HONG KONG — For years, Hong Kongers have nursed complaints about the growing parade of visitors to their city from mainland China. The mainlanders spit, litter, jaywalk and cut in line, the locals grouse; they talk too loudly, eat on the subway and otherwise flout Hong Kong’s more refined standards of public behavior.
Those are quibbles, though, compared with the uproar over the latest mainland invasion: pregnant women flocking here to give birth.
The appeal of Hong Kong, a former British colony that is now a semiautonomous Chinese region, is understandable. Medical care here is far superior to what is found in most of China. Chinese children born here automatically receive the right to permanent residency in Hong Kong, entitling them to 12 years of free education and other benefits that are not available to mainlanders, including visa-free travel to many foreign countries. Some parents also sidestep China’s family-planning rules, which limit most couples to one child, by having their second child born offshore.
Hong Kong residents, though, are outraged that local pregnant women are being shut out of maternity wards because mainlanders have snapped up the beds. Despite official quotas on maternity care for nonresidents, nearly 4 in 10 births in Hong Kong last year were to mainland parents. Residents are demanding a crackdown, and a hard look at the residency rights law.
The controversy epitomizes Hong Kong’s tetchy relationship with the rest of China 15 years after the end of British colonial rule in 1997.
On the one hand, Hong Kong has courted mainland visitors for economic reasons, and has benefited enormously. About 28 million mainlanders came last year, up by two-thirds since 2008, and many of them to shop: sales of electronics, jewelry and other luxury goods in Hong Kong have soared. As recently as a few years ago, city officials saw mainland mothers-to-be as a revenue stream as well, and urged hospitals to accommodate them.
But the seven million residents of Hong Kong increasingly fear that mainlanders are challenging them for services, for property and to some extent for their cultural identity. Many suspect that wealthier mainlanders see Hong Kong as an escape option, for their children if not themselves, should confidence in China’s future fade.
Mainland buyers accounted for nearly one-fifth of the value of Hong Kong residential apartments sold last year, and are one reason that prices are soaring. The number of schoolchildren commuting to Hong Kong schools from Shenzhen, a sprawling mainland urban area just north of the border, has tripled in five years.
“The issue is the capacity of the society to accept so many travelers,” said Ivan Choy, a senior instructor in public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The issue of the maternity beds has pushed it past the tipping point.”
Insults are flying. A shouting match erupted last month after one mainland mother allowed her child to eat noodles in a Hong Kong subway car. When a Peking University professor who saw a video of the incident called Hong Kongers “dogs” on an Internet talk show, furious Hong Kong residents demonstrated outside the Chinese government’s liaison office. A liaison official later condemned the professor’s remarks, which by official Chinese standards was an extraordinary apology.
Angry Hong Kongers have taken to calling mainland visitors “locusts.” After some residents bought a full-page newspaper advertisement showing a giant locust looming over Victoria Harbor and declaring that “Hong Kongers have had enough,” mainlanders responded with a mock advertisement urging China to cut off water and power supplies to the city.
Some scholars argue that the friction is essentially a family squabble among compatriots who are actually growing closer. Hong Kong residents “are becoming more, not less, ‘Chinese,’ ” said Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, a research group that tracks political trends.
By Sharon LaFRANIERE, The New York Times
Published: February 22, 2012