Learning to live with our differences

Popular tensions have been on the rise between mainland China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in recent weeks. What began as a spat between Hong Kongers and visiting mainland Chinese over the eating of noodles on Hong Kong’s MTR subway system back in January has escalated into hateful name-calling.

The barbed exchanges began in mid-January after a mainland mother traveling with her child on Hong Kong’s metro transit system, or MTR, dropped noodles on the floor of a subway car. A local man demanded an apology for this breach of Hong Kong regulations and propriety, to which the mainland woman responded that it was “no big deal.” After the train was stopped and MTR representatives called to the scene, a shouting match ensued, caught on video and later posted to the internet.

Here is video of the scene in January. At the end, a Hong Kong man can be heard to shout: “There’s no sense in arguing with them. Mainlanders are all like this! Get off the train!”

As the incident drew attention on the internet and became a media frenzy in Hong Kong, Kong Qingdong (孔庆东), a well-known professor at China’s Peking University, escalated tensions by called Hong Kongers “dogs of British colonialists.

On February 1, Hong Kongers crowd-sourced funding on the internet to pay for a full-page ad in the local Apple Daily newspaper which likened mainlanders coming to Hong Kong to an invasion of locusts.

The Apple Daily ad fomented against the social pressures they said mainland visitors were placing on Hong Kong. The black headline at the top of the ad read: “Are you willing to pay one million HK dollars every 18 minutes to take care of mainland children born in Hong Kong?” A second bold yellow headline below read: “Hong Kongers have had enough!”


[ABOVE: A February 1 advertisement in Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper, paid for with donations from Hong Kong internet users, depicts mainlanders as locusts preparing to descend on Hong Kong.]

One frequently cited pressure on Hong Kong’s public services is the rising cost of childbirth services in the territory as more and more mainland mothers have crossed the border to give birth. In recent years, Hong Kong has experienced a sharp rise in births by mainland women not married to Hong Kong permanent residents. The English-language China Daily reported today that births by mainland women in Hong Kong have risen from under 1,000 in 2000 to over 32,000 in 2010.

Earlier this week, the CCP’s official People’s Daily ran an editorial calling for greater “leniency” on the part of both Hong Kong and mainland China in dealing with cultural differences, arguing that this was “a test of the wisdom and character of both regions.”

A translation of the People’s Daily editorial follows:


Hong Kong and the Mainland Should Treat Their Differences Leniently
People’s Daily
February 6, 2012

Of course there are differences between Hong Kong and the mainland — historical, cultural, economic, legal and lifestyle differences . . . There are differences big and small, including such things as whether food can be eaten on the subway. But who would have guessed that a mainland girl eating noodles on the Hong Kong MTR would become a major story, that a video of the incident feverishly shared on the web during the Chinese New Year holiday would spark debate and even a crossfire of insults?

Differences have long been the focus of rapid integration and common interests between [Hong Kong and the mainland]. At the start of reform and opening thirty years ago, for example, differences in economic development drove Hong Kong’s manufacturing sector to shift production across to Guangdong almost overnight. The “three plus one trading mix” (三来一补), [custom manufacturing with designs, materials or samples supplied], which for a long time was the way of doing things, is already outmoded. But the model set down the first stage of economic reforms. Investment in the mainland from Hong Kong tops [that from all other territories and countries outside the mainland], and our brethren in Hong Kong can be written into the history books for their contributions to opening and reform.

It’s also difference that has, since opening and reform, driven mainlanders from all provinces and cities to travel to Hong Kong, . . . enriching the territory’s economy by strength of numbers and strength of spending. Today, while many people in Hong Kong voice anger over the way travelers from the mainland have upset their peaceful lives, they will no doubt recognize the contribution these travelers have made to the Hong Kong economy.

Difference is a double-edged sword. Difference can attract, and difference can divide.

Hong Kong has clear regulations against eating on the subway, and Hong Kong people generally don’t see people digging into a meal on the subway — so seeing a young girl from outside [the territory] eating noodles [on the MTR] was an offense to the eye. In mainland China there are no such rules, and the question of whether or not one can eat [on the subway] is a grey area. [The thinking on the mainland is that] children are precious, and not a moment is to be lost when they are hungry, so how can eating a little something cause people to fume with rage? . . . So the bad blood boiled over the noodle issue, words flying, and this became the focus of attention in both Hong Kong and the mainland.

This isn’t actually such a big deal. Surely, it’s not just about Hong Kong and the mainland, and between Hong Kongese and Hong Kongese, between Beijinger and Beijinger, you can also find differences that are the cause of tension. Put-off onlookers can say, with a slight smile: “Little Sister, in the Hong Kong subway eating is not permitted. You’ll be fined.” And being cautioned, the other can say, before putting the food away: “I’m sorry, my child is really hungry.” With a degree of leniency over differences, [tensions] can pass with a smile.

But if the response to seeing a girl eating noodles is sharp denunciation of how “mainlanders” are, and the person attacked fires back about how “you Hong Kongers” are, the tables are turned quickly and issues become serious. A bowl of noodles can kick up animosities old and new. And how do we clear our heads of the tensions and misunderstandings from the differences between our two regions that then come to the surface?

Escalating differences to an even higher plane, one person in mainland China used extreme speech to label those who objected to the eating of noodles [on the MTR] as “colonial dogs” (殖民地的走狗) . . . And in Hong Kong, some likened the eating of noodles [by mainlanders on the subway] to “locusts”, something that is, if not a case of whipping up hatred with ulterior motives, certainly itself an uncultured act. This is a cruel logic of death to those who resist (逆我者亡) — [in other words, a form of intolerant extremism] — itself not too far off from the abyss of fascism.

Fortunately, I have noted many moderate and reasonable voices amid the sea of commentary. Internet user “Deep-Mountain Wizard” (深山之巫) wrote: “I am a Hong Konger, born and raised, and I can say that Hong Kongese do not discriminate against their [mainland] brethren. The war of words has stemmed from differences in values. Some from the mainland aren’t familiar with the rules in Hong Kong. In the eyes of the Hong Kong people they’ve broken the law, and that’s why the reaction has been so strong. Actually, all they need to do is admit when they’re in the wrong, saying they didn’t know the rules, and that will be the end of it. There are good people and bad in both Hong Kong and the mainland, and I hope this isn’t the cause of bad feeling.”

A domestic media in mainland China wrote: “Piling on more abuse won’t cause Hong Kong to change its regulations because of criticism from the mainland. It will only cause others to laugh at us. When you go out, please just respect the local laws and regulations . . . ”

Treating differences with leniency demands a show of understanding on the part of the home team and respect from the visiting team. Understanding and respect are both cultured responses. The world isn’t a fairy tale, of course, but when understanding and respect are lacking, ready-made channels, like administrative offices, can be turned to for complaint resolution. . . Today, as Hong Kong and the mainland grow ever closer, the differences aren’t limited to “eating noodles” [on the subway]. How administrative offices in the two regions face up to differences, how they encourage tolerance toward differences (引导善待差异), and how the people on both sides learn to treat differences, this is a test of the wisdom and character of both regions.

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