[Big read] As the use of Mandarin becomes more common, Hong Kong faces identity crisis

Under British colonial rule, Hong Kong developed its own flavour and culture, a unique blend of East and West. However, since its handover to Beijing, some would say Hong Kong has gradually become more and more like mainland China, not least in terms of how Mandarin seems to be more widely used in everyday life, especially with the influx of mainland Chinese in Hong Kong. Lianhe Zaobao journalist Tai Hing Shing reports.
A view of Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China, on 12 March 2024. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)
A view of Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China, on 12 March 2024. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

Victoria Harbour is a famous landmark in Hong Kong. Located between Hong Kong island and the Kowloon peninsula, it is a sprawling, deep-water harbour which is among the top three natural harbours in the world. Strolling along the Victoria Harbour promenade on the Tsim Sha Tsui side, the beautiful city skyline across the water forms a picturesque scene with the ships plying through.

However, those who often stroll along the Tsim Sha Tsui shoreline would notice subtle changes to the surroundings of Victoria Harbour. In the past, the iconic skyscrapers on the opposite shore often displayed advertisements of many multinational companies. Most of them have been replaced by advertisements from Chinese companies in recent years, making the cityscape not much different from that in other mainland Chinese cities at a glance. A few months ago, some mainland China netizens even sarcastically suggested renaming the harbour Yan’an Harbour, which led to heated online debate.

After Hong Kong became a British colony in the middle of the 19th century, Western culture spread into Hong Kong. For more than a century following this, both Chinese and Western cultures continued to develop and influence each other in a unique fusion that formed Hong Kong culture. While the minor outburst over the suggestion of renaming Victoria Harbour is but online hype and conversation fodder, it is also an indirect sign of what many see as Hong Kong’s gradual shift towards being similar to mainland China.

Figures from the Census and Statistics Department of the SAR government indicate that between the end of 1997 and 2021, around 1.12 million mainland China residents relocated to Hong Kong through the One-Way Permit scheme, not including over 200,000 talents from mainland China who moved to Hong Kong through other government schemes.

Following the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests, there have been several waves of emigration as hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers relocated overseas. In response, the SAR government came up with several schemes to attract talented individuals from mainland China to move in and boost the local population. For example, as at the end of February this year, around 44,000 of the nearly 59,000 successful applicants under the Top Talent Pass Scheme (TTPS) have arrived in Hong Kong to live or work.

Among Hong Kong's current population of 7.5 million, there is a growing proportion of new migrants with mainland China backgrounds.

More new migrants from mainland China

Even as Hong Kongers are leaving, many mainland Chinese are moving over, and this has accelerated palpable changes to the composition of Hong Kong’s population. Among Hong Kong's current population of 7.5 million, there is a growing proportion of new migrants with mainland China backgrounds. At the same time, Hong Kong’s enthusiasm in integrating into the Greater Bay Area (GBA) in the past few years has resulted in a growing assimilation of the local lifestyle and language with that in mainland China.

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A view of the bridge across the Greater Bay Area around Zhuhai, Guangdong province, China, on 20 March 2024. (CNS)

This is most obvious in its food and beverage (F&B) industry. Nowadays, F&B chains from mainland China are well represented on the streets of Hong Kong. After the Covid-19 pandemic, established mainland China F&B brands such as Tai Er, Nong Geng Ji Hunan Home-Style Cuisine, XiTaLaoTaiTai, Tanyu, and others bucked the trend to enter the Hong Kong market. Mong Kok has become the main “battleground” as many mainland China tea chains can be found on a single street, usually with snaking queues, a reflection of mainland China F&B culture taking root in Hong Kong.

... it is increasingly common for Hong Kongers to use Mandarin in everyday life.

 A Xiaohongshu user shared a video of two mainland China tea chains, Jo’s Cha and More Yoghurt, with outlets just a stone’s throw away from each other in Mong Kok. The user said Hong Kong is becoming more and more like Shenzhen, making him less motivated to visit. The post immediately drew fervent discussions among netizens, with quite a few agreeing with the author’s views and lamenting “how boring Hong Kong has become”, “how can it draw visitors without its own characteristics”, and that “the only difference is the prices”.

The fact is, F&B spending in Hong Kong is slowly changing as the number of new migrants from mainland China increases, and this is only a part of how it is becoming like mainland China. With a growing number of new Hong Kongers, some public facilities, government departments, and businesses in Hong Kong have started providing simplified Chinese language options, and using Mandarin in recent years. At the same time, it is increasingly common for Hong Kongers to use Mandarin in everyday life.

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Pedestrians cross a street in the Central district in Hong Kong, China, on 20 November 2023. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

In an interview, seasoned Hong Kong investor Kenny Siu said: “It is now common for those in Hong Kong’s finance industry to routinely converse in Mandarin.” With the influx of talented individuals from mainland China to join Hong Kong’s finance industry in recent years, Mandarin has become one of the main conversational languages in the industry. 

... as at the end of July 2023, more than 1,430 mainland Chinese companies have been publicly listed in Hong Kong, or 55% of all publicly listed companies there.

1,430 mainland Chinese companies contribute 80% of Hong Kong stock market value

Figures show that after Tsingtao Brewery became the first company from mainland China to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange on 15 July 1993, Chinese-funded enterprises have continued to expand in Hong Kong, and are growing by the day. Last year marked the 30th anniversary since H-shares started trading in Hong Kong; as at the end of July 2023, more than 1,430 mainland Chinese companies have been publicly listed in Hong Kong, or 55% of all publicly listed companies there. These Chinese companies account for around 80% of the market value and turnover of the local stock market.

Siu joined the finance industry after the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, and he witnessed this change firsthand. He said that in the past, foreign investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were the main players in Hong Kong’s initial public offering (IPO) market, but major Chinese investment banks like Guotai Junan Securities and China International Capital Corporation have dominated in recent years. Today, Chinese-funded companies in Hong Kong have become irreplaceable.

Siu also shared that Chinese and Western finance industry working cultures differ in that the Westerners prioritise procedures, while the Chinese value interpersonal relationships. As the number of finance industry practitioners in Hong Kong with mainland China backgrounds grows, the industry is also becoming like mainland China. For example, under the influence of Western culture, Hong Kongers used to collect consultancy fees once discussions began. However, mainland Chinese companies prefer to pay such fees only after the deal is successful.

However, Siu emphasised that this does not mean that mainland Chinese culture is not good; everything has its pros and cons, so what is most important is for Hong Kong to position itself correctly before seeking opportunities.

Other than the financial sector, there is also an increasing number of teachers from mainland China in Hong Kong’s higher education sector in recent years.

... quite a few of these new hires merely view Hong Kong as their workplace and are less inclined to study the local society. If Hong Kong continues to lose its local academics, future research on Hong Kong will be impacted.

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A teacher introduces himself to the students in a classroom at a secondary school, during the first day of the new term, in Hong Kong, China, on 1 September 2021. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

On 13 March last year, Ming Pao reported the findings of its check with the University Grants Committee on the nationalities of teaching staff in the eight public universities in Hong Kong. From the data provided on the nationality or original place of residency of the teaching staff, it found an uptrend in the number of teachers from mainland China which increased from 1,175 for the 2017/2018 academic year to 1,592 for the 2021/2022 academic year. Over the same period, the number of local teachers in the public universities fell from 2,003 to 1,722, while there were no significant changes to the number of teachers of other nationalities. The percentage of mainland China academics rose from 24.4% to 32%, while that of Hong Kong academics fell from 41.5% to 34.6%.

In the Ming Pao article, many scholars commented that a considerable number of Hong Kong academics left in recent years for sociopolitical reasons. At the same time, mainland Chinese scholars with overseas working experience generally have outstanding academic abilities and are well-published. Furthermore, there are a lot of them, making them capable replacements. However, some mainland China scholars admit that quite a few of these new hires merely view Hong Kong as their workplace and are less inclined to study the local society. If Hong Kong continues to lose its local academics, future research on Hong Kong will be impacted.

... under the new political system, many feel that Hong Kong has completely changed, with political red lines everywhere, and Hong Kong’s local politics is moving towards being like mainland China.

Hong Kong being rapidly 'isolated'

Following its handover in 1997, the “one country, two systems” policy was implemented in Hong Kong. But the hearts of Hongkongers were unsettled and political turmoil ensued, with the unprecedented anti-extradition bill protests taking place in 2019. In 2020, Beijing implemented the Hong Kong national security law and overhauled Hong Kong’s electoral system to remould its political structure and governance.

In the past, many Hong Kongers were accustomed to criticising the government and mocking current affairs, which they saw as their basic right to freedom of speech and expression. However, under the new political system, many feel that Hong Kong has completely changed, with political red lines everywhere, and Hong Kong’s local politics is moving towards being like mainland China.

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Members of the League of Social Democrats hold up a banner which reads "Without democracy, there can be no livelihood", "Put the people above the country, human rights above the regime", and "There can be no national security without democracy and human rights", outside the Central Government offices in Hong Kong on 27 February 2024. (Peter Parks/AFP)

As stability takes hold in Hong Kong following its period of political turbulence, there has been plenty of social discourse recently on how it is becoming like mainland China.

Political scientist Zheng Yongnian is a member of the Hong Kong Chief Executive’s Policy Unit Expert Group. He previously warned that Hong Kong, which used to be deeply involved in the region and the world, is rapidly being “isolated”, and faces a number of hidden concerns. Externally, Western countries are treating Hong Kong as just another mainland China city; internally, GBA cities sit idly by watching its growing “isolation” while other Chinese provinces or cities aim to replace it. Zheng stressed that both the mainland China and Hong Kong governments need to leverage Hong Kong’s system and financial centre.   

Falling behind other international financial centres

When interviewed, Chan Wai Keung, a lecturer at the Hong Kong Community College of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said that in the early years following Hong Kong’s handover, one could easily buy an English-language newspaper from the US or Europe such as the Financial Times from any Tsim Sha Tsui convenience store — in recent years, he noticed that such publications are only available from a newsstand near the Star Ferry Pier. This is a reflection of fewer Europeans and Americans in Hong Kong as the gap grows between it and international financial centres.

The statements issued by Hong Kong officials over the Pelosi visit contravene the Basic Law, and show that Hong Kong has regressed to become even more like mainland China than mainland China itself. — Lew Mon-hung, former member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference

In 2012, civil conflicts in Hong Kong over mainland China intensified as its colonial era flag and coat of arms appeared often during protests. Lew Mon-hung, who represented Hong Kong in the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference then, often criticised those in Hong Kong who were planning to desinicise it. Over a decade on, Lew said when interviewed that the other extreme of becoming like mainland China has surfaced in Hong Kong in recent years. The most obvious example to him was when Nancy Pelosi, who was then the speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan in August 2022. At that time, the Hong Kong government and its senior officials issued several late-night statements to protest her visit.

Lew pointed out that Beijing holds the diplomatic power, and none of the other more than 30 heads of autonomous regions, provinces and directly-administered municipalities on mainland China spoke out at the time. Besides, the Basic Law also confers Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, granting it independent administrative, legislative and judicial powers, while the central government handles foreign affairs. The statements issued by Hong Kong officials over the Pelosi visit contravene the Basic Law, and show that Hong Kong has regressed to become even more like mainland China than mainland China itself.

Lew feels that the close ties between Hong Kong and the West provide mainland China with a window to the outside world. What the Hong Kong government did runs counter to what Deng Xiaoping had in mind for “one country, two systems”, and this is completely unfavourable towards Hong Kong’s aims of maintaining its status as a global financial centre and attracting foreign investment.

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John Lee, Hong Kong's chief executive, front centre, applauses with lawmakers following the passing of Basic Law Article 23 legislation at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, China, on 19 March 2024. Hong Kong has fast-tracked into law a domestic security legislation that critics say could muzzle open economic discussion and tighten control over foreign bodies operating in the global finance hub. (Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg)

However, Chan Wai Keung feels that the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests revealed the severity of foreign interference in Hong Kong politics and society. Given the central government’s aggressive remoulding of Hong Kong in the past few years, it is understandable that Hong Kong has become more like mainland China in certain areas. Mainland Chinese culture has its pros and there is no problem with Hong Kong learning from it. To Chan, the biggest problem at hand is not becoming like mainland China, but some practices in Hong Kong going too far. For example, “it was recently said that some schools removed the works of Lu Xun from their libraries. This is even more extreme than in mainland China, and is undesirable.”

Chan added that Hong Kong becoming politically like mainland China is not all bad, as the administrative efficiency of the government has visibly improved, and its officials are more in touch with the ground. 

He said in the initial years following the handover, some senior officials were criticised for making decisions from their ivory towers without knowing how the people lived and being removed from the ground. However, in the past few years, officials from the Hong Kong Liaison Office have been walking the ground to visit the grassroots during important festivals. “Hong Kong government officials have picked up this practice in recent years as they started walking the ground for research and to interact with the grassroots, and this is the good side of becoming like mainland China.”

In Chan’s view, due to history, there are many differences between Hong Kong and mainland China in terms of specific habits, modes of thinking, views, and value identities. However, both cultures can interact positively for mutual progress, and they do not necessarily have to be at odds with each other.

“Hong Kong’s common law is aligned with Western legal systems, giving them the confidence to invest in China, so it is also beneficial to China for Hong Kong to retain its characteristics.”

He gave the example of local restaurants emulating their mainland China counterparts in the environmentally-friendly practice of placing orders using mobile phones; on the other hand, with many Hong Kongers travelling north to the GBA to spend money, mainland China cities have also started using paper money again, which shows that Hong Kong culture also influences mainland China. Chan believes that Hong Kong still has its characteristics, and its people need to be more assured.

Looking ahead, both Lew and Chan agree that Hong Kong needs to retain its characteristic of “one country, two systems”. Lew pointed out that the Hong Kong authorities need to go back to its Basic Law and focus on the cornerstones of the rule of law, freedom, and democracy under “one country, two systems” in order to get Hong Kong back on track and revitalise its status as an international financial centre.

Chan also feels that Hong Kong is the only place in China to use the common law, which is not available in mainland China or Macau. This gives Hong Kong a unique advantage, as the top concern of many foreigners doing business in Hong Kong or mainland China is the inadequacy of the rule of law. “Hong Kong’s common law is aligned with Western legal systems, giving them the confidence to invest in China, so it is also beneficial to China for Hong Kong to retain its characteristics.”

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as "当普通话日渐普通化 港味流失重寻自身定位".

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