Political hotbed or tourist playground? Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg
Political hotbed or tourist playground? Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Is there any reason for China to trust that the citizens of Hong Kong, long ruled by the British, are loyal to the mainland? Leaders in Beijing clearly don't think so. That’s one reason the political reform plan that they handed to Hong Kong last weekend essentially reserved for the Communist Party the right to vet who will lead the city in 2017.

This was a political decision above all. Yet at the same time, one cannot underestimate the role that outright xenophobia plays in Communist Party thinking. Filled with a sincere fear of creeping Western influence, Chinese leaders see British-influenced Hong Kong as a conduit for outside ideas and separatist sentiment. (It's lost on no one, either, that the city's population swelled in the 1950s and 1960s with anti-Communist refugees from the mainland.) While local pro-democracy activists may have purely domestic considerations in mind, their efforts can look, from this perspective, distinctly anti-national in nature.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to work out. When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, the hope was that China might absorb some of the city's tolerance for civil liberties and democracy. Yet over the ensuing two decades, China happily acquired affluence and global respect without instituting any kind of political reforms. As a result, respect on the mainland for Hong Kong's vibrant civil society has dwindled, especially among party leaders. Now the city is less a model for political reform than a playground where tourists and cadres go to buy real estate and luxury goods (which aren't subject to the mainland's high luxury taxes), and to hide their assets.

Meanwhile, continued assertions of Hong Kong's uniqueness now sound more and more like arrogance to the mainland. Communist leaders were particularly irked by citywide protests that broke out in 2012 over attempts to introduce Chinese "national education" (essentially, China-friendly patriotic civics lessons) into local schools. Having spent a century under British rule and less than two decades back in China's fold, Hong Kong should have been a ripe candidate for some patriotic indoctrination -- or so the thinking went. Its reaction raised suspicions that residents remained loyal instead to a more Western ideology.

Worse, this rejection of Chinese national ideals has been accompanied by growing anti-mainlander sentiment. While Chinese tourists and investors have played a significant role in stimulating Hong Kong’s retail and real estate sectors, they’ve also enraged locals who resent the rising cost of living and increasingly scarce space in the city (including its hospitals).

Too often the backlash has been high-handed, with Hong Kong locals deriding their Chinese compatriots for their boorish manners and obliviousness to city standards (standards, the Chinese leadership surely recognizes, that date back to the British). Most notably, in February 2012 Apple Daily, the city’s most prominent pro-democracy newspaper (owned by Jimmy Lai, a major funder of the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement) published a full-page advertisement referring to mainlanders as “locusts.”

This kind of thing has taxed whatever sympathy and admiration might have remained among many mainland officials for the people of Hong Kong. What was once seen as a vibrant, stable society worthy of emulation now looks like an unruly and ungrateful problem child. Until mainland officials are convinced that Hong Kong citizens are committed to a common destiny with the mainland, there’s little chance that the city will gain any greater share in the process of choosing its leaders. (And whether Hong Kongers like it or not, that common destiny includes accepting mainland Chinese in their fair city.)

In Hong Kong, there seems to be some belated recognition that antipathy toward mainland Chinese, while socially acceptable, has not been helpful to the cause of democracy. On Sunday night, Chan Kin-man, one of the founders of Occupy Central, told a gathering of several thousand protesters that “we have to resist mainlandization, not people from the mainland.”

That's sound advice. It should be heeded by both pro-democracy activists, and by Hong Kong moderates who still hope to win a wider degree of political freedom from their wary compatriots in Beijing.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor of this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net.