HONG KONG — Some of my mainland China friends have traveled to Hong Kong repeatedly, for no other reason they say than to “smell the air here.”
But they have recently begun notice changes: Hong Kong waitresses are less polite, the Cantonese-speaking locals give them dirty looks in the street when they hear Mandarin. As a Hongkonger myself, but also their friend, this poses an uncomfortable dilemma.
Several Hong Kong legislators have proposed creating an “entry tax” on mainland visitors. Residents here have protested in the streets about the tourists, shouting that the “locusts” should go back to China. Of course, I don’t condone such blatantly discriminatory language, and as a result have been criticized by my Hong Kong friends. They call me names and accuse me of “betraying Hong Kong.”
But I can understand the anger of Hong Kong people because I too experience many unpleasant things. In the subway, I have encountered travelers with suitcases who crushed my feet and sped away without apologizing. In the shopping malls and parks, there is an increasing amount of spit and filth on the ground. And It’s not at all rare to see Chinese mothers holding their children up beside a roadside trash can while the child pees directly into the bin.
The uncivilized behavior of Chinese tourists is notorious, and many of them poorly represent their compatriots in China. But these uncouth people are a minority and do not represent all Chinese. Many mainlanders are just as well-mannered and polite as my Hong Kong friends.
Nevertheless, nobody can ignore the significant impact of tourism from mainland China. In 2012, Hong Kong received 37 million Chinese mainlanders. Even if only one in a thousand visitors misbehaves, it is enough to give local people a negative impression.
Thanks to Chinese celebrities who complained that it is extremely difficult to get a Beijing hukou, the household registration, the public discovered last year that it is actually easier to emigrate to Hong Kong — at least in theory. People who go to study, work and live for at least seven years can be granted Hong Kong citizenship.
Moreover, for the past 12 years or so, masses of Chinese women have come to Hong Kong to give birth so their children could automatically earn Hong Kong citizenship. Through these “anchor babies,” their parents are able to get a one-way permit to leave the mainland and become island citizens. This is very different from what happens in Beijing, where the children of migrant workers have only a rural residency status like their parents. Worse still, Hong Kong doesn’t hold the right to issue these one-way permits — only China’s Public Security Bureau.
The problem is that it’s unclear whether these new immigrants, in particular the anchor babies, will actually reside in Hong Kong. Like any other decent city, Hong Kong relies on future demographic estimates to plan its dwelling, transport, education, social welfare and health care infrastructure. And yet, to paraphrase my friends from the mainland: “I won’t live here. I’m just buying an insurance policy for my family." They also note that it is easier to travel internationally with a Hong Kong passport than a Chinese one.
Not like New York
In other words, to certain mainland newcomers, becoming Hongkongese is just a fallback.
For instance, of the 37 million mainland visitors to Hong Kong in the last year, 80% of them came from Guangzhou. They are not average tourists who stay overnight here, but shoppers who commute between the Chinese border towns and the island city. For a place with seven million residents, it is doubtful that its living infrastructure can withstand such a huge influx. Moreover, the number of these “semi-residents” is still growing and is expected to soar to 70 million in the next three years.
New York is a tourist city too, and hosted 52.7 million visitors in 2012. Many commuters from the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut work there too. But the growth of tourists and commuters there did not happen suddenly. And people from other states aren’t making the trip to the Big Apple just to shop for safer baby formula, food and even toilet paper, as those traveling from Guangzhou to Hong Kong are doing.
To put it simply, the Individual Visit Scheme — a visa allowing mainland travelers to visit Hong Kong freely — is compensation for the mainland masses who live under a more restrictive system and market conditions than those in Hong Kong.
Though the physical distance between mainland China and the former British colony is narrowing, there is nevertheless a huge cultural gap between the two places.
The mainlanders are buying into Hong Kong’s relatively safe and transparent health care and its various education services. But Hong Kong’s system doesn’t seem to be capable of coping with the overwhelming demand. What Hongkongese end up seeing are soaring prices, messy streets, and public resources stretched thinner every day.
* Leung Man-Tao is a popular Hong Kong essayist and TV commentator.