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Chinese mainlanders living in Hong Kong feel stuck between a rock and a hard place

Hong Kong wants its freedom, and I understand this goal. But I hope protesters do not mimic the behavior of the people they are fighting against.
Graffiti made by protesters on a China Construction Bank Tower in Hong Kong's business district on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.Kin Cheung / AP

A few days ago, I joined a private Facebook group. I was greeted by many familiar faces — college classmates, former co-workers — most of whom were mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong. As of right now, the group has around 117,000 members. Many are Chinese like me who have loved living in Hong Kong and credit Hong Kong with influencing their worldview. And yet, we now find ourselves between a rock and a hard place as Hong Kong protesters channel their hatred for China toward anyone who is perceived to be from the mainland.

We now find ourselves between a rock and a hard place as Hong Kong protesters channel their hatred for China towards anyone who is perceived to be from the mainland.

Around 1.5 million Chinese mainlanders migrated to Hong Kong after July 1, 1997. More than 10 percent of them were lured in by the promise of the “Mainland Talents and Professionals” scheme, or were students who chose to stay in Hong Kong after graduating from university. You can find many of these educated young professionals in the private Facebook group.

I, too, first came to Hong Kong chasing the promise of a liberal education. I moved from southern China to Hong Kong in 2007, attended the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and became a permanent Hong Kong citizen in 2014. My decadelong exposure to Hong Kong culture has changed me in many ways. The island’s freedom of speech and freedom of the press inspired me to become a writer. And I have long admired Hongkongers’ bravery in shouting their demands in the face of authority; that spirit influenced my writing style.

In 2014, when the Umbrella Movement took place as a response to what Hongkongers felt was less than universal suffrage, I was inspired by my friends and protested alongside with them. We held hands and sang “Beneath the Lion Rock Mountain” (a song known for representing Hong Kong spirit) together. During that protest, I encountered a lot of peaceful discussion groups and even street artists. Indeed, the Umbrella Movement earned a reputation for being one of the politest protest movements ever, as protesters did homework and collected recyclables at occupation sites.

However, while I considered the Umbrella Movement a strong demonstration of freedom of expression, my friends viewed it as a failure.

That is perhaps why this year’s protest is much more violent.

As China has become more aggressive and more assertive on the international stage, the disconnect between mainlanders and Hongkongers has become wider and wider. Protesters frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress are now starting to turn that anger on mainlanders living in Hong Kong.

Last week, after I refused to retweet video clips of protesters that I found lacked credibility, a number of them unfriended me on Facebook. One blamed me and all the mainlanders living in Hong Kong for “stealing jobs and social resources." Another friend told me that I, and all the other mainlanders, should leave Hong Kong and never come back. That, she said, would be best for both of us.

Recently, a mainlander JPMorgan banker was beaten by protesters outside the company’s main Hong Kong offices when he said “we are all Chinese” in Mandarin, an unpopular statement in the current climate.

On Oct. 10, around 1,400 students and alumni had an open conversation with Rocky Tuan, vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. When a female mainlander student spoke about how she loved Hong Kong but was saddened by the all the damage being done by protesters, she was interrupted by Hongkongers shouting profanities.

And yet, many protesters have been seen breaking, smashing and torching restaurants, stores, banks, cafes and other businesses with a connection to China.

This hatred has even at times extended to Mandarin-speakers from Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and the United States. Writer Jiayang Fan, an American citizen, faced a barrage of racist inquiries while covering the Hong Kong protests. “My Chinese face is a liability,” she later wrote on Twitter.

When I scroll through all the posts in that aforementioned private Facebook group, I witness a crisis of identity: If you live in a place long enough, if you speak the language, have friends and pay local taxes, eventually, you assume that you will be accepted as one of them. Now it appears that is not the case for mainlanders like myself. Maybe we were always viewed as the “other.”

It is sad to see Hongkongers fail to realize we mainlanders do not equal the Communist Party. Many of us believe in democracy and freedom. A lot of us sought out a Western education and absorb information from Western media. We don’t always value economic success and political stability over personal freedom. We do not agree with everything the Communist Party does.

While people living in mainland China might not agree with my above comment on the Communist Party, people from Hong Kong would call me a “yellow thug.” Where do people like me fit in? We are vilified by both sides.

Hong Kong wants its freedom, and I understand this goal. But I hope they do not mimic the behavior of the people they are fighting against. I hope they do not become the people they hate.