As anti-government protests simmer in Hong Kong, some demonstrators are increasingly focusing their anger on mainland Chinese in the city, hurling abuse and, in some cases, beating them.
More than one million mainland Chinese live and work in Hong Kong, according to official figures, many of them in the city’s bustling finance industry that serves as an entry point into China for global investors. Some of these mainlanders, as they are called, say they are looking to relocate while others say they dare not go out at the weekends, when the protests regularly escalate.
A video of an attack on a mainland Chinese JPMorgan banker this month has gone viral, prompting widespread outrage and further unnerving Chinese citizens. JPMorgan did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
“It feels so depressing to live in a city where you feel the locals don’t really welcome you,” said a former investment banker surnamed Chen, a mainland-born woman who now works for a Chinese private equity company in the city.
“And there is no end in sight to the unrest … I certainly don’t want to build my family and raise my kids in such a broken, torn-apart city,” said the woman, in her 30s, who has lived in Hong Kong for nearly 10 years but has now asked her boss if she can relocate to Beijing.
Mainlanders are sometimes identified by their surnames, but usually by their accent or their use of the Mandarin language. Cantonese is the main language spoken in Hong Kong, while Mandarin is used on the mainland.
Tensions have long existed between Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese, who many in the territory blame for pushing up property prices and clogging the former British colony’s streets and shopping malls – 51 million mainland tourists visited the city in 2018, nearly seven times its population of 7.4 million.
While many older Hong Kong residents or their parents are migrants from China, the anger is mostly aimed at those who still identify themselves as mainlanders.
As protesters push back against what they see as Beijing’s growing attempts to tighten its grip over Hong Kong, a groundswell of anti-China sentiment has emerged.
Activists have taken aim at some of China’s largest banks during protests, smashing windows, spray-painting anti-China slogans on shuttered branches and trashing ATM machines.
A Chinese partner surnamed Li at a global law firm, who has been living in Hong Kong for more than 10 years, said a salesman at a shopping mall in the bustling district of Causeway Bay scared his two young children by shouting at them when they asked to buy a toy in Mandarin.
A Chinese banker at a Wall Street bank who is in his 30s and has lived in the city for about 10 years said he has several friends who are considering moving to Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen for their children’s education.
The banker, who like all the people interviewed by Reuters declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, said while he is getting used to the “new normal” in Hong Kong, many of his China-based clients have avoided travel to the territory since the protests escalated in June out of fear for their safety.
He, however, has no plans to leave as he believes Hong Kong is still a better place to live than China and more important in terms of his career.
Many mainland Chinese move to Hong Kong instead of returning to mainland China after studying and working overseas, mostly thanks to the city’s high degree of autonomy and wide-ranging freedoms that don’t exist on the mainland.
A senior mainland Chinese investment professional who planned to settle permanently in the city when he moved from the U.S. over a decade ago, said he is now looking for an exit as months of protest darken the city’s gloom.
“Society will be more divided, more confrontations between locals and mainlanders are expected and the city’s uniqueness and core values will be further eroded (by Beijing),” said the investor in his 50s.
“I don’t know how we can find a solution to end this crisis. I am quite pessimistic about the long-term prospects for the city.”
One senior mainland Chinese executive at a large North American insurance firm said, however, he plans to remain in the city so long as the protests do not pose a threat to his family.
He plans to offer internships to more Hong Kong youths to help address their “anger and frustrations”.
“(More internships) will be a very small contribution to help them, to help society. But that’s the right thing to do. Be the change you want to see in the city.”