Posted on October 21, 2019

Hong Kong’s Hatred of Mainlanders Feeds the Xenophobic Undercurrents of Its Protests

Audrey Jiajia Li, South China Morning Post, October 11, 2019

Late last month, Jiayang Fan, a Chinese-American journalist, was harassed and interrogated by some demonstrators after she spoke Mandarin while covering the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Derogatory insults and accusations like “yellow thug” and “commie agent” were thrown at her. “My Chinese face is a liability,” she tweeted, “just got asked if I’m from the US and am a reporter why I have Chinese face”.

On September 18, the 88th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of northeastern China, a poster celebrating the event, presumably posted by some protesters, was seen on the “democracy wall” at the University of Hong Kong. “This is the first time I see people fighting for democracy by glorifying second world war axis powers,” a fellow journalist commented on Twitter.

Recently, a mainlander JPMorgan banker was surrounded, told to “go back to the mainland” and punched in the face, his glasses knocked off, all for responding “we are all Chinese” in Mandarin. Also, in mid-August, when protesters occupied the Hong Kong airport, two mainlanders suspected of being undercover agents were infamously humiliated and assaulted.

Incidents such as these shed light on a more complicated, less-covered side of the months-long protests: the deep distrust and even hatred towards mainland Chinese as a whole, while the movement has largely been viewed by the world as just a fight between democracy and authoritarianism.

As Beijing has become increasingly authoritarian, people in Hong Kong sense the threat to their freedoms. Unfortunately, resentment of the government has unjustifiably spilled over to ordinary mainland people, even to individuals for merely being Mandarin-speaking, including people from Singapore, Taiwan and North America.

Those who pay attention to the online social media platform, which helps the movement stay on message and coordinate activities, notice that plainly xenophobic hate speeches are all too shocking and common. On the city’s college campuses, we’ve known for some time that mainland students are sometimes referred to by the slur “shina dogs” and asked to “go back to China”.

The psychology of Hong Kong’s out-of-control protest movement

“Go back to …” – sounds familiar? In the United States, for example, with anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia on the rise over the past few years, immigrants – including those from China – and even native-born ethnic minorities have been hearing more of that from the far right.

With the global surge of nativism, new arrivals are often a convenient scapegoat for almost anything the natives are unhappy about, from snapping up expensive goods to “stealing” jobs and opportunities.

When it comes to Hong Kong, there is an uncomfortable parallel. Some locals feel that the influx of investment and people from the north have overwhelmed them. The perceived “crazy rich” newcomers are blamed for growing living costs, especially sky-high housing prices.

Well-educated professionals such as Charles Li, chief executive of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited, and Zhang Xiang, president of the University of Hong Kong, are on the receiving end of suspicion and hostility because of their mainland (therefore, assumed Communist Party-linked) background. Grass-roots tourists and immigrants have been called “locusts” and “savages” and accused of putting the city under threat.

“Reclaim Hong Kong” has become one of the rallying slogans. “Hong Kong is not China” has been heard from the very beginning of the movement. Demonstrators have adopted the images of Pepe the Frog, widely used by the alternative right, as an important element in their protest literature.

Waving the British or American flag is not uncommon in the streets, but people waving the Chinese flag get beaten up. Stores, restaurants and bank branches deemed China-linked or pro-China are smashed, burned and looted; even their customers get bullied.

Hong Kong academic Brian Fong coined an interesting term, “one country, two nationalisms”, to describe the phenomenon, in an allusion to the framework of “one country, two systems” to ensure Hong Kong’s autonomy. Although Hong Kong is not a nation, the city-state-like system and the unique identity of being “Hongkongers” have made a growing number of the locals, especially youngsters, take on the characteristics of what is typically called nationalism.

On the mainland, many have embraced a rising ultranationalism since 2012, when China became more aggressive and assertive on the international stage. At the same time in Hong Kong, there has been a growing superiority complex towards mainlanders, who were seen as impoverished, isolated and ill-informed.

As a former British colony, Hong Kong retains some form of colonial nostalgia even though most protesters grew up after 1997. The display of the colonial-era flag shows their closer emotional ties to Westerners than to their ountrymen in the north.

As Post columnist Alex Lo pointed out, there are many videos showing radical protesters immediately calming down, becoming reasonable or even backing away when Westerners intervened amid their actions of vandalism and violence, be it smashing up the MTR station, blocking road traffic, rallying inside the airport or, as in a new clip, arguing with an expatriate woman who was tearing down Lennon Wall posters.

In these cases, the otherwise ferocious mob showed, as Lo put it, amazing “awe, respect or deference”.

In Professor Fong’s words, “instead of successfully assimilating Hongkongese into one Chinese nation, Beijing’s incorporation strategies are leading to a rise of peripheral nationalism in the city-state and waves of countermobilisation”. Instead of going after the powerful Chinese leadership for their grievances, some Hong Kong protesters chose to violently vent their frustrations on ordinary mainlanders, and the movement as a whole has not disavowed those behaviours – which are in fact borderline hate crimes.

Sadly, blind hatred and tribalism are polarising and tearing apart the people living on the two sides of the Shenzhen river, and even communities in Hong Kong that disagree with each other on whether they view the Chinese identity as complementary or horrifying.

Similar to the complex issues involving race relations in the US, these rifts in Hong Kong, I fear, cannot be healed any time soon. Ethnocentrism on both sides is likely to continue, although, actually, there is no ethnic division in the traditional sense between most Hongkongers and mainlanders.