag and anthem: nearly half of poll respondents now profess pride towards both symbols, up nearly 10 percentage points from 1996. Now every Hongkonger hears March of the Volunteers at least once a day, before the evening news. And the city has embraced a ceaseless flow of mainland talent into the city. Nobody except the most hard-up paparazzo blinks an eye when pianists Li Yundi or Lang Lang travel through Hong Kong with their special administrative region passports to yet another American or European destination. That Hong Kong is becoming more Chinese is manifested as much in patterns of consumption as on a psychological level. Witness, for example, the proliferation of bookstores that trade in simplified-character mainland publications in recent years, doing brisk business in a market once approached only by state-owned publication chains. And then there are the people who actually consume on the mainland: first, the wave of shoppers eager to cash in on the cheap goods available in Shenzhen at the end of the 1990s, followed by thousands who now own holiday homes in the many, well-advertised housing complexes on the fringes of Shenzhen and Guangzhou. But the issue of whether Hong Kong is becoming more Chinese must be seen in another context, too: driven by a turbo-charged capitalist revolution, the mainland has hardly stood still in terms of its social evolution. From metropolitan centres like Shanghai to provincial cities like Shunde , sleepy communities have quickly been replaced by sprawling architectural masses of soaring skyscrapers, bizarre theme parks and vast shopping malls. These places are filled by a new generation of urbanites who are as sophisticated as Hong Kong's could be. Starbucks caught on as a trend in Beijing well before it became the beverage du jour for Hong Kong's moneyed middle class. Filmmakers hardly ever take umbrage with, or poke fun at, uncivilised mainlanders the way they did in the 1980s and 1990s. The Her Fatal Ways films - which revolved around the cultural clash between inflexible and uncultivated public security officers from the mainland and their Hong Kong counterparts - now seem like a bizarre blast from a distant past. Increasingly, the Hongkongers are being cast as slackers in the company of mainlanders. An example is Herman Yau Lai-to's skin-trade drama Whispers and Moans. The mainland escort, Happy, stands out from her local co-workers because of her unwavering professionalism and precise aspirations: to her, it's all about earning enough money to return home and finance a school in her village. Writing about their surveys on the Hong Kong identity, Dr Ma and Dr Fung have written about a convergence happening between their Hong Kong respondents and traits such as ambition, adaptability, practical-mindedness and cleverness. 'In these terms, Hong Kong people are being absorbed into the big Chinese nation,' they wrote in the latest Asian Journal of Communication. 'Hong Kong people see themselves as becoming similar to mainlanders in the market and economic domain. Just as Hong Kong has had a 'market mentality' for several decades, so too, increasingly, does the mainland.' More 'high commendations' are to follow, then.