Seventeen years after officially becoming part of China, Hong Kong remains a separate place.
Under the “one country, two systems’’ principle established when Great Britain handed over control of Hong Kong in 1997, the Pearl of the Orient became a Special Administrative Region of China with its own political, economic and judicial systems. This means that Hong Kong retains most of the Western-style freedoms it had under British rule, at least until the handover agreement expires in 2047.
China has gradually increased its political influence in Hong Kong, and Beijing is also responsible for the region’s military defense and diplomatic relations. (The same dual system is followed in Macau, the former Portuguese colony that is China’s other Special Administrative Region.)
Yet most Hong Kong residents still consider themselves Hong Kongers first and Chinese second, even though more than 90 percent of them are ethnically Chinese. Many view mainlanders as backward, unsophisticated people and resent their influx into Hong Kong to shop, buy property and have babies that will automatically get the social benefits of citizenship in one of the world’s financial capitals. (Hong Kongers have their own passports, and travel between Hong Kong and mainland China usually requires a visa.)
In recent years, there have been a number of ugly incidents in which Hong Kongers have gotten into heated arguments with visiting mainlanders over their behavior. One involved a child peeing in the street, which is a common sight in China, and another was triggered by a mainlander eating on the subway, which is forbidden in Hong Kong. Both were captured on homemade videos that went viral and set off Internet debates on the differences between Hong Kongers and mainlanders.
A few years ago, a popular Hong Kong music video derided mainlanders as “locusts’’ with no manners. In 2012, more than 1,000 Hong Kongers protested outside a Dolce & Gabbana store following reports that the luxury retailer was favoring wealthy mainlanders over locals.
The scathing criticism has led to a backlash from the mainland. One prominent Chinese professor accused the critics of being “bastards’’ and “running dogs for British imperialists.’’ Chinese officials and state-run media even attacked the head of a survey that showed a growing resentment of mainlanders by Hong Kong residents.
I’m going to stop in Hong Kong for a few days before flying home next month. It will be interesting to see if I notice any changes from my last visit in 1988, when it was still under British rule. I promise not to pee in the street or eat on the subway.