Lost and afraid in city I used to love

Local | Shuli Ren 26 Nov 2019

I am one of more than two million mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong. And, like many of them, I have grown alarmed and disillusioned by the anti-Chinese rhetoric some locals have taken up as they battle for greater democratic freedoms. Many of us moved here precisely so we could enjoy similar liberties. The hate that's infecting the city threatens to alienate even those who could be the protesters' strongest allies.

In 1996, I left my hometown Shanghai for the US, to gain a proper liberal arts education and see the world. In 2010, I swapped the spreadsheets of my banking job for WordPress and returned - to Hong Kong - hoping for a different kind of adventure. I wanted to understand the new China, and write about its meteoric rise and inevitable stumbles. Hong Kong, where freedom of speech had long been treasured, seemed like the perfect perch for an aspiring journalist.

At first, I did not care much for the city. Apartments are notoriously cramped and neighbors can be aloof if one doesn't speak Cantonese. Within a year or two, however, I fell in love. I loved the city's proximity to the mainland, its incredible efficiency and the way its traditional culture flourished amid a steel jungle. I found journalism exhilarating. I discovered yoga. Often, at dawn, walking to the office or the yoga studio, I would marvel at my luck. I could think of nowhere else I would rather have been.

Now, though, all I feel is sadness.

Since June, as street protests sparked by the introduction of an extradition bill have grown more chaotic and violent, mainlanders like myself have felt less and less welcome in the city we call home. We've all heard about the mainlander who got punched in broad daylight in Central for saying, "We are all Chinese."

We keep quiet and adopt low profiles. Shop owners in my neighborhood have warned me to be careful because I look distinctly different from local Cantonese. I've stopped speaking Mandarin in public.

Even still, nasty attacks have become disturbingly common. "Go back to the mainland!" I was told at one dinner debate over politics. Another time, a local accused mainlanders like myself of "flooding out" native Hong Kongers.

Roughly 30 percent of Hong Kong's 7.5 million residents were born in the mainland, the latest census data show. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number one topic of discussion for many of us now is the possibility of moving back. For instance, I've happily discovered that I can leapfrog China's Great Firewall - an important consideration for any journalist hoping to work in the mainland - by using new browsing tools.

Meanwhile, parents with the means are taking their children out of local schools and putting them into the international system, all the way across the border in Shenzhen. Not wanting their children to be bullied is, of course, one motivating factor. More importantly, many parents don't want their children to grow up hating China.

The irony is that in the past two decades, China itself has tamed some of its local prejudices - not through propaganda campaigns but through urbanization. Thanks to mass migration - a deep pool of more than 280 million workers has spread across the country - city-dwellers especially have bought into the idea that China is a melting pot.

Driving away mainlanders cannot possibly further the protesters' cause. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Hong Kong has attracted more than US$115 billion in foreign portfolio investment, or roughly one-third of its annual GDP, based on my estimates. While the city's stable legal and financial systems are obviously a magnet, foreigners wouldn't be parking their money here if Hong Kong weren't situated next to the mainland. And, without mainlanders working here and serving as a bridge to the new China, I wonder how many foreigners would feel comfortable investing in that wild land.

More directly, mainland tourists account for about 40 per cent of Hong Kong's retail sales, while the city's retail, restaurants and hotels employ roughly half a million people. What will happen to their livelihoods when those tourists are too scared to cross the border?

If the central government had qualms about taking a hard line against the protesters before, it surely doesn't now that they enjoy negligible support from mainland Chinese. An even simpler strategy would be to let Hong Kong decline slowly. Neighboring Shenzhen, home to local champions such as Huawei Technologies and Tencent Holdings, is already keen to steal away high-tech firms.

This is not just a question of money. I am not the only liberal mainlander living in Hong Kong. We root for the city's democratic advances. After all, why did we leave China in the first place? Why shouldn't Hong Kong, one of the world's wealthiest and most global metropolises, be governed by its people?

Yet, our support for the protests is rapidly dwindling because we suspect that the anger on the streets has less and less to do with the city's political system and more to do with a nativist dislike of mainlanders and immigrants.

I applaud that Hong Kongers are battling for democracy and accountability. But, here's the thing with democracy: we can agree to disagree.

I still love this city and want it to succeed. But, I hope my Hong Kong neighbors understand that no true democracy will emerge if people like me are too afraid to walk its streets.

Bloomberg

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