On Hong Kong

Recently a friend asked me to give him my opinion about his piece on Hong Kong. I took it serious as I wrote a long response to him. Here I am sharing with you. Note, I don’t usually talk much about politics. But for this piece I was really on fire!!!

–Hong Kong is the center of finance in Asia. So it’s not surprising to me–a mainlander from Guangdong–that Hong Kongers are money-oriented like today’s mainland Chinese. (Xiang Qian Kan in Chinese Pinyin, is a pun, meaning “looking forward” as well as “looking toward Money”.) But I think Hong Kongers have a better conscience in doing business. Hong Kong merchants know a good reputation for the business is priceless. Hong Kong tourism bureau recommends tourists to spend their money in shops, hotels, restaurants with a label of “Quality Approved”.

The Hong Kong public can report fake products through a law-protected procedure. Unlike the red-tape in mainland politics, Hong Kong officials see less opportunity to evade liability should the reported case occur in their scope of responsibility. Disappointingly, Chinese merchants are known to be heartless to make money by manufacturing and selling fake food and drug, endangering the public health. China’s law enforcement in food safety is lame. This answers why mainland Chinese have better trust in buying medicine/food/cosmetics/ health-related products etc. in Hong Kong. The quality is guarenteed (or at least it used to be). And with the free trade with the international market, Hong Kong attracts more international brands than those in mainland China, some of which are still banned to avoid competition or sensitive issues.

–As for book/publication markets in Hong Kong (this is somehow my favorite subject), in mainland China the only approved national book seller is Xinhua Shudian, literally, New China Bookstore, whose nationwide network was established after 1949 by the communist party. The monopoly in book sales of Xinhua Shudian in China can be compared to America’s Barnes & Nobel, yet Xinhua Shudian is state-owned. China does NOT allow independent book publishers in order to “safeguard” the central government’s authority in media and expression. So Chinese private publishers usually cooperate with Chinese university presses, which are approved by the Party. There are a number of joint ventures in the Chinese publishing industry. Only university presses or state-approved joint ventures can apply for the ISBN–a code that uniquely identifies a title. The Chinese censors have to okay the contents before granting the ISBN.

In Hong Kong, the vetting system is open just like that in Taiwan and Macau. In recent years, the Chinese central government has tried to tighten control of publishing in Hong Kong but the intention can’t be too obvious, for the authorities have received rejection from Hong Kong publishers. I think this also answers why self-censorship has happened in some Hong Kong presses in response to the conflict. Another reason that Beijing can’t let their censorship in Hong Kong be too showy is because it will breach the promises of 50 years of no change of the “one country, two systems” model for the Hong Kong SAR.

In fact, more and more mainland writers would like to get published by out-of-mainland publishers–including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore etc.– to avoid the strict censorship by the authorities and to reach a wider global audience. For instance, foreign rights negotiation with out-of-mainland publishers seems to be less restricted than with the mainland top propagandists. This somehow encourages more Chinese writers to cooperate with out-of-mainland publishers with their translation work.

In the annual Hong Kong book festival, which is usually held in July or August, tens of thousands of mainland tourists flood to the Convention Center to get the first glimpse of the “banned” titles. Even the same title by the same author might have two versions–the mainland version and the overseas Chinese version–and different pricing, if the book is published by out-of-mainland presses.

With the help of the Internet, a number of so-called “banned titles” can be found online, either in full length or in excerpts. So the copyright issue is a huge challenge for mainland authors as many of their works are circulated via “illegal printing” or e-books without the author’s permission. It is no news that an author is unaware that his work has become a bestseller in China’s pirated book market. Yet he gets not a penny for royalties. The freer access for mainland Chinese to travel to Hong Kong and abroad also allows them to absorb information that is prohibited in their homeland. Granted, Hong Kongers should take pride in their freedom of expression, which was enjoyed during British colonism and was promised by Beijing after the handover in 1997. The known openness in publication and media in Hong Kong has been what South China, specifically Guangdong, is looking up to. (Take the recent Southern Weekly dispute in Guangzhou for instance.)

–It’s inevitable that the cooperation and exchange between mainland China and Hong Kong is deepened. The introduction of Mandarin Chinese lessons in Hong Kong classrooms is an example. Hong Kongers are eager to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese just as mainland Chinese are eager to learn English. Their aims are about the same–to promote economy with a bigger market. It echoes with that notorious phrase, “Xiang Qian Kan”–looking toward Money.

In fact, a few surveys show that today’s Hong Kong students do better in Cantonese-taught classrooms than in English-taught classrooms. Their English scores decline significantly compared to records before 1997. Speaking of education reform, Hong Kong is now applying the 3-3-4 education system, similar to that in mainland China and the U.S., instead of the old British format. Hong Kong students must study “Liang Wen San Yu”, literally, two written texts and three spoken languages. They are, Chinese and English as written texts and Mandarin, Cantonese and English as spoken languages. All these changes in Hong Kong education show closer ties between the city and mainland China, as oppose to the controversial “Patriotic Education,” which introduces the ruling party’s moral values and is taught in mainland China.

The latest New Year’s Day rally in Hong Kong shows there are mainly two camps in this city–the pro-Beijing group and the anti-Beijing group. The situation in Hong Kong is like the U.S. congress. At the moment, two fundamentally different ideas are confronting one another. The liberals will never give in to Beijing’s political agenda. The Hong Kong protesters reflect their own party interests–Hong Kong politics is quite complicated as voices come from various political groups in the legislative council. The complication makes putting a plan into action in Hong Kong harder than in one-party China.

In the eyes of many Hong Kong citizens, taking to the streets to protest is a manifestation of their intrinsic rights. I’m not surprised that Hong Kongers see that protests in the city are too frequent to mention. As submissive mainlanders put it, some of these protests are possibly only to make a fuss. What concerns Hong Kong people as well as many Cantonese supporters in Guangdong is that Beijing someday will silence the voice of dissent in Hong Kong. As Chinese philosopher Laozi says, things will develop in the opposite direction when they become extreme. The greater the political pressure from Beijing, the louder the Hong Kong protesters will be. Beijing faces a delicate situation here in terms of compromising Hong Kong’s democracy while strengthening its influence. The authorities hope that promoting the local economy in Hong Kong, such as easing mainland Chinese visas to visit Hong Kong, may improve the relationship with Hong Kong people. (This is somehow a tactic Bejing has been playing in the mainland for delaying political reform by focusing on China’s economic development in the past three decades. So is the tactic of boosting the cross-strait trades with Taiwan as an incentive to unify the island.)

–This may be biased but I tend to think Cantonese speakers consider themselves unique. Cantonese speakers group themselves differently from non-Cantonese speakers. Regionalism appears strong in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau where Cantonese is widely spoken. That partly explains why young Hong Kongers are proud of their Hong Kong people’s identity. The anti-Mandarin sentiment grows among Cantonese speakers as the Mandarin-speaking authorities try to suppress Cantonese and force it to die out. (Note the difference between “willing to learn Mandarin” and “making it compulsory to learn Mandarin”.)

Today, a good number of mainland tourists to Hong Kong are Mandarin speakers. The conflict in communication and habitual differences between the visitors and locals is obvious. Even Cantonese speakers in Guangdong look down upon Mandarin speakers in mainland China. And vice versa. When you read the news that Hong Kong people dislike tourists from mainland China, the hostility is often between Hong Kongers and the non-Cantonese speaking Chinese tourists. Many of them are the wealthy, Mandarin-speaking upstarts, who disregard Hong Kong’s public order and disrespect local culture, and those who take advantage of Hong Kong’s public resources, such as health care for pregnant women and seniors. In fact, Hong Kong people are fairly cordial with many Cantonese-speaking visitors, mainly from Guangdong.

–Hong Kong provides a platform for Cantonese-speaking Chinese as well as Mandarin-speaking Chinese to express themselves. Take the Diaoyu islands dispute with Japan for instance. I don’t think such a back-and-forth visit to the islands by boat led by activists would be possible if the campaign was organized by mainlanders (one must get approval from the authorities, which could take months for an answer). It was Hong Kong people who led the protest in this case.

Mainland Chinese know if you want to get “famous” in business, in speech or in any individual development, Hong Kong is a jumping board to the international world. A number of Chinese companies are listed in Hong Kong stock market because of its transparency and fairness. A number of celebrities, businesspeople, scholars from mainland China have become Hong Kong citizens because of its ease of travels and openness. Of course, the increase of immigrants from mainland China to Hong Kong have worsened the city’s chronic housing shortage. More and more mainland dissidents become visiting scholars in Hong Kong institutes. Nevertheless, Beijing has no desire to send these scholars back to mainland. The continous protests in Hong Kong can be considered as a weather vane of the demand for China’s democracy. Beijing can’t downplay Hong Kong’s public opinion, and she won’t.



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