As tens of thousands fill the streets of Hong Kong demanding Beijing allow open elections, organizers and supporters are distancing themselves from earlier Hong Kong-based campaigns that compared people from mainland China to vermin.
With some saying there is anti-mainland China sentiment among the ranks of the pro-democracy movement, the demonstration’s organizers are keen to distinguish themselves from their anti-mainlander counterparts — although they admit that some protesters may have negative feelings toward their neighbors to the north.
Last month the Chinese government in Beijing rejected open nominations for Hong Kong’s first ever direct elections for the region's leader, set for 2017. Beijing wants to pre-select candidates, something Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement says violates the Basic Law, which serves as Hong Kong’s constitution and promises universal suffrage.
In a media environment saturated with pro-Beijing rhetoric, Apple Daily, a popular broadsheet, has served an important platform for both anti-mainlander campaigns and the pro-democracy movement.
“There’s only one newspaper in Hong Kong that tends not to have that link with China and particularly takes anti-China [sentiment] or the opposition to China as their focus — that’s Apple Daily,” said Fu King-wa, media studies professor at Hong Kong University.
Fu explained that while other Hong Kong media may not have a direct link to Beijing, many of their owners and shareholders have business interests in the mainland and journalists there tend to “self-censor” stories relating to Chinese government affairs.
Where most of Hong Kong’s newspapers on Monday featured stories on the “chaos” generated by the demonstration the night before, Apple Daily covered the efforts of defiant protesters who remained on the streets as riot police unleashed tear gas into the crowds.
But Apple Daily has also published powerful anti-mainland images.
In February 2012, the newspaper ran a full-page ad, paid for by crowd-sourced funding, featuring a giant locust — representing mainlanders — looming over the Hong Kong skyline.
The ad, which targeted mainland mothers who allegedly come to Hong Kong to give birth so their children would have access to Hong Kong facilities, sparked widespread anger against mainland tourists.
Two years later, protesters declaring themselves “anti-locust” campaigners flooded Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district, with scuffles breaking out between Hong Kongers and mainlanders, injuring dozens.
More recently, amid a public outcry in May over a mainland Chinese child who urinated in a busy Hong Kong avenue, Apple Daily published an article on “Urine-gate,” decrying behavior the paper said “Hong Kong people would find insufferable.”
Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying is a key supporter of the pro-democracy movement and is said to help fund parties in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council seeking greater autonomy from Beijing. Lai was not available for comment at time of publication.
Fu said that although Apple Daily speaks to those opposed both to China’s government and its people, he is convinced that Hong Kongers are not blaming mainlanders for the actions of their government.
But Sara Zhong Hua, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), says that anti-Beijing and anti-mainland sentiment is indeed often conflated in Hong Kong, where mainlanders have been referred to as “uncivilized.”
“Anti-China or anti-Mainland [sentiment] is a reflection of the political movement. [Hong Kongers] want democracy. The central government doesn’t want to give it to them … So they also don’t like ordinary citizens. They don’t seem to differentiate between citizens and the government,” she said.
Zhong, who is from the mainland, said that while she supports the democracy movement, she believes she is seen as a second-class citizen.
“Myself and many mainland scholars in Hong Kong, we do support a political movement, a movement for democracy,” she said, “But with the growth of anti-China sentiment, we feel discriminated against and frustrated. So there is less we can say to support them.”
A participant in Sunday night’s pro-democracy demonstrations from mainland China, who asked to remain anonymous after receiving threats from police for commenting on social media on the Tiananmen Square massacre, said that he went to the protest despite feeling that some of the organizers were biased against him.
The demonstrator said that although he feels one of the leading organizations behind the protests, called Scholarism, has worked with publications like Apple Daily to “increase hatred” against mainlanders, he says there is an overwhelming need to stand with Hong Kongers for electoral freedoms that he hopes could sweep into the mainland.
“I consider I am a part of them tonight,” the demonstrator said.
Zhong said that some aspects of mainland Chinese culture that Hong Kongers deride are because China is in many ways still a developing country.
“People gradually learn manners in a public space … Usually, for developing countries, the economy will develop first, but many other aspects — the legal system, culture, ‘civilized’ manners — those changes will be very slow,” she said.
Meanwhile, protest organizers are distancing themselves from previous demonstrations against mainlanders.
Organizer Chan Kin-man, also a sociology professor at CUHK, was quick to draw the line between his policy-driven movement and earlier campaigns against mainlanders.
But, while he maintains that his movement is “independent” from the anti-locust drives, he says there are some people in the crowd who may feel resentment toward the mainland.
“They are particularly annoyed by the kind of values and that China is the power center,” he said, adding that the “younger people felt things about China violate the values they learned.”
One pro-democracy participant from Hong Kong, Gisele Cheng, 34, said that while the current movement for open elections should be distinguished from the Anti-locust Campaign, she sympathizes with the anti-mainlanders.
“The anti-locust protests are only the reaction to the overflow of mainlander tourists,” Cheng said. “Sometimes their behavior really pushes us to a corner and drives us crazy. Imagine you find human poop everyday on your door-step, your baby has to change their formula milk every month, because the mainlanders bought all the milk powder. [I’m] not even talking about the negative impact [mainlanders have] on property prices.”
Emily Lau Wai-hing, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party that supports electoral freedoms, agrees, saying the street demonstrations should not be confused with the anti-mainlander campaigns.
“Don’t mix the two. This one is for universal suffrage. This is to ask the Chief Executive [Leung Chun-ying] to step down,” she said, referring to the head of Hong Kong’s executive branch, whom the protest leaders have called to resign after the police’s retaliation against protesters.
But Lau’s political adversaries at the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), as pro-Beijing, pro-business party, observed that the Occupy movement may include some of the anti-mainlanders as well.
“The people who were involved in the anti-locust campaign are also likely involved [in Occupy],” said DAB chairman Tam Yiu-chung.
Tam says that Hong Kong should welcome mainlanders — and the money they spend.
“Hong Kongers are Chinese. We are a family. We also often go visit the mainland. We need to embrace each other. It’s good for the economy,” he said, “You can’t call mainland people locusts. That’s not fair.”
There were 40.7 million tourists from mainland China to Hong Kong in 2013, up nearly 17 percent from the previous year, according to Hong Kong’s Tourism Commission. Hong Kong has population of almost 7.2 million.
Tourism accounts for only 5 percent of Hong Kong’s economy, but is growing at an annual rate of roughly 20 percent, according to government statistics. And 75 percent of that tourism currently comes from mainland China.
Professor of comparative government and socialism at Peking University, Guo Jie, indicated that some of Hong Kong’s anti-mainland camp may suffer from the “post-colonial mindset” that Chinese manners are backward, but that “not all Hong Kongers think that way.”
“We are hearing this voice now, but that doesn’t mean it’s a majority,” Guo said. “The business community isn’t saying bad things about the mainland, because they need mainland business. People from different backgrounds have different things at stake.”