HK's China policies spur clash with mainland cousins

Fri Feb 3, 2012 6:34am EST
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By James Pomfret and Sisi Tang

HONG KONG (Reuters) - As Hong Kong's outgoing leader Donald Tsang looks ahead to retirement, an unusually toxic public debate over the burden placed by a flood of mainland Chinese visitors has struck at the heart of Hong Kong's often rocky transition from British colony to Chinese special administrative region that began in 1997.

Tsang, knighted by the Queen of England and a trusted aide to Hong Kong's last British governor, Chris Patten, has staked Hong Kong's future ever more closely to China in his seven years in office, despite thorny issues such as a push for full democracy in Hong Kong.

Twenty-eight million mainland Chinese visited Hong Kong last year, around four times the population of the city, many flush with cash and on the hunt for everything from baby formula to hospital beds and luxury brands to high-end apartments.

Cross-border marriages have proliferated and Beijing's leaders have bestowed countless economic sweeteners on the city to cement the mainland's embrace of Hong Kong.

At the same time, grassroots resentment has boiled over in Hong Kong toward this influx of mainland Chinese visitors on a number of fronts, including healthcare and housing, presenting a twilight challenge for Tsang and his government's legacy of symbiotic integration with China.

Insults are being hurled across the border, with some Hong Kongers decrying the mainland Chinese as "locusts," while one Chinese professor called Hong Kong people "running dogs" of the British.

Some say Hong Kong's overly China-focused policies have corroded the city's uniqueness, international character and values and those policies might now need revising. Mainland Chinese counter that Hong Kong for too long looked down on its mainland cousins and should not enjoy favored status from mainland leaders.

Besides opening the floodgates to millions of free-spending Chinese after tourism went into a tailspin because of the SARS outbreak in 2003, China's leaders have offered sweeteners to Hong Kong, including a closer economic partnership agreement and backing it as a capital raising centre and offshore yuan settlement hub.   Continued...

<p>Mainland Chinese tourists rest in Times Square shopping centre in Hong Kong February 3, 2012. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu</p>