Hong Kong vs. China: What's All the Fighting About?

Hongkongers Protest
Protesters hold placards as they take part in a rally against the extradition bill ahead of 2019 G20 Osaka summit at Edinburgh Place in Central district on June 26, 2019 in Hong Kong, China.

Anthony Kwan / Getty Images 

Hong Kong is a part of China, but it has a unique history that affects the way people from Hong Kong (also known as Hongkongers) interact with and perceive the mainland today. To understand the longstanding feud that keeps Hongkongers and mainland Chinese from getting along, you need to first understand the basics of Hong Kong’s modern history.

The History of Hong Kong

Hong Kong was occupied by the British army and then subsequently ceded to England as a colony as a result of the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century. While it had previously been considered part of the Qing dynasty empire, it was ceded to the Brits in perpetuity in 1842. And although there were some minor changes and periods of upheaval, the city remained a British colony, in essence, up until 1997, when control was formally handed over to the People’s Republic of China.

Because it had been a British colony during the formative years of the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong was quite different from mainland China. It had a democratic system of local government, a free press, and a culture that was deeply influenced by England. Many Hongkongers were suspicious or even fearful of the PRC’s intentions for the city, and indeed some fled to Western countries prior to the takeover in 1997.

The People's Republic of China, for its part, assured Hong Kong that it would be allowed to retain its self-governing democratic system for at least 50 years. It is currently considered a “Special Administrative Region” and not subject to the same laws or restrictions as the rest of the People’s Republic of China.

Hong Kong vs. China Controversies

The sharp contrast in system and culture between Hong Kong and the mainland has caused a fair amount of tension in the years since the handover in 1997. Politically, many Hongkongers have grown increasingly resentful of what they see as increasing mainland meddling in their political system. Hong Kong still has a free press, but pro-mainland voices have also taken control of some of the city’s major media outlets, and in some cases have caused controversy by censoring or downplaying negative stories about China’s central government.

Culturally, Hongkongers and mainland tourists frequently come into conflict when the mainlanders’ behavior doesn’t live up to Hongkongers' strict British-influenced standards. Mainlanders are sometimes derogatorily called “locusts,” a reference to the idea that they come to Hong Kong, consume its resources, and leave a mess behind when they leave. Many of the things Hongkongers complain about—spitting in public and eating on the subway, for example—are considered socially acceptable on the mainland.

Hongkongers have been especially annoyed by mainland mothers, some of whom come to Hong Kong to give birth so that their children can have access to the relative freedom and the superior schools and economic conditions in the city as compared to the rest of China. In past years, mothers also went to Hong Kong to buy massive quantities of milk powder for their infants, as the supply on the mainland was distrusted by many following the tainted milk powder scandal.

Mainlanders, for their part, have been known to lash back at what some of them see as “ungrateful” Hong Kong. People's Republic of China nationalist commentator Kong Qingdong, for example, caused a major controversy in 2012 when he called Hong Kong people “dogs,” a reference to their alleged nature as submissive colonial subjects, which led to protests in Hong Kong.

Can Hong Kong and China Ever Get Along?

Trust in mainland food supplies is low, and Chinese tourists are not likely to change their behavior significantly in the immediate future, nor is the People's Republic of China government likely to lose interest in influencing Hong Kong politics. Given the significant differences in political culture and systems of government, it is likely that tension between Hongkongers and some mainland Chinese will remain for some time to come.