Tensions between Hongkongers and mainland Chinese have escalated sharply amid a series of protests in the former British colony against the influx of mainland tourists and parallel goods traders during the period before and after the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Some mainland netizens found the protests offensive, while a fabricated image of a Hong Kong movie director's Facebook status, in which he appeared to be calling mainland Chinese ‘dogs’, has sparked an outburst of hatred towards Hong Kong.
As the image went viral on Chinese social media the infamous censors of the People's Republic — never keen to show Hong Kong in a good light — did nothing to stem the wildfire.
Following its unification with China in 1997, Hong Kong has maintained a high level of political and economic autonomy under the policy of ‘One Country Two Systems’.
Yet China has appeared to be going back on that agreement in recent years, by depriving Hong Kong citizens’ right to nominate their city's top leader, which has led to broad mistrust of the Beijing government there. Political tensions have been transformed into growing social conflicts between the two populations over the years.
The latest round of acrimony stems from the food security crisis in mainland China, which has created a booming demand for goods from Hong Kong.
In addition, the multiple entrance visa policy that allows unrestricted entry for visitors from 49 mainland Chinese cities and provinces has resulted in large inflows of mainland tourists. In 2014, the total number of visits to Hong Kong from mainland China reached 60 million. Some — known as parallel traders — take advantage of the visa for business opportunities.
Everyday, parallel traders collect daily necessities including infant milk formula, medicines, snacks and even rice from stores and pharmacies in Hong Kong. The traders then order the goods hand-carried across the border to mainland China.
The situation has severely hampered the daily lives of residents from the northern districts of the New Territories near the border, so-called after concessions made by China to Great Britain in 1898, as local stores there have begun catering to the needs of parallel traders buying in bulk rather than locals.
In response to the tensions, Hong Kong's government has promised to raise the issue with Beijing, requesting authorities amend the multiple entry visa policy and impose a quota on entries into Hong Kong.
Chinese netizens found the protests against parallel traders during the Chinese Lunar New Year offensive as photos showing Hong Kong protesters finger-pointing at Chinese tourists travelled back to mainland China via social media.
[How dare tiny colony Hong Kong insult China like this] In Hong Kong, mainland Chinese tourists are called “locusts”. Last Sunday, a protest took place in a shopping center on the outskirts of the city along the Kwoloon-Canton railway line. Hong Kong police arrested six protesters. One of the protesters was holding a British-Hong Kong colony flag. Some yelled “get lost. go home” and shooed the tourists away. This photo is shocking.
‘Exercise book’, a popular mainland Chinese microblogger that has written in support of Hong Kong's democratic development and is aware that the protesters represent an extreme minority, also found the protest photos shocking:
看到這照片之後，我對這些身份不明的示威者間充滿厭惡，甚至有了打人的衝動。。。這些人的身份與來歷，我無從查起，是否受到煽動或者指派，也無從獲知，但這種惡毒嘴臉與無耻舉動的確是「發自肺腑的真誠」。[…] 你們對著觀光購物者表達你們對水客的抗議你們不覺得自已是傻逼麼？世界上有哪一個地方禁止觀光者購物麼？沒有 […] 所以，你們不是真正的示威者，你們是老鼠屎。挑撥矛盾，制造禍端，引起紛爭。。。你們不配住在香港，朝鮮是你們最好的歸宿。
Upon seeing this photo, I find the anonymous protesters so disgusting. I even want to beat them up… I don't know these people's background, whether or not they are being assigned or instigated to do such a thing. But from their shameless and angry gestures, their hatred is sincere. […] Don't you find yourself stupid for protesting against shopping tourists in order to express your anger towards the parallel traders? Where in the whole world would ban tourists from shopping? Nowhere! […] You are not real protesters, you are rat shit, stirring up conflicts, scourges and disputes… you don't deserve to live in Hong Kong, North Korea is the best settlement for you.
Fuel to the fire
As if feelings were not already at boiling point, a photoshopped screen-capture of Hong Kong movie director Pang Hoi Cheung's Facebook status went viral on a large number of Wechat friend's circles on February 26.
The fake screen-capture image with Pang's photo read:
Earning money from you mainlanders doesn't mean [we have to] respect you. [We can] still treat you like dogs.
Underneath the photoshopped image an anonymous user had attached a message calling to cut electricity, gas, water and supplies of agricultural products to Hong Kong from mainland China:
Support the abolition of multiple individual travel visa policy and let Hong Kong people enjoy their quiet lives. At the same time, support the cancellation of electricity supply from the Guangdong [metropolis in mainland China] electric grid, water supply from the Dong-Shen water supply project, the “three express trains” for the importation of agricultural products, as well as the gas that flows via the Xier gas pipe. Let Hongkongers enjoy their quietness and reduce the pressure on people in Guangdong! I am Chinese! (Must forward this!)
Movie director Pang, an outspoken supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, was an obvious target for a viral campaign. Despite the fact he explained via Weibo that the image was fabricated, it had already travelled far and stirred up hatred among mainland Chinese netizens.
Angry comments echoing the call for cutting electricity, water and food supply flooded all major social media platforms.
Distorting the conversation
It seems unlikely that such a massive mobilisation of online public opinion could have happened without a nod from China's web censors. Topics related to Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement have been subject to heavy censorship on Chinese social media platforms, yet authorities allow pro-Beijing newspapers and groups based in Hong Kong to lead online discussions.
With an attempt to address the distorted communication across the border, inmediahk.net compared the number of followers of pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong on Facebook and Weibo to show the political role being played by China's mouthpieces:
三大左報更重要的功能，是製作「給內地人看的香港新聞」，三大左報在在內地社交媒體均有「強大」的傳播力，其中在新浪微博上，《香港商報》有近30萬粉絲，《香港文匯網》有近30萬粉絲，《大公報 – 大公網》更有近133萬粉絲。
The major function of the three newspapers is to write ‘Hong Kong news for mainland Chinese’, their reach in mainland Chinese social media is great. On Sina Weibo, Hong Kong Commercial Daily has 300,000 fans, Wen Hui Bao also has around 300,000, Tai Kung Pao's number of fans has reached 1,330,000.
The news that [these newspapers] distribute has become the main source of information for mainland Chinese netizens discussing Hong Kong. These netizens consider yellow ribbon [pro-democracy Hongkongers] as the driving force of Hong Kong society's antagonism towards mainland Chinese and they cannot differentiate between the protesters from the Umbrella Movement and anti-parallel trade campaigns. Some of them even see [the yellow ribbon] as supporters of Hong Kong's independence. As tensions between China and Hong Kong escalate, mainland Chinese public opinion will not support democratic development in Hong Kong.