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When the new chief executive of Hong Kong made his inaugural speech this weekend, he did so in Mandarin. One native of the Cantonese-speaking city said that made her feel alienated. If Hong Kongers were not allowed to vote for their leader, she said, at least the swearing-in ceremony could be conducted in their own language.
Fifteen years after the British – who were never too big on democracy or Cantonese either – handed Hong Kong back to China, the former colony is becoming increasingly Sinified. That is to be expected. It is reflected not only in the language in which Leung Chun-ying made his first remarks as leader, but also in the fact that he has close ties to Beijing and the Communist party – quite a departure from his predecessor, a bow-tie wearing remnant of the British civil service.
The Sinification of Hong Kong goes deeper. The amount of Mandarin spoken on the streets has risen palpably. Shopkeepers, fishing for the bulging mainland wallet, often greet customers in it. This year’s census shows that 48 per cent of Hong Kongers say they can speak it, overtaking English, at 46 per cent. Nearly a third of residents were born on the mainland. Then there’s the renminbi, ever more commonly accepted, alongside Hong Kong dollars. Hong Kong is the centre of Beijing’s efforts to internationalise its currency. Some in the territory have even floated the idea, once taboo, of breaking the Hong Kong dollar’s peg with the greenback and switching to a basket of currencies including the rmb.
Mainlanders are snapping up property. Last year, some 40 per cent of newly built luxury apartments went to Chinese buyers. Even the South China Morning Post, once a paper to be read over a boiled egg by pinstriped expats, is now edited by a mainlander, provoking not a little anguish about its independence. Everywhere, in other words, there are signs Hong Kong is becoming more Chinese. The line between it and the mainland – safeguarded by the principle of one country, two systems – is blurring.
Yet every action provokes a reaction; Hong Kong’s has been vigorous. It was on display this weekend when tens of thousands of protesters poured on to the streets, many voicing their dislike of Mr Leung, whom they see as being imposed on them. In recent months, anti-mainland sentiment, some of it unpleasant, has been rising. Hong Kongers have objected to everything from Chinese mothers crowding their maternity wards to company advertisements in simplified Chinese rather than the complicated Chinese characters used in Hong Kong.
In a recent survey 45 per cent of respondents identified themselves as “Hong Kongers”, up from 34 per cent at handover. Only 18 per cent put their primary identity as “Chinese”. Such definitions are open to misunderstanding. Most Hong Kongers are proud of China’s culture, history and impressive economic performance. The “China” that makes them nervous is the one run by a party, which some fear could impinge on the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kongers and limit their progress to universal suffrage.
From Beijing’s perspective, the Sinification of Hong Kong must be gratifying. But it carries dangers. Many mainlanders who watched Mr Leung’s speech were impressed by a leader who at least appeared to be addressing people’s problems. (Hong Kongers, used to grandstanding politicians, were less enamoured.)
As Hong Kong becomes more integrated with China, it has also become more engaged with mainland affairs. Recently, Hong Kongers have vociferously taken up the case of Li Wangyang, an activist who died in Hunan province shortly after being released from prison. In a mirror image, some Chinese farmers went to Hong Kong last weekend to march against land confiscations at home.
The relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland is evolving in complicated ways. In 1997 there were lofty hopes Hong Kong would somehow infect the mainland with its relative freedoms. That was wishful thinking. China was too big and on too much of a roll to take much notice. Yet as Hong Kong becomes more of a Chinese city, the liberties it cherishes are melding with the aspirations of politically stirring mainlanders.
Hong Kong is a Chinese city. Eventually, China will swallow it up. But on the way down, it may just get caught in the mainland’s throat.
The writer is the FT’s Asia Editor