It seems to me that we have to work hard at recognising and respecting differences – but as products of different histories, as expressions of different circumstances, and as manifestations of differently structured desires.

– Lila Abu-Lughod

Am I a coloniser? I find myself increasingly asking this question, as a woman from mainland China living in Hong Kong. I moved here around two years ago for work. Though I may not have been a resident for long, I’ve visited and watched developments closely throughout the years – both as a researcher and as someone who cares about the region. We mainlanders are a minority, making up around 13 per cent of the population. We’re sometimes called “new immigrants” or “Hong-Kong drifters”. The “new” is to distinguish us from those who settled here in the 19th or early 20th century. We are called “drifters” because many of us are young immigrants seeking jobs, along with a sense of belonging. Recently, however, ordinary mainlanders are are sometimes seen as “colonisers”.

This antagonism doesn’t come out of nowhere; it has deep roots in both regional and global history. Since the transfer of sovereignty from Britain in 1997, commonly known as the handover, Beijing has been frustrated by its inability to impose direct control on Hong Kong. Constitutionally, Hong Kong is a special region that lies outside China’s main administrative structure. This is the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”. Attempts in recent years to further Beijing’s power have been met with opposition from Hong Kong residents, with a series of large-scale protest movements shaking the region.

Most recently, protesters have taken to the streets against the National Security Law, widely understood as an erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. The law was published with no advance warning on 20 June, the day it became effective. While its wording is ambiguous, it appears to give Beijing broad powers to crack down on a variety of political crimes, including “separatism” and “subversion”. It asserts the power to incriminate and prosecute even those who are not resident in Hong Kong, wherever they are in the world. Very much open to official interpretation, it might be better understood as a political vision, rather than a legal document – one which seems aimed at quashing dissent and instilling fear.

The security law is being imposed at an already volatile time for relations between Hong Kong and mainland China. When Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan, there emerged, almost immediately, fear and antagonism towards the mainland from those in Hong Kong. In February, thousands of medical workers went on strike to urge the full closure of all borders with China to prevent the spread of the disease. As the government hesitated, discontent turned into xenophobia, including more than 100 restaurants refusing to serve mainland or Mandarin-speaking customers. Some even put up banners saying: “We don’t serve dogs and we don’t serve dog-like officials”.

Mainlanders like myself are sometimes referred to as “China dogs”. Ironically, the phrase was first deployed during the Second World War by the Japanese army to degrade the Chinese as the inferior race and justify their military invasion. On 1 February, some “Hong-Kong drifters”, mostly women, caused a stir by going to one of the restaurants banning mainlanders. They ate there anyway and posted about it online. Their insistence on speaking Mandarin to the staff rather than Cantonese, Hong Kong’s lingua franca, was branded “colonial” on social media. Mandarin is the national language of China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Hong Kong’s current de facto ruler. This incident fuelled discussion of how mainland Chinese people in general “should be aware of their position as colonisers in Hong Kong”.

The Kwong Tong March, part of the anti-extradition bill protests

Am I really a coloniser? For individuals, of course, power tends to be relative and intersectional, as one could easily be powerful in one context but powerless in another. In Hong Kong, mainlanders are often perceived as being more powerful simply by virtue of being from the mainland, at a time when political pressure from the CCP is stepping up. But ordinary “Hong-Kong drifters” are not always in more privileged situations. It is a broad category that includes labourers and low-paid workers. Many are simply immigrants struggling to grasp the local language and cope with an entirely new set of rules and surroundings.

One of the visitors to that restaurant, for instance, was a young student who said that she had not been able to eat or sleep properly since the “no dog” controversy, as she feared that her poor Cantonese would make her the object of hatred. She is struggling in Hong Kong, but has nowhere else to to go. She is a political activist, which makes it difficult for her to return to mainland China, where she is likely to face interrogation. In fact, many mainlanders were active in the different waves of protest Hong Kong has seen in recent years, and have made the decision to not visit or even contact their families back home, due to fear of official harassment or punishment.

Many mainlanders were involved with the Occupy Central movement and the Umbrella Movement. (The name Umbrella Movement came from the protesters’ use of umbrellas as shields against pepper spray and tear gas). Starting in 2014, these were pro-democracy protests that resisted proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system that would have given more power to the CCP. Protesters were fighting for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to be elected through universal suffrage – rather than being screened and appointed by Beijing. It was a street campaign, involving three months of sit-in protests, which ran from September to December. Occupy Central did not bring about institutional changes, but it nonetheless reshaped the dynamics of political participation in a city long driven by global finance and often imagined as an apolitical capitalist utopia.

In summer 2019, another movement began, this time in protest against a bill which would have allowed residents of Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. The bill raised the prospect of politically motivated persecution and unfair trials. The bill was withdrawn in September, but the protests carried on, evolving into a prolonged city-wide movement which criticised police abuse of power and sought broad political reforms.

A particular incident during this round of protests highlighted tensions between ordinary mainlanders and Hong Kong Chinese. In 2019, a staff member from the Global Times newspaper, the CCP’s official mouthpiece, was assaulted at Hong Kong airport. Strong reactions from both mainland officials and ordinary citizens emerged immediately on social media. Even food bloggers abroad, whose content is usually apolitical, used phrases such as “Shame on Hong Kong” and “settle scores after autumn”, a vengeful expression harking back to the CCP’s Anti-Rightist Campaign of the 1950s. Social media posts even made reference to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, depicting the CCP’s violent crackdown against the mass protest in 1989 as an effective way of settling unrest and restoring justice. These posts suggested, horrifyingly, that the current CCP administration should teach today’s protesters how to “behave” in the same way.

Shocked by these expressions of violence, I looked through those angry comments, and saw that many of the people making them had also posted separately about their experience of being discriminated against in Hong Kong. Many mentioned the “anti-locust” campaign a few years ago, in which the word “locust” referred to mainlanders who were thought to have abused public resources in Hong Kong, overwhelming the city.

Mainlanders in Hong Kong find themselves stuck between two worlds. The Society for Community Organisation, a human rights advocacy group, has called for a wider definition of racial discrimination to cover prejudice against mainlanders, but this has not been granted.

In fact, we are victims of the same political system. This can manifest itself in uncomfortable ways in day-to-day personal relationships. Even before the protests, some mainland friends of mine had Hong Kong in-laws who were anxious that they might be a communist spy. My ex-partner’s parents used to confront me about my “intentions”, asking whether I was fishing for a passport or perhaps for money, despite the fact that my family enjoys better financial and intellectual privileges.

Unfortunately, such antagonism between ordinary people is a dynamic that the CCP has carefully engineered. The party has long enacted a strategy of divide and rule, clearly aimed at preventing the formation of solidarity based on shared fate and a common enemy. Historically, the party adopted a strategy of elite co-option, which was once successfully employed by the British colonial regime. This involved cultivating vocal and influential loyalist circles among local elites, in order to create state nationalism from within. However, these strategies have backfired, leading to a reactive form of popular sub-state nationalism in Hong Kong.

Under its current administration, the CCP has placed more emphasis on full political homogenisation and ethnocultural loyalty. Hong Kong dissidents sometimes face racist remarks from Chinese nationalists for not being “Chinese” enough, or not being patriotic. For example, the student and prominent pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong, who was nominated as TIME magazine’s Person of the Year in 2014 when he was barely 18 and has already been imprisoned twice for his activism, was accused of actually being Vietnamese. On Twitter and the Chinese social media network Weibo, he was branded a “Vietnamese monkey”. The aim was to dehumanise him and paint him as a traitor.

Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Hong Kong student activist and politician

Of course, racism in the region existed before the CCP. It is partly a product of the old imperial system. After Hong Kong became a British colony in 1841, Chinese people living here were treated unfairly. Throughout the decades, the imperial police were violent, in particular when they dealt with social unrest in the 1960s. During the Cold War, British efforts to prevent communist infiltration left an added legacy of mutual distrust between the two populations.

Although the British colonial power formally retreated in 1997, Hong Kong did not attain independence like most colonies. In the words of cultural critic Rey Chow, Hong Kong was politically stuck between two colonisers: the outgoing colonial power of Britain and the incoming authoritarian regime of China.

Yet as we have seen, political changes in Hong Kong designed to assert Beijing’s control have prompted continuous civil disobedience. Through these popular protest movements, Hong Kongers have formed a new local identity based on their sense of autonomy, or possibly even independence. This independent identity, which is particularly strong amongst the generation of people born around the time of the handover in 1997, could be seen as a total rejection of Chinese identity. But it could also be viewed as a reactive form of popular nationalism, triggered by the CCP’s own aggressive state nationalism. Protesters have been seen burning the national flag of China.

Recently, there has been more support for full independence for Hong Kong, although it is now a crime to call for separatism under the National Security Law. Many protesters are simply demanding that the CCP’s promised principal of “One Country, Two Systems” is properly adhered to, so that Hong Kong’s independent jurisdiction is respected.

A new trend is resistance against “red capitalism” (capitalism under a socialist regime), as China emerges as a global economic power upon which Hong Kong is increasingly dependent. Shops and firms financed by China are often targets for vandalism by protesters. The Bank of China, for example, regularly has its branches in Hong Kong smashed. Protesters are also using mobile phone apps to colour-code shops and brands based on their political alignments. “Yellow”, the colour of Occupy Central, is used to signify local shops that support the protesters in one way or another. “Blue” businesses are considered pro-establishment, “red” shops are affiliated with the CCP, while “black” shops are CCP fronts, or belong to the party through direct ownership or shell companies. Such actions show the determination to transform Hong Kong’s economy, alongside its politics.

Resistance to the encroaching power of Beijing is set to continue. But ideas about where Hong Kong should head instead are rather scattered. The British colonial days are sometimes remembered in a romantic hue, set up as a contrast to China’s authoritarianism. It’s not uncommon to see petitioners outside the British Consulate asking for Britain – their former coloniser – to take control again. Chris Patten, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, is widely respected, seen as the representative of a more free and prosperous time – although not everyone would agree. Since the National Security Law was introduced in June, protesters have demanded that the US sanction China and/or Hong Kong, or drop Hong Kong’s special trade status, in order to hurt Beijing’s interests. It is a gesture of despair – known as lam chau, meaning “mutual destruction”.

In the western media, “Asia” is often understood as one homogenous unity, with little or no discussion of the complex dynamics that exist between different groups. But Hong Kong is made up of complicated histories and politics. The racial tensions seeded in different eras of colonisation and authoritarianism are being violently played out on Hong Kong’s streets and political arenas, but they are also impacting the way we interact with each other as individuals day to day.

As I watch the rapidly escalating political situation in my adopted home, I hope that one day we can stop asking whether we are colonisers or victims, or having to defend ourselves against divisive “us and them” remarks. The CCP’s National Security Law is devastating for political dissent and free speech in Hong Kong – and has international ramifications, as tensions with western powers intensify. But the struggle against the racial, political and economic hegemonies that seek to divide us is a fight we all share.