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Protests test sympathies of Chinese mainlanders in Hong Kong

AFP logoAFP 3/12/2019 AFP
a person standing in front of a store: For mainlanders in Hong Kong, the city's protests pose a complicated challenge © Philip FONG For mainlanders in Hong Kong, the city's protests pose a complicated challenge

For mainlanders in Hong Kong, the city's protests pose a complicated challenge, with even some who backed the demonstrations now wary of a movement that has become vocally and sometimes even violently anti-China.

a group of people standing in front of a large crowd of people: Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers -- sometimes millions -- have taken to the streets peacefully to protest China's encroachment on the city's freedoms © Anthony WALLACE Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers -- sometimes millions -- have taken to the streets peacefully to protest China's encroachment on the city's freedoms

Christine Wang moved to Hong Kong from the mainland seven years ago, and sympathised with the initial demands of protesters opposed to legislation allowing extraditions to China. 

"I did not support the bill. But the bill was one issue, and what happened later, including the damaging acts that emerged, are another issue," the 33-year-old told AFP.

Like other mainlanders who spoke to AFP, Wang asked to use a pseudonym, fearing reprisals in an increasingly febrile atmosphere where those perceived to back the government or Beijing have been the target of verbal and physical abuse.

a group of people standing around a plane: Violence in Hong Kong has tested the sympathies of Chinese mainlanders, some of whom say protesters have gone too far in expressing their opinions © Ye Aung Thu Violence in Hong Kong has tested the sympathies of Chinese mainlanders, some of whom say protesters have gone too far in expressing their opinions

She works part-time as both a university research assistant and in insurance sales. Business has plunged up to 80 percent in recent months, she says, with demonstrations paralysing commerce in parts of the city.

But Wang says it is less the financial impact of the protests than violence and intimidation by protesters that have her questioning the movement.

a person standing next to a fence: Qixian Ye, a 30-year-old finance worker, said his generation had grown up with pride in China's economic development, 'which may make many of us believe it's okay to compromise some rights for economic growth.' © Philip FONG Qixian Ye, a 30-year-old finance worker, said his generation had grown up with pride in China's economic development, 'which may make many of us believe it's okay to compromise some rights for economic growth.'

Crowds of pro-democracy activists have beaten ideological opponents and smashed up shops accused of backing the government and Beijing.

In November, a firebrand pro-Beijing politician was stabbed by a man pretending to be a supporter. He survived.

The violence has not been one-sided.

Protesters have also come under attack, accusing police of turning a blind eye when supporters of the government and Beijing have assaulted demonstrators and politicians.

- 'Stop hurting people' -

"I still support their rights to express themselves and protest," Wang said.

"But I hope some normal life can be restored soon and they can stop hurting people and damaging shops."

More than one million mainland Chinese have moved to Hong Kong since British rule ended in 1997, but there are no public figures on the numbers currently in the city.

And the community's views on the political unrest are hard to gauge, with no accurate surveys on the opinions of people sometimes known as "Hong Kong drifters".

A survey of 268 mainland students in the city's Chinese University in September, conducted by fellow students, found 35 percent backed the protests and an equal number opposed them.

Earlier this month, scores of mainland students left Hong Kong after multiple campuses became battlegrounds between police and protesters.

Wang says she doesn't feel physically threatened but worries about the use by both sides of epithets like "loser" and "brainwashed", and a hardening of the divide between "Hong Konger" and "Chinese" identities.

"It feels like one side is wielding extreme nationalism and the other nativism or populism, and I worry about both."

- 'Manipulated campaign' -

Alice Zhang, 28, has studied and worked in Hong Kong for six years and said the protests took her by surprise.

"I never thought a city could be that united and everyone could fight that hard for something that's not just about personal interests," she said.

She blames the increasing violence and vitriol on misinformation from both sides.

"Most of the protesters in Hong Kong are not anti-China, instead they are opposing the policies and plans laid out for Hong Kong by China's ruling party."

A landslide victory by pro-democracy candidates in recent district council elections showed the need for the government to address protester grievances, she added.

"The disturbances in the past few months are largely due to the ignorance and repetition of empty talk by the chief executive and her government."

While some mainlanders head to Hong Kong for its comparative freedoms, others are drawn for purely economic reasons, and for them the protests hold less appeal.

Qixian Ye, a 30-year-old finance worker, said his generation had grown up with pride in China's economic development, "which may make many of us believe it's okay to compromise some rights for economic growth."

Others are more direct. 

Louise Liu, a marketing professional who came from the mainland 13 years ago, calls the protests a "manipulated campaign" that is "anti-China."

"Is it democracy when people like me get beaten up when we speak our minds?"

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