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By Steve Kelman

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China's problems spill over into Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Hong Kong (Wikimedia photo)

Since 1997, Hong Kong has been part of China. One can see the acceptance of this in the terminology used by the Chinese media. For example, in an article about the new Chinese government cabinet, the South China Morning Post referred to the "nation's" new cabinet. The same newspaper referred to Hong Kong's chief executive visiting the "capital" in reporting on his trip to Beijing. The Chinese flag flies in Hong Kong, higher than Hong Kong's own local flag, which features a stylized five-petal orchid flower on a red background. The Chinese government, not Hong Kongers, designed and adopted this flag.

However, there are some big buts...

One thing I have noticed during this visit to Hong Kong is that so few flags are on display – far fewer hotels or buildings feature flags than is the case in China itself (or in the flag-waving United States). It almost seems that rather than displaying the Chinese flags, many just choose to show no flag at all.

In recent years, it appears as if Hong Kong's sense of cultural independence from the mainland has increased, not – as one might have expected with the passage of time and the greater distance from the British colonial era – decreased. There is a lot of talk about Hong Kong "core values" of clean government and integrity, reflecting pride in Hong Kong's highly successful efforts reduce corruption and a not-so-implicit comparison with the high level of corruption in China.

While I have been in Hong Kong, there has been a flap about a Hong Kong TV journalist roughed up in Beijing when he tried to visit the home of the wife of Chinese dissident Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobao, who is under house arrest.

Recent sources of tension between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders have involved Chinese problems spilling over to the island. The most dramatic involves purchases of packaged food – especially infant formula -- by Chinese visitors to Hong Kong who don't trust the safety of Chinese food and want to bring safer food back to China. With Hong Kong food shelves regularly denuded of supplies of such items, the Hong Kong government recently took the dramatic step of limiting purchases by Chinese visitors to two tins of infant formula. (I have not been able to get a good explanation for why the multinationals such as Nestle's that sell these products in Hong Kong cannot just direct larger supplies to Hong Kong to meet the demand. The products are produced elsewhere in Asia anyway, and it the total demand increase coming from the Chinese tourists must be relatively modest.)

More generally, Chinese tourists – and small-business traders – buy everyday-use products in Hong Kong, take them back to China, and sell them at a profit (because of higher taxes and less competitive prices in China). I took the subway to a suburb on the Chinese border which is a center of such purchases – Chinese tourists are walking around with big roller suitcases and buying products from what was formerly an anonymous local shopping mall, and Hong Kong police monitor the subway stop headed one stop further to the Chinese border, under big signs stating that Chinese may not take with them more than 45 pounds of products.

A second problem spilling over from China involves many Chinese parents who come to Hong Kong to give birth to a child. This reflects a mix of Mainland concerns. Some are hoping to circumvent China's one-child limitation. Some believe the quality of hospital care is better. Some want their children to be born in Hong Kong and receive Hong Kong residency, an insurance policy against a deteriorating situation in China. Meanwhile, Hong Kongers are not happy about the strain this has created in the hospital system.

As with much of politics involving China, there is real irony in the sources of support on Hong Kong for the Mainland. Despite China's communist past, the most reliable supporters of the Chinese government are the super-rich, who have investments in China and find keeping in the good graces of the authorities far more important than ideology. Indeed, added to the irony is that to some extent growing anti-Mainland sentiment in Hong Kong reflects a sort of populism of the ""99 percent" upset by the power of the rich on the island.

Posted on Mar 19, 2013 at 12:09 PM

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