So sour is the mood that even the ferry tragedy on Oct. 1 triggered a burst of anti-mainland sentiment after Li Gang, the deputy director of Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong, turned up at a hospital to offer condolences and give assurances of the “central government’s concern.”
The hospital visit, which upstaged Hong Kong’s own leader, chief executive Leung Chun-ying, was widely derided in newspapers and online as an intrusive, communist-style ritual and an interference in Hong Kong’s affairs. Beijing made matters worse by announcing that Chinese leaders had issued “important instructions” to Hong Kong's government on how to handle the disaster.
‘One country, two systems’
Promised a “high-degree of autonomy” by Beijing under a formula known as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong still largely runs its own affairs, with the exception of defense and foreign relations. Despite growing complaints of self-censorship by journalists, Hong Kong retains a boisterous free press and has developed a booming niche publishing industry that churns out books and magazines on Chinese politics, largely for sale to visiting mainlanders who don’t believe China’s tightly controlled official media.
Observers say Beijing interfered extensively in the selection earlier this year of Leung as chief executive by a 1,200 committee stacked with pro-Beijing plutocrats but has since suffered notable setbacks in its efforts to rally public opinion behind its “patriotic” agenda. After an uproar here, the Hong Kong government last month scrapped plans to make patriotism courses compulsory in all schools and is now under heavy public pressure to drop the whole project.
The economic, political and especially demographic forces bearing down on Hong Kong from across the border are still immense, a fact that has been brought home to ordinary residents here by a flood of visitors from the mainland. About 28 million mainlanders visited last year, which is four times Hong Kong’s total population. In some shopping districts, Mandarin, a language many Hong Kongers don’t speak, is now often heard as much or even more than Cantonese, the southern Chinese dialect that is the former colony’s principal language.
Chin Wan-kan, an academic and the author of a widely discussed book that advocates Hong Kong becoming an independent city-state, said Hong Kong has no problem embracing China in the abstract, just not the mainland in its current form, which he described as “a mixture of rotten Chinese culture plus Soviet colonialism.” Hong Kong, he said, is “definitely Chinese” but, thanks to its long exposure to the West, represents “modern Chinese culture,” rather than what he sees as a retrograde mainland variant.