Is the welcome for foreigners in Hong Kong starting to wear thin?
Peter Kammerer says China’s rise and the growing pressure on the ‘one country, two systems’ model means that acceptance of all things foreign in the city should no longer be taken for granted
Not once in my three decades in Hong Kong have I been made to feel unwelcome. Nor during time on the mainland has there been anything but friendly faces. There have been moments of cultural or linguistic misunderstanding, but rarely have things turned nasty. Yet it is obvious that those in power in China today are not overly keen on things Western – that, by extension, also means foreigners.
A loosening of the mainland’s permanent residency system to attract more overseas talent would seem to point to a foreigner-friendly environment. Last year, 1,576 foreigners were given the equivalent of green cards,163 per cent more than in 2015. But as promising as the rise may be, it has to be remembered that China has a population of 1.35 billion.
Encouraging words to talented foreigners also do not sit easily beside measures clearly aimed at limiting outside influences. The “great firewall” of censorship blocks large chunks of the internet and – on paper at least – only 34 foreign movies can be imported each year. There are tight restrictions on music and books, and academics are urged to make less use of imported textbooks to stem infiltration of “Western values”.
It is part of Xi’s ideological campaign to protect the “political, legal and moral bottom line”. But it seems to be about more than ideology and keeping the Communist Party’s hold on power; foreign firms operating on the mainland see what is happening in terms of protectionism.
But while Hong Kong doesn’t look down on foreign companies or their products and keeps the most open of minds about outsiders, our non-Chinese judges are seen by some as not being so necessary. The mouth-frothing from across the border during the annual sessions of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress against the supposedly slow pace of localisation of judges has won support from Hongkongers eager to show their worth to Beijing. It has to be wondered how long it will take for such sentiments to extend to others in society, such as teachers and academics.
Anti-foreign sentiment among Chinese leaders stems from the subjugation of the Chinese people by colonial powers during the Qing dynasty. James Bruce, Britain’s eighth earl of Elgin and a special envoy to China, had a significant role in that; so important that the British colonial government in Hong Kong named a road in his honour, Elgin Street in Central. In 1857 during the Second Opium War, he ordered an Anglo-French force to take Canton, now Guangzhou, as a show of power to force trade. But the ultimate humiliation came three years later when, to push acceptance of a treaty and avenge the killing of European captives, he gave the go-ahead for the destruction of the old summer palace in Beijing. That event has since remained a national scar and China’s rise has given cause for leaders to vow that those events can never be repeated. All things foreign have to be looked at with a leery eye.
Increasing pressure on the “one country, two systems” model under which Hong Kong maintains its differences to the mainland inevitably means imparting such thinking. There will surely be a time when all things foreign come under pressure in our city; it will mean that while foreigners will be greeted with a smile in local communities, officials will be less welcoming.
When that happens depends on the pressure from Beijing on our institutions and the media, and the willingness of local officials to implement guidelines and orders. A good indicator will be when workmen move in to replace the signs in Elgin Street.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post