A few days ago, Hong Kong and Chinese media reported on the case of two mainland Chinese tourists who let their child urinate on a street in the Hong Kong district of Mong Kok. Videos shot by passers-by show a crowd of angry Hong Kongers gathering around the couple, shouting at them, and grabbing the child's pushchair to prevent them from going away; the mainland couple yelling back at the crowd, while the child, frightened by the clamour, cried (watch video below).
This is only the last of a large number of similar incidents, many of which have been documented on social media, thanks to modern technology and the readiness of Hong Kongers' to film unusual things and upload them online.
Just a few days ago, I had a conversation with a friend from Hong Kong who came to visit, and we also talked about the topic of mainland tourists in Hong Kong. I think her view represents that of a large part of the Hong Kong population: in recent years, Hong Kong has been overrun by swarms of mainlanders, and too many of them make Hong Kong a worse place to live in.
There are several reasons why Hong Kongers dislike mainland tourists. I think the most recurrent are:
- mainlanders are uncivilised
- they buy luxury goods, and in this way they destroy Hong Kong's small local shops. Big department store chains, luxury brands and jewelleries that serve mostly mainland tourists conquer Hong Kong's streets and displace small businesses
- they buy too many flats, driving up home prices
- they take advantage of Hong Kong's welfare state and freedom, and many of them go to Hong Kong to have their babies or to live off government subsidies
In short, mainlanders as a group are made responsible for the decline of Hong Kong's quality of life, way of life, and often also for the decline of the middle class.
The controversy surrounding mainland tourists is heated and very divisive. It manifests the contradiction of the “One country, two systems” model, on which Hong Kong's unification with the PRC was based. Despite the fact that Hong Kong is de facto integrated into the mainland's economy and that many Hong Kongers live and invest in the mainland, the relationship between the two sides is all but clear and coherent. It is, indeed, an extremely contradictory and ambivalent relationship.
But should mainlanders truly be blamed for all the bad things people say about them?
First of all, I would like to point out one principle that in my opinion is fundamental: there is no such thing as collective guilt. Guilt is always individual. Mainlanders who behave badly should be held fully responsible for their actions, but the blame cannot be abstractly extended to all mainlanders as a group, including those who haven't done anything wrong. Unfortunately, blaming an entire group is something that happens all too often, not only in Hong Kong.
Nevertheless, I agree with the Hong Kongers who condemn mainland tourists that make their city dirty. Some mainland netizens have defended the parents who let their child pee on the street, saying that a child in that situation cannot help, and that parents are also stressed and don't know any better way of solving the problem. However, I would like to point that children from other nationalities don't seem to have such urgent need to pee everywhere and that probably this is just a matter of mentality and habits.
However, I think we should be careful not to blame the whole group of mainland tourists, or the entire Chinese society.
I have met many mainland Chinese who have absolutely nothing in common with the stereotype of the uncivilised and arrogant Chinese. This may be due to their education or family background. Let me tell you one of many examples.
In 2012 I was invited by a Hong Kong friend to visit her university. She said that she had been planning to cook an Italian recipe: “pasta alla Bolognese”, and she wanted my help. She asked me if I wanted to join her and one of her fellow students – a mainland Chinese - in making this experiment. I gladly agreed.
I met them at Shatin station. We went to a big supermarket, bought the ingredients, and then we took the Metro to University Station. Then we walked to their beautiful, modern dormitory, which really impressed me (check out a few pictures I took at the Chinese University of Hong Kong). Unfortunately, we had forgotten to buy wine, so I and the girl from the mainland went to a nearby supermarket on the campus, while my Hong Kong friend began cooking.
As we walked, we chatted and had an interesting conversation. She was a very nice girl, very mature for her age, and clever; she was funny and had good manners. When we returned to the dormitory, we did our best to prepare a good Bolognese, and, despite some difficulties, we made it. As we were cooking, other students gathered in the dining room and watched us. They were curious (by the way, I was the only Westerner), and when we finished cooking, we shared the food with all of them.
Some of these students were Hong Kongers, others were mainlanders. When I think of them, and when I think of all the mainland Chinese friends I met in Germany or Italy, I can't understand what they might have in common with the rude tourists and the uncivilised mainlanders people complain about. To be sure, many mainlanders are different from 'us' Westerners and other East Asians in that they have grown up in a state that is unlike any other in the world. It is a state that has a Communist one-party government, a country with a long and complex history, a country that has experienced terrible upheavals, wars, and crises.
But at least many people who have a high education don't seem to me to be that different from the rest of us. When I think of mainland China, I don't just think of its government or the misbehaviour of tourists; I think of the many people with whom I have shared a part of my life as a student, whom I met every week, with whom I went out to dinner or travelled together.
So, how should we understand the misbehaviour of some Chinese tourists? What are its causes, and how widespread is it? Of all the mainland tourists each of us has seen, how many were uncivilised? Could the bad conduct of some tourists be explained by the fact that China was (and still largely is) a rural society and many new rich actually grew up in an environment that wasn't modern and urban? And do we have double standards, do we emphasize every bad thing mainlanders do, while people from other countries can get away with their misbehaviour without any collective blame?