When I chat with friends back home, via Facebook, Gmail or Skype, one of the most common questions I get is, 'How are things in China?' At the beginning, I'd think nothing of it, but recently, I've started to correct people and say, 'You mean Hong Kong?'
In the most technical sense, Hong Kong is indeed a part of China. Along with Macau, it is a Special Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China, 15 years in to the 50 year transition towards being a fully Chinese city in 2047. For now, we in Hong Kong enjoy a number of rights that mainland Chinese don't have. For example, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the freedom to peacefully protest. Or more specifically, if I was in China, I could not use Facebook, Blogspot or Youtube without trying to cheat the system (as many people do). Being an American born and raised on these basic freedoms, I consider them crucial and believe that having them really separates us from Mainland China.
An issue that really set myself and many other Hong Kongers off recently was the National Education controversy. It's complicated but in a nutshell, earlier this year, Chinese President Hu Jintao thought it would be good for Hong Kongers to learn more about the Motherland and proposed a curriculum that was very Chinese in nature. You know, ignore Tiannamen, ignore the Cultural Revolution's millions of deaths, Mao was awesome hands down etc. Well, the Hong Kong people didn't like this idea of future generations being taught conveniently edited history books and marched through the streets in huge numbers, eventually leading to the withdrawal of the program. For now. It was an inspring victory for the Hong Kong people, but a frightening taste of what might be on the way.
After living here for one year, I feel much more connected to the Hong Kong people than before. I'm not just an American surrounded by Chinese—I'm a Hong Kong resident occasionally bombarded by mainlanders. For example, I recently went to Ocean Park, which is a family friendly Hong Kong theme park not unlike the USA's Sea World. The place was teeming with Chinese tour groups and it was obvious just what a different mindset these people had. On the shuttle towards the park's entrance at the end of the day, dozens of people were rudely pushing to get onto the train, and sure enough, they all seemed to be mainland Chinese. How did I know? They were speaking Mandarin instead of the local Cantonese and had ridiculous name badges and/or hats on to show that they were part of a tour group. Don't get me started on the philosophy of sight-seeing in packs as the Chinese so often do.
I don't mean to sound xenophopic against the mainland Chinese. Some of the people I met on my Guilin trip were lovely and extremely hospitable, and those I saw at Ocean Park don't represent the full one billion. But within the past few months, thanks to recent news events and books I've read, I've started to feel anxious about the prospect of Hong Kong people slowly losing their rights. My Ocean Park trip may have been an ominous metaphor of Hong Kong people getting pushed aside and swallowed up. These are the same fears that led to the mass exodus in the '80s and '90s before the 1997 handover from Britain to China. 15 years later, Hong Kong still enjoys it's colonial era freedom and has more or less felt things are 'so far, so good' but who's to say if and when that might change?
Perhaps I am too concerned. My own personal situation is under no threat whatsoever. My school is a private school and my flat complex is also a private enterprise. Even if things change within a couple years, I may not even still be here. Or maybe I will. Regardless, I've developed a great respect for the people and city of Hong Kong and I'd hate to see that specialness turn into just another Chinese metropolis, graciously digesting the propaganda fed to them by the PRC. Or maybe China itself will evolve into a more democratic state as Thomas Friedman has suggested. One of the downsides of being an expat is that you worry about two countries futures. I'll save my concerns about America for another day.