Though part of China for 18 years, Hong Kongers resist mainlanders' embrace, feel alienated

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All around Chow Tak-yee's neighborhood in the working-class edges of Hong Kong, the 26-year-old can feel the spreading influence of nearby mainland China on the prosperous, open-minded city she's always called home.

The children of mainland families now fill her neighborhood's best schools, and she's had to search for three months to find a classroom spot for her young son. Chow, who works as an accountant, and her electrician husband have to live at her in-laws' cramped apartment, as a red-hot housing market flooded with Chinese investment prices out many young buyers. Sometimes, she can't even find household goods in nearby stores, because Chinese traders buy them all up to sell at a mark-up in the adjacent mainland city of Shenzhen.

For Chow and many in this 7.2-million-person city, it all adds up to the feeling that Hong Kong is being forever changed by the 1.4-billion-strong country just a few miles to the north, where many feel life is cheaper and people are less educated.

"They're interfering with the rules of Hong Kong society," Chow said as her son played by her side during a visit to her childhood home, a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing estate.

Eighteen years after this world financial hub returned from colonial British control to Chinese rule, many say they feel more alienated and less trusting than ever of the central Chinese government and even the people visiting from across the border. That has presented leaders in Beijing with one of their biggest political headaches as they try to project a more unified, confident image abroad.

The complaints range from the small to the sweeping, from the perceived rudeness of Chinese tourists to fears that leaders in Beijing are sabotaging the freedoms and rule of law that have long distinguished Hong Kong from the rest of China. The resentment grew when Beijing issued a policy paper last year making clear the central government's power to decide the city's affairs, and when it endorsed a hard-line approach to pro-democracy activists who blocked streets in Occupy Central protests seeking electoral reforms.

Recently, scuffles have broken out along the northern border during protests over the influx of mainland shoppers, and Hong Kong continues to seethe with anti-mainland tension as the city's government plans to unveil its Beijing-approved electoral reform package as early as Wednesday.

Failure to win the hearts and minds of sophisticated, cosmopolitan Hong Kong bodes ill for Beijing's plans to peacefully reunify with the self-governing island of Taiwan as well as quell divisions at home, said Mark Clifford, head of the Asia Business Council and the former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

"There was a perception that Hong Kong would be more like the mainland," Clifford said. "There was a perception that the two places would merge. But after 150 years of British rule, the interesting development is Hong Kong's own sense of identity.

"The policy of the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government of trying to force more integration, integration on every level, but especially economic, has created a backlash among ordinary Hong Kong people."

Warehouse supervisor Ronald Leung, 39, said he had long been apolitical about his home city until he saw firsthand the swarms of traders and outgoing cargo near the Chinese border.

Called "parallel trading" because it happens in a gray area alongside legal trade, such commerce has become an especially visible target of Hong Kongers' anger. Chinese visitors cross into the city, which has no sales tax and a reputation for authentic goods, to buy up baby formula, smartphones, luxury goods, diapers and medicine and then resell them at a profit in the mainland, warping the local economy and causing shortages.

Leung helped form the North District Parallel Imports Concern Group, one of several organizations that have staged rowdy protests targeting mainland shoppers.

Leung said seeing the stifling education system on the mainland during his travels there is another issue that "makes me think about my life" and appreciate Hong Kong.

"If Hong Kong students get this kind of brainwashing, it's harmful for Hong Kong's future," Leung said in a mall in the city's Kowloon Bay neighborhood.

When Chinese President Jiang Zemin welcomed the city back to the motherland in 1997, some observers in the West hoped China might absorb some of Hong Kong's liberal democratic traditions.

Chinese officials granted Hong Kong political and personal freedoms and its own governing system, with the idea of slowly assimilating this Western-influenced society into the more repressive, state-controlled mainland over 50 years, after which the territory would officially lose its special status.

Much of the integration is already underway on the ground.

After Chinese officials loosened visa requirements for repeat mainland visitors in 2009, the number of Chinese traveling to Hong Kong jumped from nearly 18 million a year to nearly 50 million last year. Hong Kong's stock exchange also linked up with Shanghai's last year, unleashing mainland investment that has driven Hong Kong share prices to record levels.

More people from the mainland speaking Mandarin Chinese, as opposed to the native Cantonese, fill the classrooms of not just elementary schools but of Hong Kong's most prestigious universities, many getting their first taste of freedoms prohibited on the mainland.

After Elaine Wang came to study journalism at Hong Kong University in the middle of last year's street protests, she discovered to her surprise that text messages sent to friends back in China about the demonstrations were being censored. Still, although she said she understood the protesters' grievances, in the end, she didn't think Hong Kongers would be able to resist the mainland's enormous economic and political influence.

"Hong Kong people will just have to figure out a way to work together with the government instead of fighting it," she said.

Many older residents in Hong Kong also have come out against pro-democracy protesters, saying young residents should focus instead on working to build a middle-class life.

Li Yim-miu, a 54-year-old housewife who led a recent rally supporting the mainland shoppers, said she didn't blame them for buying safer, better-quality goods for children back home. She also said Hong Kongers should be praising the mainland government instead.

"Look at the Chinese government, don't they do a good job?" she asked. "So why would you criticize them? ... You can use reason in your criticism. You can't use chaos."

Lawyer Jason Ng, who has written two books about his home city, said the tensions come down to the widespread fear among the city's young that they won't be able to buy a home and build a future. Prices for even the cheapest apartments can run about $1,250 a square foot, pricing a 600-square-foot apartment at $750,000. Hong Kong's average monthly salary comes in below $2,000.

With such a bleak outlook, fewer people can accept the other end of Beijing's bargain, of giving up self-determination and freedoms, Ng said. Already, Hong Kong has seen press freedoms shrivel in face of economic and political pressure, with the city's press falling from 18th freest in the world in 2002 to 70th this year in an annual measure by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

"If 80 percent of people are well provided for, and if 20 percent want to do Occupy Central, it would only be a very small minority of people and it wouldn't gather as much momentum," Ng said. "But it's the opposite here. Eighty percent of people are upset because 20 percent control all the wealth."

A Chinese University of Hong Kong poll of city residents found that people's self-identification as Chinese fell from 38 percent in 2010 to 31 percent three years later.

"Younger people show more dissatisfaction," said Victor Zheng, co-director of the university's Centre of Social and Political Development Studies. "The main reason is downward social mobility."

Jewelry store saleswoman Sakura Tse, 30, said she longs for the days of colonial British rule, when the city's manners and even its architecture were classier. She said she fears the political repression and violent police tactics that she sees on the mainland could become common practice here.

Tse and about 30 others lead the grass-roots group Hong Kongese Priority, which calls for independence from China, a stance she said infuriates her parents.

"They just think it's good enough for you to have food and your life," Tse said. "But I don't think food and life are what I'm looking for. Freedom. For me, freedom is the most important."

Like Tse, Leung of the anti-traders group said he was prepared to fight for his city's autonomy from the rest of China.

"We need to get away from the communists to get our life back," Leung said. "It's not Beijing who will take things away from Hong Kong. It's the Hong Kong people who, little by little, will hand it over to Beijing."


Associated Press video journalist Annie Ho, photographer Vincent Yu and reporter Kelvin Chan contributed to this report.