By Nicola Nightingale
Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
Over the last half century, those in charge of Hong Kong have had an on-off relationship with mainland China ranging from tetchy to the more recent overly tactful.
It has seen — and suffered — violent, pro-Cultural Revolution riots in 1967; witnessed the occasionally ill-tempered negotiations before the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on its future; and read, and possibly enjoyed, the colourful insults thrown at the final colonial governor, Chris Patten, who was branded a snake and “a sinner for a thousand generations” by Beijing in the run-up to the 1997 handover.
Yet before the handover, before it became a semi-autonomous region under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, Hong Kong always had a connection with China beyond politics — through people. It was a place of, if not comfort and succour, at least refuge for hundreds of thousands of mainlanders. Vast numbers were illegal immigrants but, if they managed to avoid the attention of both the British and Chinese border guards, they were allowed to stay.
At least they were until 1962, when famine forced people across the border. In May of that year, some 50,000 mainlanders entered Hong Kong illegally in just 23 days. The authorities spluttered and introduced a policy of repatriation, which lasted for five years. The policy was revived in the 1970s when there was another major exodus.
Today, the flow continues, albeit a measured and legal one thanks to the one-way permit scheme that aims to connect mainlanders with their families in Hong Kong. The scheme, which is under mainland control and gives Hong Kong no say in the matter, allows up to 150 people a day to move to the city and make it their permanent home. Since 1997 more than 1m people have done so.
Then there are the tourists. During the “golden week” public holiday in October more than 1m mainlanders descended on the city. It was a welcome boost to the Hong Kong hotel and retail industry no doubt, but it made nipping out to grab a bite to eat or a few groceries a rather crushing experience — or so it seemed to this curmudgeonly expat.
Hong Kong is well provided with air, sea and land routes to China, but the authorities decided it needed two more.
A 55km mega bridge connecting Hong Kong with Macau and Zhuhai — price tag $20bn; immeasurable cost: 20 deaths and more than 500 injuries during its construction — was declared open at the Zhuhai end by Chinese president Xi Jinping on October 23.
A month earlier, the $11bn Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link opened, connecting the city to the mainland’s extensive high-speed rail network. It can hardly be a coincidence that earlier in September Beijing made it much easier for mainlanders to get a visa to visit Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Now visitors can apply in the place where they are living rather than returning to their registered household address, which is usually their birthplace.
The Public Security Ministry’s State Immigration Administration estimates that under the new system around 7.8m mainland residents “will enjoy the benefits of applying for group tour visas” to the three destinations every year.
There is a danger, of course, inherent in quoting any immigrant and visitor figures of conjuring up the primitive, and usually poisonous, fear of inundation. But the problem here is one of physical rather than mental space.
Gary Fan Kwok-wai, a Neo Democrat lawmaker in Hong Kong, summed up the situation succinctly when he told the South China Morning Post that the decision to streamline visa applications “ignored the highly limited capacity of a city as small as Hong Kong and the impact on local people’s daily life”.
Just 5 per cent of the 7.8m who stand to benefit from the change could “make Hong Kong sink”, he said.
Previous stories in this series:
“I am not Chinese”
“I’m officially almost British”
“Cantonese should be defended”
“Deserving to become a citizen”
“When church meets state”
“I don’t suddenly feel British”
“Goodbye to subsidised education”
“To be an American in Paris”
“There’s a snake under my desk!”
“Loaded words for movers abroad”
Photographs: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images; Corbis via Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images; VCG via Getty Images