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Political Tensions Fuel Clashes With Mainland Visitors in Hong Kong

  • Shannon Van Sant

Protesters give thumbs-down signs to mainland Chinese travelers during a demonstration inside a shopping mall in Hong Kong, Feb. 15, 2015.

Protesters give thumbs-down signs to mainland Chinese travelers during a demonstration inside a shopping mall in Hong Kong, Feb. 15, 2015.

Confrontations between mainland tourists and Hong Kong demonstrators have erupted at Hong Kong shopping malls this month as some democracy activists and groups say their calls for representative leadership have been ignored by city authorities.

Last Sunday, demonstrators converged at a Hong Kong shopping mall, shouting slurs at mainland Chinese shoppers who had traveled across the border at the beginning of the Chinese New Year holiday.

Protesters yelled, “Locusts go back to your mainland,” and surrounded some holiday tourists in the shopping center near in Sha Tin, which lies along Hong Kong’s rail line to the mainland.

New ways to protest

The Faculty of Orchid Gardening is a protest group that is pressing for city-state autonomy or that Hong Kong be allowed autonomy under the "one country, two systems" principle.

“I think it’s the people developing a new attitude towards the traditional way of protesting, which is now they are more courageous and standing up. Because what we have done for the past 20 or 30 years, the people feel there is no way, the government still will not listen to us,” said Wai Hing Wong, a member of the group.

Sunday's confrontation followed a similar demonstration the week before, where demonstrators converged on a shopping center in Tuen Mun, near Hong Kong’s border with the mainland.

There, police arrested a dozen people and used pepper spray to push back protesters. One policeman and several demonstrators were reported injured.

Joseph Cheng, a professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong, said the protests are an expression of anger at government policies that fail to protect Hong Kong residents.

“It reflects the increasing frictions and contradictions between the local community and the visitors from the mainland," Cheng said.

"The resentment against the Chinese authorities in Beijing as well as against ordinary mainland Chinese tourists coming through Hong Kong are both increasing and to some extent they are interconnected in the sense that the government and the elite are not informing Beijing of the anti-Chinese sentiments in the community as well as seeking a more reasonable framework to control the number of tourists coming to Hong Kong," he said. "And at the same time the ordinary people in Hong Kong see Beijing as increasingly oppressive."

On Wednesday, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying signaled his attitude toward last year's pro-democracy demonstrations by urging residents to behave more like sheep, the animal in the Chinese zodiac for 2015.

In an official statement, Leung said: "In the coming year, I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep's character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong's future."

In the recent confrontations involving Chinese visitors from the mainland, many of the protesters have expressed anger at merchants who engage in so called “parallel trading,” traveling across the border to buy items such as milk powder and medicine in bulk and tax free. They then sell the items for cheaper prices back in the mainland.

Protesters said this raises prices in Hong Kong, hurting the city residents. Many also say mainland consumers have driven up property prices and rents in Hong Kong, making life in the city more difficult.

Fall protests

The confrontations follow pro-democracy demonstrations in the fall that blocked Hong Kong’s streets for nearly three months, with protesters demanding direct elections of the city’s leader.

Protester Pa Sha took part in those demonstrations and worries the more recent confrontations with mainland tourists could hurt the broader fight for universal suffrage in the city.

“The message which they use which includes a lot of racist slurs are highly controversial, and a lot of these people their focus right now has shifted from fighting for more and better government policies for instance in housing or other economic policies to being quite focused against mainlanders, especially mainland travelers, which includes of course this parallel traders problem,” Sha said.

Some of the demonstrators have called for the end of a program that allows residents of the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen multientry visas.

Protesters demanding direct elections of Hong Kong’s leader have vowed further acts of civil disobedience throughout the spring.

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