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How fears of ‘mainlandization’ fuel Hong Kong’s mass protests

The city turns out to protest when China attempts to exert influence.

Each year on July 1, Hong Kongers gather to mark the 1997 handover to Chinese rule — some to protest, others to commemorate. This July 1, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens took to the streets to continue to protest a proposed extradition measure, even though the government had agreed to table it. After a long day of marching, some activists broke into and briefly occupied Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building.

In recent months, Hong Kongers seem to have reinvigorated their tradition of protest, which had diminished since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. But why are so many Hong Kongers engaging in mass demonstrations against their government? It’s easy to point to the controversial extradition law, but there’s another motivation for these protests: fears of mainlandization.

What is ‘mainlandization,’ exactly?

Social scientists from a variety of disciplines developed this term to describe the “blurring of the physical, social, cultural, and psychological border between mainland China and Hong Kong” as political scientist Ngok Ma wrote in 2015. Despite Beijing’s assurances of a “one country, two systems” approach toward Hong Kong, over the past 22 years Chinese and local Hong Kong government officials have enacted policies intended to promote the flow of goods and people across the border and speed social and economic integration.

A consequence of mainlandization, scholars argue, is the intensification of a local Hong Kong identity. A June 2019 University of Hong Kong poll indicates a decline in those who identify as Chinese and an increase in the strength of a Hong Kong identity over the last few years.

Other scholars discuss how mainlandization has created distinct cultural differences between Hong Kong and China, through urban art. Mainlandization has also contributed to internal turmoil within the Hong Kong government, such as corruption stemming from conflicts of interest between Hong Kong politicians and China’s business sector.

What drives social identity?

Social-identity theory helps explain why fears of mainlandization have mobilized Hong Kong’s protests. When social groups feel threatened by government actions, individuals who subjectively identify with that group often respond with political action.

Those opposed to mainlandization have also mobilized a cohesive movement to push back against the perceived devaluation of Hong Kongers as a social group. People who identify as Hong Kongers, not Chinese, see mainlandization as an existential threat to their identity. “I can’t keep calm because Hong Kong is dying” was a popular meme during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a month-long protest in support of universal suffrage in Hong Kong — an electoral reform that Beijing has continued to block.

It’s this resistance that drives Hong Kongers to the streets

Many who identify as Hong Kongers take political action because of attempts by the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to blur the lines between Hong Kong and mainland China. Since 2003, each time Beijing has taken a major step to curb Hong Kong’s autonomy, protests have erupted as a form of what researchers describe as “resistance to mainlandization.”

In 2003, when the pro-Beijing government attempted to change Hong Kong’s Basic Law in ways that could have limited freedom of speech, over 350,000 protesters marched in the annual July 1 rally, the largest protest since the 1997 handover.

In 2012, the Hong Kong government created the “Moral and National Education” program that Hong Kongers critiqued for its pro-Beijing slant.

In retaliation for the proposed education reform, a group of activists formed the Scholarism social movement that boosted Joshua Wong, who has become the international face of Hong Kong protests. The protests against the extradition bill, bringing 1 million or more out to march, are the most recent example of resistance to legal or political mainlandization.

The research explains how opposition to ‘mainlandization’ drives political action

Ming-Sho Ho’s new book collects data on the size and duration of protests and argues that Hong Kongers take part in such demonstrations because they cherish their distinctive way of life. These mass gatherings help people consolidate an indigenous Hong Konger rather than Chinese identity.

Our research studies the relationship between mainlandization and political participation. Working with Survey Sampling International, we recruited 600 respondents who self-identified as Hong Kongers in April 2019 to take part in an experiment. We randomly assigned half of our sample to view a video that primed respondents about physical and political mainlandization. The video discusses the new train station that recently opened in Hong Kong and warned Hong Kongers that parts of the station are subject to Chinese legal jurisdiction. The other half of the sample viewed a weather report.

We found that Hong Kongers who viewed the mainlandization video were 11 percent more likely to indicate a willingness to sign an anti-Chinese petition, 6 percent more likely to participate in the July 1 demonstrations — and 5 percent more likely to recruit others to join the protest cause. However, they were no more likely to say they would attend political meetings or participate in the upcoming 2020 Legislative Council election.

Looking ahead

Given what we’ve learned about mainlandization-driven activism, we do not expect activists to back down anytime soon. When China attempts to exert influence in Hong Kong and control local politics, whether through economic policy, legal reform or by denying political rights, Hong Kongers are likely to interpret this as a threat to their group existence.

The extradition bill may proceed no further, or Chief Executive Carrie Lam might step down. But many Hong Kongers may still fear mainlandization will bring declining political autonomy — and this fear may drive continued protests in Hong Kong.

Nathan Kar Ming Chan is a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow and a PhD candidate in the political science department at the University of California at Irvine.

Lev Nachman (@lnachman32) is a Fulbright research fellow in Taiwan and a PhD candidate in the political science department at UC-Irvine.

Chit Wai John Mok (@johncw_Mok) is a PhD student in sociology at UC-Irvine.