Tea Leaf Nation

Why It's Dangerous to Say 'We Are All Chinese'

A starlet discovers the hard way how much Hong Kongers dislike their mainland bretheren.

When 34-year-old Hong Kong singer and actress Ella Koon penned a column for the respected local paper Ming Pao on Jan. 24 entitled "Kick Out Hatred and Discrimination," she was trying to beseech her fellow Hong Kong residents to be more tolerant toward mainland Chinese visitors. Instead, she has found herself pilloried online in a display of hatred toward mainlanders that's become eerily typical over the past several years.

Hong Kong, a financial center and Special Administrative Region of China, is culturally and linguistically distinct from the mainland. Hong Kongers speak Cantonese while mainlanders mostly speak some form of Mandarin; Hong Kong has a history as a British colonial outpost that China lacks; and Hong Kongers still generate far more income per capita than their mainland counterparts. In her column, Koon wrote, "In the face of unavoidable cultural differences, we" -- meaning Hong Kong residents -- "should have a tolerant heart" for mainlanders, because "we are all Chinese." Accordingly, Hong Kongers should not mock those who are "of their own kind." Koon compared the cultural schism with her experience of studying in the United Kingdom as a high school student, when she noticed that locals often laughed at her ignorance of social mores, like the unspoken requirement to hold back a burp after a satisfying meal.

Koon's column might sound uncontroversial to the politically correct. But correctness is not the order of the day in Hong Kong, where the opinion piece went over like a lead balloon: Netizens besieged Koon's Facebook fan page with messages of hatred and intolerance soon after the article's publication. (Koon's Facebook page, which has over 280,000 fans, was scrubbed of all content posted after Jan. 13, but the vitriol lives on in mirror sites, Chinese-language articles, and discussions elsewhere on Facebook.) Writing in webby English, one user, whose comment was typical, called for Koon to apologize for her column because "the Truth is, Chinese from The Red Soviet-China r intentionally invading us," (sic) an incursion which includes "raping the civilization we built." Hong Kongers also raged against the star for preaching tolerance for what users called mainland "locusts" who are "invading" Hong Kong and "taking its resources." Some took special offense at Koon's suggestion that Hong Kongers and mainlanders are "all Chinese."

Anti-mainland sentiment had been running high in Hong Kong, as the former British colony struggles to adjust to its status as a special Chinese city. The United Kingdom returned the city to the mainland in 1997, with the caveat that the city would continue to operate much as before for 50 years, before being fully absorbed into the much larger, Communist-controlled People's Republic. But many believe Beijing is going back on its word. Critics point to encroachment of Hong Kong's freedom of press, the lack of direct elections of Hong Kong's chief executive -- which presumably give Beijing greater opportunity to meddle -- and Beijing's control over Hong Kong's immigration policy. But ordinary Hong Kongers are more likely to be angry at the quotidian: Photographs of mainland tourists crowding city streets, eating on Hong Kong subway, or cutting in line regularly go viral on Hong Kong's social media. (The rancor goes both ways: Influential Chinese commentator Kong Qingdong infamously called Hong Kongers "dogs" in January 2012.)

Hong Kongers can at least be forgiven for feeling outnumbered. Approximately 40.7 million mainland tourists visited Hong Kong in 2013 -- more than five times Hong Kong's population of 7.2 million. While the Hong Kong government estimates that mainland tourists created more than 110,000 jobs in the region in 2012 alone, several surveys have shown that ordinary Hong Kongers do not believe that they have benefited from the influx. Instead, they resent mainland tourists for overcrowding subway cars, driving up commercial rents, and emptying store shelves of baby formula. New immigrants to Hong Kong face even more ire for taking jobs and the benefits given to residents, like school spots for children and hospital beds.

Koon's foray into Hong Kong-mainland relations proved a bit too much to handle; the star broke down in tears at a Jan. 27 public appearance under what mainland paper Guancha called "the pressure of public opinion." It's a force that is sure to have other would-be peacemakers on notice. Mainland Chinese will continue to flood into Hong Kong, but those seeking a warm welcome may want to wait a while. 

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Tea Leaf Nation

Red Carpet Follies

China's biggest TV show is losing its grip on the public imagination. 

For a live television event with a stunning 700 million-plus viewers, the New Year's gala on China's Central Television (CCTV), the country's largest station, has surprisingly few true fans. As has been the case since the first gala aired in 1983, Chinese celebrated their main holiday, the Lunar New Year -- which fell on Jan. 31 -- by sitting down to watch a show that fuses Super Bowl-style hype, the performances and breathless people-watching of the Grammys, and the comedy of a skit show.

Chinese authorities, who carefully vet the show's content, likely see it as a once-in-a-year chance to reach the hearts and minds of a populace spending time with family, and thus presumably more receptive to sugarcoated messages about stability and cultural unity. But that hasn't been working for several years, and Thursday's show reminded viewers why.

The 2014 gala ringing in the Year of the Horse was a hash, with acts jangling uncomfortably against one another. Soon after the show featured a short section from the Mao-era ballet classic Red Detachment of Women, French film darling Sophie Marceau emerged to sing a cover of La Vie en Rose. In another odd couplet, men dressed in peasant costumes belted out a folk tune native to arid Shaanxi province, right before young starlet Wang Xiaomin sang while clad in a bright pink-sequined mini-dress.

Censorship, which has long plagued the gala, appeared particularly pernicious this year. Cui Jian, a Chinese rock legend whose song "Nothing to My Name" is often called the anthem for the suppressed 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, was reportedly slated for the show, only to withdraw just weeks beforehand because he refused to tone down his lyrics. And the show featured only five comedic skits -- the lowest number in history -- likely because those have historically tended to satirize social problems that CCTV this year appears especially unwilling to highlight.

The gala is a four-hour infomercial for a particular conception of China -- a large, vibrant country living in harmony -- that Beijing hopes to sell to the entire Chinese-speaking world. The show always features celebrities from the increasingly estranged Hong Kong special administrative region as well as Taiwan, the quasi-sovereign nation that Beijing calls a "rogue province," as if they were estranged cousins bringing potluck dishes to a family dinner to make up for past rancor. Viewers are continuously reminded -- in ways both subtle and overt -- that all of the above is possible only under the helmsmanship of the Communist Party.

But that message has become much harder to deliver in an age of social media. Although the gala now features glitzy computerized effects and world-class production values, it cannot help but look an awful lot like the vestige of a bygone era. Viewers in a rapidly fragmenting media environment have become somewhat inoculated to Communist image management, and they also have more competition for their attention: In spite of rampant censorship, Chinese citizens are similar to Westerners in that they are bombarded with virtual games, web videos, and social networks like Weibo and WeChat. By contrast, when CCTV first aired a live New Year's gala in 1983, few Chinese even had televisions. The gala's cultural impact reached its zenith in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, when it was a celebrity-making machine that started cultural trends. Even as late as 2011, some lines from its comedic skits became instant national catchphrases.

Those days appear over. Even reliably nationalistic state outlet Global Times ran an op-ed in February 2013 titled, "CCTV's Spring Festival Gala: Glory Days Gone," which detailed a 6 percent decline in ratings from 2012 to 2013 and lamented that "the iconic program" faces brutal criticism "from the minute it starts to be produced." Meanwhile, Lu Yitao, one of the assistant directors of this year's gala, confessed that before getting the job, he was just another "ordinary viewer" who kept the show on as background noise while the family feasted, chatted, and played mahjong. He and his family were "watching everything," he said in an interview with China News Weekly. But that also meant, he said, they were "not really watching anything."

Photo: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images