A committee of Hong Kong's handpicked elite will select the territory's new leader this weekend after a hotly contested fight, which has left both the main front-runners tainted by scandal.
It's been 15 years since Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese sovereignty, yet tensions between local people and those from the mainland run deeper than ever.
In early February, the simmering anger erupted in a very public manner, as a group of anonymous Hong Kong residents paid for a full-page advertisement in the Apple Daily newspaper, calling on the government to stop the "unlimited infiltration" of mainlanders.
The ad's illustration featured an enormous locust overlooking the city's famous skyline, above the words "Hong Kong people, we have endured enough in silence." Even the way the ad was paid for — $13,000 in donations were raised in just one week — emphasized the strength of feeling.
'Don't You Have Shame?'
A few days later, during an "anti-locust rally," young Hong Kong activists targeted tourists from mainland China in an unusual way, serenading them with an offensive song called "Locust World."
The lyrics accuse mainlanders of being "experts in stealing, cheating, deceiving and lying," and ask, "Don't you have shame? Squatting on the street, lighting a cigarette, allowing your baby to defecate all over the place."
Mainland visitors to the island have almost doubled in five years to 28.1 million last year, according to the Hong Kong Tourist Board. They now make up two-thirds of all visitors, hence the locust tag.
"Locusts come in groups. When they come as individuals, it doesn't matter. When they come in thousands and thousands, it looks like a swarm of locusts," says Chin Wan-kan, a professor of Chinese at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and author, who under the pseudonym Chen Yun has penned articles criticizing what he says is an "invasion" of mainland Chinese.
"It's good in a sense; it makes [Hong Kong] look more prosperous," Chin says, but he fears ordinary people are not benefiting from the tourism. "Actually, neighborhood shops are gone. We have to buy from shops that are controlled by big business groups, and the prices are not good. We have to fight for space with Chinese tourists. We lose money and we lose time for common people. But for land tycoons, for big business, for chain stores, it's good for them."
Loss Of Identity
In the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district, mainland money is obvious on a recent day as lines of tourists wait outside the more popular luxury stores.
"Our spending power is very good," says 35-year-old Chen Xia from Shanghai, as she waits outside the Cartier store to exchange a $10,000 bracelet for a rose-gold version.
She believes Hong Kong people should welcome mainlanders: "They should like us. We're stimulating their economy."
That much is without doubt. Figures for the first half of 2011 show Chinese tourists spent twice as much as all other tourists visiting Hong Kong combined. Last year, mainland tourists spent $14 billion in Hong Kong, up 35 percent from a year before.
But the culture gap is growing. A video that recently went viral shows a heated argument on the subway between locals and a mainland tourist, who was allowing her child to eat on the subway in contravention of the rules.
The video clip was so popular precisely because it played on Hong Kong people's fears of the mainland threat to the values they hold dear, including a respect for the rule of law, their language — Cantonese, a distinct dialect of Chinese that originated in southern China's Guangdong province, where most Hong Kongers trace their ancestry — and their distinct Hong Kong identity.
Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, says Hong Kongers are struggling to accept the new order.
"In the late '70s, '80s and even the early '90s , Hong Kong people believed they were better educated, more prosperous than their counterparts in mainland China. There was a certain superiority complex," Cheng says. "In recent years, as many rich mainlanders come to Hong Kong, there is a little bit of inferiority complex."
Complicated Ties With China
Even pregnant women are protesting, about an issue at the very crux of the debate. Last year, mainland mothers accounted for 40 percent of the births in Hong Kong.
This gives their babies Hong Kong residency — and eligibility for publicly funded schooling and medical care, which many fear will further strain already scarce resources. It also heightens the fears of a longer-term influx of mainlanders, who speak Mandarin predominantly, rather than Cantonese.
Paradoxically, Michael DeGolyer of Hong Kong Baptist University says his surveys show that Hong Kong people are feeling a stronger affiliation with China than in the past, and this debate also underlines that.
"Hong Kong people are saying, 'We're Chinese — you're not supposed to come into our city, just like we're not supposed to come into your cities and crowd out your services. You have provisions on the mainland where you recognize this and protect people from coming in and taking over your hospital spaces and so forth,' " says DeGolyer, referring to the mainland system of hukou, or household registration.
DeGolyer, who is director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, a long-term research group studying local public opinions and the territory's political development under Chinese rule, believes most Hong Kong people would support a similar system.
"It's not a rejection of China. It's saying, 'We're Chinese, too,' " he says.
Election Gives Debate Political Focus
Chinese officials have been shrugging off the tensions. During the country's recent congress session, Zhao Qizheng, spokesman for a top political advisory body that includes many Hong Kong deputies, downplayed the issue.
"Mainland and Hong Kong are siblings, thus it's natural to have some bumps during the interaction," Zhao said.
But Chin of Lingnan University fears Beijing wants to make Hong Kong into just another Chinese city.
"I would call it an imperialist approach. They think they will subsume Hong Kong people and make them more obedient. But that will destroy Hong Kong," he says.
And with the approaching election, these simmering strains could find a political focus. This weekend, the favored few — the 1,200 members of the Beijing-appointed Selection Committee — will choose Hong Kong's next leader. Polls show deep public opposition to Henry Tang, once thought to be Beijing's favorite.
And in a recent TV interview with The Wall Street Journal, a respected retired Hong Kong official, Anson Chan, raised doubts about the other main candidate, Leung Chun-ying, and his commitment to protecting Hong Kong's civil liberties.
For its part, Beijing has promised that Hong Kong's next leader will have majority public support. Otherwise, against the backdrop of growing distrust and fear that Hong Kong's distinct identity is being eroded, the economic and social tensions could grow into large political protests.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's been 15 years since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty. And still, tensions between locals and people from the Chinese mainland run deep. Residents of Hong Kong used to regard the mainlanders as country bumpkins. Now they resent the wealth and the large numbers of people visiting from the mainland.
As NPR's Louisa Lim reports, those tensions are surfacing as a committee meets to choose Hong Kong's new chief executive.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: It may sound like a pleasant Canto-pop ballad, but this is an anthem of hate. It sums up the anger some Hong Kong people feel towards their mainland neighbors. It says mainlanders are experts in stealing, cheating, deceiving and lying. And it calls them locusts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
LIM: A choir of local activists sing this offensive tune to mainland tourists. Mainland visitors to Hong Kong have almost doubled in five years, making up two-thirds of all visitors, hence the locust tag.
CHIN WAN-KAN: Because locusts come in groups. When they come in thousands and thousands, it looks like a swarm of locusts.
LIM: That's Chin Wan-kan, a professor at Lingnan University, who's a vocal critic of mainlanders. He admits mainland tourism is good for the economy, but says ordinary people aren't benefiting.
CHIN: It's good in a sense. It makes it look more prosperous. Actually, neighborhood shops are going and the prices are not good. At the same time, we have to fight for spaces together with the Chinese tourists. We lose money and we lose time for common people. But for land tycoons, for big business, it's good for them.
LIM: I'm now in Tsim Sha Tsui, one of the main shopping districts. And here, the mainland money is really obvious. Outside all the luxury stores, there are long queues of people waiting. And outside Cartier, I met a young hospital worker from Shanghai called Chen Xia. She said she couldn't understand why Hong Kong people would not like having mainland visitors.
CHEN XIA: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Our spending power is very good. They should like us, she says. She's here to exchange a 10,000-US-dollar bracelet. She's decided she wants the rose gold version. We are stimulating their economy, she argues. That much is true. Chinese tourists spend twice as much as all other tourists put together.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
LIM: But a culture gap is growing as illustrated by this video which went viral. It shows a heated argument on the subway between mainland tourists who are eating on the train, which is against the rules, and locals trying to stop them. Some Hong Kong people worry their way of life is threatened: their language, their identity and their rule of law.
City University's Joseph Cheng says Hong Kongers are struggling with the new order.
JOSEPH CHENG: In the late '70s, '80s and even the early '90s, Hong Kong people believed that they were better educated, more prosperous than their counterparts in mainland China. There was a certain superiority complex. In recent years, as many rich mainlanders come to Hong Kong, there is a little bit of inferiority complex.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Over a thousand pregnant women, mothers and their supporters took to the streets to protest...
LIM: This TV report shows even pregnant women are protesting. Last year, 40 percent of the births in Hong Kong were by mainland mothers. This gives their babies Hong Kong residency, meaning they'll be eligible for publicly funded schooling and medical care. There are fears that resources could be strained.
But paradoxically, Michael DeGolyer, director of the Baptist University's Transition Project, believes this debate shows a stronger affiliation with China.
MICHAEL DEGOLYER: Hong Kong people are saying: We're Chinese. You're not supposed to come into our city, just like we're not supposed to go into your cities and crowd out your services and so forth. That's not a rejection of China. It's saying: We're Chinese too.
LIM: At China's recent congress meeting, a top official, Zhao Qizheng, shrugged off the tensions, saying siblings can't avoid spats. But Chin Wan-kan fears Beijing wants to make Hong Kong into just another Chinese city.
CHIN: I would call it imperialist approach. They think they will subsume Hong Kong people and make Hong Kong people more obedient, but that will destroy Hong Kong.
LIM: These simmering strains could find a political focus too. This weekend, the favored few choose Hong Kong's next leader. Polls show deep opposition to Henry Tang, once thought to be Beijing's favorite. Beijing has promised that Hong Kong's next leader will have public support. Otherwise, the economic and social tensions could just explode into large political protests.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.