Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Hong Kong on Friday to attend 15 year-anniversary celebrations of its return to China. To his immediate right is outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang. Far left is incoming Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Photo from Xinhua.
Sunday, July 1, 2012, is an important date in Hong Kong and in China. Fifteen years ago to the day, one of the last vestiges of the British Empire, the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, was handed back to Chinese sovereignty after 155 years of British rule. On that day in 1997 Hong Kong became a "Special Administrative Region" of China, governed by a chief executive, and relatively much more free than the rest of the country.
Now, a decade and a half later, the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China is as uneasy as it was then, torn between the Western-style freedoms the city enjoys and the closed, but economically successful, system based in Beijing.
Opinions of the mainland in Hong Kong have fluctuated over the years. But some things remain constant.
First, the territory has always drawn large numbers of new migrants from mainland China, both before and after reversion. They come in search of a higher standard of living, excellent healthcare and education and greater freedoms. In recent years these attractions have continued to sustain strong influxes.
Second, Hong Kong's prosperity has always been linked to its ties with the mainland. The territory remains a funnel for trade, investment and shipping between China and the outside world. In the past several years, that role has largely spared it even as the rest of the globe's leading centers of finance reeled from the global crisis.
The uncertainty now centers not on economics but how close Hong Kongers themselves really want to be to the mainland, politically and socially.
Rising numbers of incoming mainland Chinese are leaving many Hong Kong residents deeply concerned about the future of the territory. Some complain that Hong Kong is being transformed into a luxury shopping destination; others that the process is marginalizing smaller local businesses. Suspicions abound that pregnant mainland women are abusing travel into Hong Kong to give birth to children there, winning new entry rights and increasing burdens on local residents.
A large majority, some 78 percent of Hong Kong respondents, said they opposed replacing traditional Chinese characters (also used in Macau and Taiwan) with simplified Chinese (used on the mainland), according to survey data released by NetEase's data blog. In 2011, 46.5 percent said they could speak Mandarin, an increase of 13.2 percent over the previous decade; Hong Kong's dominant language is Cantonese, which is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin.
Those objections -- about threatened language, shifting demographics, maintaining respect for local laws and rising job competition -- appear no different from the complaints that many populations around the world express about immigration and demographic change.
Whether Cantonese is actually dying off is another matter -- many may simply believe picking up Mandarin is an advantage in doing business with mainland companies -- but there are widespread fears that the territory is being consumed by China and losing its uniqueness in the process.
In 1997, only 32.5 percent of Hong Kong respondents said they identified as being "Chinese." In 2008, as many as 51.9 percent said they did so. That year, Sichuan's Wenchuan earthquake and the Olympics probably boosted Hong Kong's empathy with the mainland.
In June 2012, a poll from Hong Kong University revealed that 37 percent of respondents distrusted Beijing, while the number of residents who responded as being Chinese was at its lowest point since 1999. That seemed a major reversal of the psychological convergence which had occurred over past years.
Hu reviewing the Chinee Army's Hong Kong garrison on Friday. The garrison has been used as a public relations tool demonstrating the central government's resolve to protect Hong Kong. Banners behind the troops read "Love the motherland, love Hong Kong, love the garrison." Photo from Xinhua/Ju Peng
Since the British returned the territory to Beijing, the mainland press has described it as "China's Hong Kong," as term that grates on many residents.
The city-state, which operates under a unique "one country, two systems" model, is allowed highly autonomous execution and creation of its own laws and far greater degrees of political representation and free speech than the mainland. Beijing has guaranteed that level of special treatment would continue until 2047, 50 years from the takeover.
Hong Kong has long taken a deep pride in its corruption-free government. But the public is concerned that increasingly close business and political connections with the mainland could expose their system to the corruption widely seen as being pervasive on the mainland.
The recent election of the new chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, largely seen as a Beijing favorite (there are even rumors that he is a Communist Party member) has further intensified worries about preserving intregrity in the Hong Kong government. Leung took office Sunday in a ceremony presided over by Hu.
The complex and often opaque electoral process for choosing Hong Kong's leader is also under increasing public scrutiny. Hong Kongers are demanding reforms to allow direct elections for chief executive, rather than continuing the current electoral-college voting system with only 1,200 voters, who are suspected of being strongly influenced by Beijing.
Chinese President Hu Jintao meeting with Hong Kong political and business leaders on Saturday. Photo from Xinhua/Liu Jiansheng
The central Chinese government says Hong Kong could be allowed direct election of its own leader as early as 2017.
In the meantime, Beijing and Leung are following through with plans to more closely integrate Hong Kong with the mainland. Hopes are that new policies to improve joint ventures, transshipment and cooperative investment will boost the Hong Kong economy and improve perceptions of the relationship with the mainland. Beijing is also looking for ways to encourage foreign companies to carry out monetary transactions in Hong Kong by using the yuan.
Leung is also promising to make major reforms to Hong Kong's famously crowded housing and to tackle demographic issues - two problems that sound very much like the headaches affecting the mainland government.
Rising property values and widening income gaps are making it more difficult for Hong Kong residents to find affordable homes; nearly half of the territory's population is in public housing. At the same time, the government expects its population to age rapidly, with seniors (over the age of 65) reaching a quarter of the population at 2.1 million by 2030, more than doubling the current level of 900,000.
A sure way to improve the ratio of youth to elderly residents would be to allow more mainland Chinese migrants, but that may be politically fraught.
Rather than promoting the arrival of more mainlanders to Hong Kong, Leung is hoping that integration will be boosted by people moving in the opposite direction, as more Hong Kongers seek out economic opportunities in mainland China.
"The more Hong Kong people now working in a middle or high-level post go to seek a better future on the mainland, the more opportunities will become realistic for young Hong Kongers," he told Xinhua on Friday.
The chief executive also worries that the city is relying too much on its role as a financial center for East Asia. Leung says that compared to New York and London, "the scale of the financial industry here is smaller. Hong Kong should use all advantages, including the opportunities brought by the mainland's development, to cement and lift its status as a global financial center."
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