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Tension Boils Over Spilled Noodles in China: Adam Minter

By Adam Minter
January 25, 2012 9:22 AM EST

Fifteen years after political reunification, a skirmish over spilled, instant noodles has shown how far the citizens of Hong Kong and mainland China have to go before they can unify socially.

Sometime last week, a mainland child, yet to be named, was traveling with her mother, also yet to be named, on a Hong Kong subway train. The child was eating dry noodles in the train car and spilled a few on the floor. Eating is prohibited in Hong Kong’s subway cars, and several Hong Kong locals, harboring a serious passion for subway protocol, scolded the little girl and her mother.

A video of the confrontation has gone viral in both Hong Kong and on the mainland, engendering the sort of bitter ethnic and class-based recriminations more commonly associated with rival nationalities than rival provinces.

In the video, a Hong Kong man demands an apology from the mother –- and her young daughter -- for the spilled noodles. The mother, exasperated, responds that it is "not a big deal." Soon after, one of the Hong Kongers presses the car’s emergency button, summoning subway staff. A staff member arrives and explains the rules to the mother, who tries to explain the situation. But a shouting match ensues between her and the Hong Kongers. As the video ends, a Hong Kong man says dismissively: “No need to talk  to them; all mainland people are like this.”

Hong Kongers grew up accustomed to thinking of mainland Chinese as poor country cousins. A city proud of its British heritage is now part of a country that many Hong Kongers still perceive as an authoritarian, provincial backwater. It’s a quantifiable phenomenon: According to a December 2011 poll conducted by the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong, only 16.6 percent of Hong Kongers identify first as Chinese citizens. Yet today, Hong Kongers depend on mainlanders for investments, tourism and political largesse.

The antipathy goes both ways. In the past week, many mainland netizens have taken to Sina Weibo, the country's most popular microblogging website, to rail against Hong Kong residents.

Ma Ziqiang, the general manager of 525j.com, an online home-improvement marketplace, wrote:

Hong Kongers should adjust their attitudes. In the past, mainlanders suffered a miserable life and were inferior to others. But now things are different. Tourists from the mainland bring Hong Kong huge profits and employment opportunities. Mainlanders are in a good mood and the Hong Kongers' attitude is problematic.

Another mainland netizen who uses the handle "Ashows" was determined to remind Hong Kongers who’s boss in their complicated relationship:

Who can tolerate mainland women and children being attacked like this? If mainlanders have image and etiquette issues, then how about those Hong Kongers? … The food you eat … all comes from the mainland. How can you scold your mother while being raised by her?

But Chinese microbloggers can't compare with Kong Qingdong, who unleashed a burst of divisive vitriol on an online talk show, broadcast by the popular news portal, v1.cn. Kong is an alleged 73rd generation descendant of Confucius himself, a faculty member of the elite Peking University, a hyper-nationalist crank and a go-to source for Chinese reporters looking to inject some crazy into their stories. His interview, conducted by the innocent-looking talk show host Shi Fei is one for the ages. As Kong and Shi watched the video, he told her to pay attention to the two languages spoken in it, the Cantonese spoken by Hong Kongers (which he characterizes as a mere dialect) and Mandarin Chinese:

Mandarin speakers don’t have the responsibility to speak the other dialects. All Chinese have the responsibility to speak Mandarin. Those who refuse to speak Mandarin, what kind of people are they? Bastards!

That was just the start. A moment later he addressed the sensitive matter of Hong Kong’s political identity:

I know many Hong Kongers don’t think they are Chinese. They declare, "We are Hong Kong, you are China." Those kinds of people were British running dogs. Now they are dogs. They aren’t human.

If Hong Kongers can’t take the mainland Chinese heat, Kong advised pointedly,  “Go ask for help from your British daddy.”

Kong’s wild rants traditionally have garnered considerable opposition in mainland China; students have even called for his dismissal from Peking University. But this tear -- particularly his contention that Hong Kongers are dogs -- has received considerable online support.

Huang Yigang, deputy editor at Youth Times, a major newspaper in Hangzhou run by the Communist Party, championed Kong's sentiment on Weibo:

Professor Kong's fierce words seemingly intend to play to the gallery. But there is something in what he says if you think about it carefully. Do Hong Kongers have a sense of superiority in front of mainlanders?

Perhaps the best proof that Kong’s over-the-top interview resonates with everyday Chinese is the call for its censorship. One particularly interesting advocate for this is Yang Jinlin, a mainlander who runs Hong Kong TV. In mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Yang is a popular and influential political commentator, especially on the topic of cross-Strait relations. Thus his concern over the ethnic-baiting at the heart of Kong’s attack is worthy of attention:

Professor Kong Qingdong not only attacked Hong Kongers but also lashed Southerners who speak Cantonese … [T]hose violent words lack persuasiveness, are unworthy of refuting. And propagation should be discouraged. Websites should take some measures to deal with his video clip.

So far, the video of the Kong interview remains widely available -- and is even being heavily promoted on the v1.cn website. Perhaps the censors, like most Chinese, are taking time off during the Chinese New Year holiday.

Or, alternatively, the propaganda bureaucracy has no objection to Kong’s rant. Hao Tiechun, the Minister of Propaganda at Beijing’s Hong Kong liaison office, publicly criticized the December survey in which less than a fifth of Hong Kong citizens identified themselves as Chinese first, suggesting that foreign consultants interfered with the polling. Beijing’s propaganda mandarins are ever vigilant over internal ethnic and class-based discord; they might just refrain from censoring those who assign the blame for the discord on haughty Hong Kongers still enthralled with their colonial past.

Yet a serious issue remains for the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing: the two sides -- despite many years of togetherness -- remain distant. On Weibo, Yang Jinlin pointed out a parallel divide between the mainland and Taiwan:

Fifteen years have passed since reunification, and the political economic, social and cultural ties have become increasingly close. So why can’t Hong Kong's sense of Chinese national identity be achieved? Likewise, contacts between Taiwan and the mainland have become more common since 2008, so why can’t the great majority of Taiwanese perceive the goodwill and practical benefit emanating from the mainland? This is thought-provoking.

Yang’s commentary is a remarkable bit of soul searching, especially since it emanated from little more than a handful of ramen smuggled into a subway car.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Katherine Brown at kbrown114@bloomberg.net

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