SHANGHAI – Simmering tension between Hong Kong and mainland China has resurfaced in recent protests against Chinese rule over the former British colony. On New Year's Day, thousands marched to demand full democracy as Beijing works to limit nomination and voting rights ahead of a planned Hong Kong leadership election in 2017. Many demonstrators carried the former British colonial flag of Hong Kong, which has become a symbol of anti-Beijing protest. The event was widely reported by local and international media but received little attention from mainland Chinese media save that aimed at downplaying its numbers and importance.
The previous week, members of the anti-Beijing group "Hong Kong People First" trespassed onto the Hong Kong headquarters of the Chinese People's Liberation Army carrying the former colonial flag. The incident ended without violence when local police were called, and was reported by media in mainland China as well as in Hong Kong, likely because mainland officials believed the protesters' small number and radical tactics would cast them in a negative light. Democracy advocates in Hong Kong criticized the protest because of the illegal nature of the trespass onto military property, calling it "ineffective" and "unnecessary." Nationalistic mainland readers, meanwhile, condemned the protesters as "traitors," with some calling for them to be shot.
Resentment toward mainland China has grown in Hong Kong in recent years due to Beijing's efforts to impose mainland-style policies aimed at silencing critics and assimilating Hong Kong into China. These include persistent efforts by China to place limits on democracy, press freedom and civil liberties in Hong Kong. In 2012 protests erupted among Hong Kong residents as Beijing sought to impose mainland-style patriotic education on Hong Kong schoolchildren. In this case pro-Beijing local officials backed down from their efforts to "brainwash" the city's children. In 2013, a series of attacks by pro-Beijing thugs on news organizations and political activists further raised fears that Beijing is working to "mainlandize" Hong Kong, and is willing to resort to violence to achieve its aims. Beijing has also accused foreign "hostile forces" of sowing division between Hong Kong and mainland China by supporting democracy in Hong Kong, and warned the United States against "meddling" in Hong Kong affairs.
Polls in 2012 and 2013 in Hong Kong found that more than 60 percent of Hong Kong residents identify themselves as "Hong Kongers" rather than as "Chinese." As many as 92 percent would favor a return to British colonial rule if given a choice, prompting intense anger from Beijing. The appearance of Hong Kong's former colonial flag at pro-democracy and anti-Beijing protests has further prompted nationalistic mainland rage. In response to anti-mainland sentiment in Hong Kong, a prominent nationalistic Beijing academic publicly referred to Hong Kongers as "bastards," "thieves" and "dogs of British imperialists."
As Beijing pushes to assimilate Hong Kong into China, Hong Kongers are pushing back and asserting their own political identity. With the return of the former colony in 1997 from a century-and-a-half of British control, China's rulers may have gotten a bit more than they bargained for.
Mark C. Eades is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association and an educator based in Shanghai. You can follow him on Twitter @mceades.