Will Chinese political adviser Hui Wing-mau’s summer tour to Xian make Hong Kong teens patriotic?
NGO founded by Hong Kong billionaire and standing committee delegate, Hui Wing-mau, aims to deepen teenagers’ understanding of national history and culture as well as strengthen their sense of pride in being Chinese
The high-speed train carrying 800 young Hongkongers left Shenzhen North railway station at precisely 10am on August 5. Within minutes, it was running at 300km/h for its destination: Xian in Shaanxi province, northwest China.
“I visit the mainland about every six months, mostly to Shanwei in Guangdong province, to visit my relatives,” Vincent Chak Tsz-ho, 15, said. “But I don’t really know a lot about the country. I want to go to Xian to see how the northern part of the country is different from the south.”
Chak was in the group of Hong Kong teenagers and young adults riding the Hexie Hao, which means “train of harmony” in Chinese.
“If you ask me whether I am a Hongkonger or Chinese, I would say a Hongkonger,” he said. “But people from Shanghai also say they are from Shanghai.”
The travellers, average age 22, were on a six-day tour to Shaanxi organised by New Home Association, an NGO founded in 2010 by Hong Kong billionaire Hui Wing-mau.
Hui is a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top political advisory body. Earlier this year, he was appointed to the 300-strong standing committee of the CPPCC’s national committee, making him one of 18 Hong Kong delegates.
He was forthright about the purpose of the annual tour, which is in its fourth year and has sent about 9,000 Hong Kong teenagers to mainland China so far – it is to achieve goals set by President Xi Jinping.
“He cares very much about young people in Hong Kong,” Hui said. “He has asked different sectors to help teenagers visit the mainland more often. The purpose of this trip is to let them better understand Chinese culture.”
In Xian, Hui told participants: “The aim of this tour is to deepen teenagers’ understanding of China’s history, culture, and social developments, as well as to strengthen their sense of belonging and sense of pride in being Chinese.”
If anyone missed the message, it was brought home during two planned events.
At a concert on the second day of the trip, young representatives from Hong Kong and Shaanxi mixed water and soil from both places.
The mixture was used the next day to plant a pine tree in a field at the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, the resting place of the mythical Huangdi, who was said to have been born 5,000 years ago and brought peace to China.
Hui declared it symbolised Hong Kong was an inseparable part of China.
The Shaanxi itinerary included accommodation at luxurious hotels; a spectacular imperial welcoming ceremony; a guided visit to the site of the Terracotta Warriors; speeches by mainland Chinese officials about opportunities in the country; and, for 120 of the travellers, a visit to Liangjiahe, the remote village where the president spent seven of his formative years.
With subsidies from the Hong Kong government, participants paid just HK$1,000 (US$127) each, or even less for those whose schools covered part of the cost. The mainland authorities paid for some events too.
Most participants signed up with their friends, and a few teachers led their students on the trip.
They said it was clear from the start that this was no ordinary sightseeing tour, and Hui’s NGO was trying to sell them the “China dream”, instil a sense of national pride in them, and remind them that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.
“I think they are trying to brainwash us into seeing how there are so many opportunities for teenagers on the mainland. Those in primary school may be brainwashed, but it won’t work for people my age,” Leung Ka-yi, 16, said.
She said she would not mind working in mainland China, except that wages were low. “But it may be a good idea to be an entrepreneur there,” she added.
For most, however, the week promised Shaanxi treats aplenty at bargain prices, including a guided visit to the site of the Terracotta Warriors and a performance of the historical drama the Song of Everlasting Sorrow at Huaqing Palace.
Andy Li, 17, was excited about the visits to museums.
“I even looked up the history of Shaanxi and Xian before I came here,” he said, when the group visited the Shaanxi History Museum. “This is a great museum with interesting relics.”
Mainland visits the way to create a stronger Chinese identity?
Summer tours to the mainland have taken off in a big way over the past decade, with Beijing and the Hong Kong government eager to boost local teenagers’ sense of being Chinese.
In 2008, Hong Kong’s former leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said the government subsidised about 5,000 primary and secondary students on mainland tours annually and he planned to raise the figure to 37,000.
For the 2018-2019 financial year, the Education Bureau has earmarked HK$125 million to subsidise 110,000 students on mainland tours, up from 63,000 in 2017-2018.
Hong Kong was ruled by Britain for 150 years until 1997, when it was handed back to China. Under the “one country, two systems” principle, the city is supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy from Chinese rules, but there has been friction between Hongkongers and mainlanders over the years.
In 2012, Hong Kong internet users raised more than HK$100,000 in less than a week to finance an “anti-locust” advertisement in a Chinese-language newspaper, saying Hongkongers had had enough of mainland women giving birth in the city and exploiting public resources.
In 2015, with Hong Kong and China playing in the same World Cup qualifying group, Hong Kong football fans booed when the national anthem was played at several matches, drawing a storm of criticism on mainland social media. The Hong Kong government is expected to table a bill in October to make insulting the Chinese national anthem a criminal offence.
More recently, the mysterious disappearances of booksellers who sold books critical of the Chinese leadership sparked fears that the principle of autonomy for Hong Kong was being eroded.
At the 19th Communist Party congress last October, Xi urged Hongkongers to have a stronger sense of Chinese identity. In March this year, senior party officials Wang Huning and Zhao Leji repeated that message.
In Shaanxi, slogans, speeches and eye-opening sightseeing
For those on the recent Shaanxi tour, the journey to ancient Xian lasted 9½ hours and took the 800 travellers 1,400km from their home city. Dressed in white uniforms emblazoned with the tour theme – “Four Seas, One Family” – they filled two-thirds of the train’s 1,200 seats.
Armed with Hong Kong sim cards from the New Home Association, the youngsters could circumvent the Great Firewall of China and access Facebook and Instagram – banned on the mainland – to kill time.
Some brought homework to do on the train. Others just slept.
At 7.30pm, the train pulled up at Xian North Railway station, a modern station in operation since 2011.
A small LED panel on the platform proclaimed Xi’s vision for China, to “remain true to our origin aspiration and keep our mission firmly in mind”.
The slogan resonated with Hongkonger Richard Liu Yuan-chao, 23.
“For me, it means that once I have set my goal, I must work hard to achieve it,” he said. “If I start my business in [the] future, I should always remember why I want to do it and what I want to achieve.”
The visitors boarded 16 coaches that took them to the South Gate of Xian’s City Wall, which is 12 metres high and 14km long. There, their hosts put on an elaborate welcome ceremony, similar to the one laid out in 1998 for then US President Bill Clinton.
The drawbridge fell and performers in Tang dynasty costumes led the Hongkongers through the South Gate, where they met royal guards clad in armour. Once everyone was seated, a spectacular show about Xian’s history unfolded.
The next day, the group visited the Shaanxi History Museum which opened in 1991 and is now home to 1.7 million relics including gold and silverware from the Tang dynasty.
“It is interesting to be here because I have read a lot about Chinese history, but I have not seen such relics,” said 17-year-old Alex Chan, who has also been on tours to other mainland cities such as Hangzhou and Zhaoqing.
“These tours have allowed me to better understand the culture in mainland China, and how it is different from that of other countries.”
The night’s highlight was a concert at Tang Paradise, an amusement park themed on the dynasty. Teenagers from Hong Kong and Shaanxi collaborated on a street dance performance, while Xian singer Wang Jianfang sang songs and spectators waved fluorescent sticks.
Before the event started, Xian Communist Party chief Wang Yongkang told the crowd that young people are the hope and future of the motherland.
He Jing, deputy director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, told the youngsters the central government cared about them. He urged them to “correctly understand” Hong Kong’s relations with the mainland, and be confident about one country, two systems.
On the third day, about 120 teenagers took a three-hour ride to the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor for a symbolic tree-planting ceremony. The others explored the city.
While some teenagers said they did not know what the ceremony was about, Chu Yeung-yu, 19, found it meaningful.
“When I graduate, I want to work on the mainland,” he said. “The mainland is much bigger than Hong Kong and there will surely be more opportunities there.”
Teenagers learn about Xi’s Liangjiahe days
The group needed a 3½-hour coach ride to get from the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor to Liangjiahe, the remote village where a 15-year-old Xi Jinping was sent in 1969 and spent seven years.
The future president’s father, Xi Zhongxun, helped Mao Zedong set up Communist bases in the northwest in the 1930s. Their fortunes changed drastically when Xi Zhongxun was accused of leading an anti-party clique in 1962 and stripped of his leadership positions.
His teenage son was among millions of youths sent to rural areas to rid them of their pro-bourgeois thinking. He arrived at Liangjiahe, a place so remote he lived in a cave dwelling and did all sorts of manual work, from herding sheep to farming.
In an article published in 2012 by the official Xinhua news agency, Xi described his time in the village as marked by hardship that helped strengthen his character.
After Xi took over as China’s leader in 2012, Liangjiahe became a tourist attraction overnight, attracting endless busloads of tour groups from across the country eager to learn about the president’s formative years.
There is no evidence Xi or the leadership encouraged these visits, but there have been concerns expressed about building a personality cult around him.
Retired pharmaceutical scientist Lei Pingsheng, 68, was also a teenager sent to Liangjiahe in 1969 and he shared cave dormitories with Xi for six years while the chaos of the Cultural Revolution engulfed China.
Invited by the New Home Association to speak to the Hong Kong visitors, he said he hoped they would learn from the way Xi overcame hardship while at Liangjiahe.
“We were always hungry, and there was so much work to do,” Lei said. “But we worked hard.”
He recalled he and Xi would wake up at 5am, make breakfast and start hiking up the hill to work.
“We worked until the sun set, and you can imagine what time the sun set in summer,” Lei added.
“Life was tough back then. What we ate could still be considered proper food. But what the other villagers ate … was like grass. We were sad watching them eat.”
Although he took part in the event, Lei said he felt Liangjiahe’s popularity as a tourist attraction had become “too heated and should be cooled down”.
The hype over Xi’s hardship years led Shaanxi social scientists to conduct large-scale studies to establish how Liangjiahe influenced Xi’s policies, but they have been criticised for encouraging a personality cult. The studies were quietly suspended, suggesting Beijing is aware of the backlash too.
On day four of their trip, the Hong Kong visitors were taken to the Revolution Memorial Hall in Yanan city, a popular destination for “red tourism” where citizens can learn about their country’s Communist history.
Yanan was dubbed the “cradle of the red revolution”. It was where top party leaders, including Mao, Zhou Enlai and Xi Zhongxun, forged the ragtag Red Army into a guerilla force and honed their socialist ideology.
Inside the massive memorial hall, dozens of mainlanders from across the country were dressed in Red Army outfits, the uniform of Communist guerillas in the late 1920s and early 1930s during the civil war.
After a guided tour, the Hongkongers were given time to walk around the museum on their own, but some decided that they had seen enough.
At one corner, about 15 of the group were sitting together, glued to their phones, visibly bored. Al they wanted was for the visit to end.
Alice Poon, 17, said she was uninterested in China’s revolutionary history. In fact, even after visiting Liangjiahe the day before, she thought it was Mao who spent time there.
“Modern Chinese history is more interesting than the revolutionary history,” she added. “I don’t want to work in the mainland after I graduate. Hong Kong is much more convenient. I fear that people in the mainland may not be very polite.”
But Tam Pak-ho, 17, felt differently. He found the visit to the museum educational and said he learned more about the China’s revolutionary history.
On the sixth and final day of the tour, the wake-up calls came at 7am. The Terracotta Warrior replicas appeared to be the most treasured Shaanxi souvenir for many Hong Kong students, as they left for the Xian North railway station and the long journey back to Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
Several said the trip had indeed opened their eyes about the mainland.
Wong Leong-hang, 17, said he found the visit to Liangjiahe interesting and enjoyed visiting the rural area, but added: “I think we were brought there for political reasons. I’m not interested in politics. Politics is for adults.”
He felt the mainland authorities had done a better job of preserving heritage sites than their counterparts in Hong Kong. That was one reason he enjoyed the trip. But he was not keen to work on the mainland.
However, Wong’s friend Tsoi Yun-chak, 16, voiced an enthusiasm to work over the border, citing opportunities.
“If people ask me where I’m from, I would say I am a Hongkonger. But if they press me whether I consider myself Chinese, I would answer I’m a Hong Kong Chinese,” Tsoi said.
At 28 years old, Stephen Kwok was one of the oldest tour participants. No stranger to the mainland, he has joined similar excursions to Shanghai, Guangxi, Guilin and Xiamen.
But Kwok said he preferred visiting Taiwan, claiming the people there were more gracious.
“Sometimes, people in the mainland can be quite impolite. Some like to jump the queue. The level of civilisation in the mainland is not high enough for me to say proudly that I am Chinese.”
If the Shaanxi tour elicited mixed reactions from the travellers, a recent University of Hong Kong survey suggested it would take more than mainland visits to get young Hongkongers to embrace their Chineseness.
Of about 1,000 people surveyed in June, only 2.9 per cent of those aged 18 to 29 considered themselves “Chinese” whereas 70.9 per cent in that age group said they were “Hongkongers”.
Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen criticised the government for pumping so much money into sponsor mainland tours and not spending as much on overseas tours.
“You can’t force people to love their country,” he said. “You can only offer opportunities for them to find out more about their country. The more political messages tour organisers try to impose on teenagers, the less likely it will work. You don’t have to force teenagers to love South Korea’s culture. They just do.”