Hong Kong protests against disturbing trend of increasing China tourists

This picture taken on January 20, 2014 shows Chinese tourists taking pictures in front of the city's skyline near a popular shopping district in Hong Kong.

For the first time after the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, one of the country's top leaders has taken a clear stand on universal suffrage and the "Occupy Central" movement in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

At a high-level meeting with media executives from Hong Kong on Friday, Vice-President Li Yuanchao said the central government strongly opposes the movement because it is illegal.

Since the implementation of the Individual Visit Scheme in 2003, there has been a rapid increase in the number of Chinese mainland residents visiting Hong Kong, which has created some social problems. For example, Hong Kong's downtown area, which is already overpopulated, has been overwhelmed with mainland tourists leading to a shortage of some daily necessities.

Many Hong Kongers blame mainland tourists' panic buying for this.

Moreover, with Putonghua being spoken more widely in the region, many Hong Kong residents have become wary of (and in some cases hostile toward) mainland tourists and the IVS.

The "Occupy Central" movement can be seen as an outcome of this hostility. And last week some "Occupy Central" activitists even made a public plea for a "true suffrage".

This hostility resulted in an incident recently when some Hong Kong residents confronted a mainland couple for allowing their son (a toddler) to urinate in a street. The fisticuffs that followed could have been avoided had both sides exercised restraint.

Not long ago, a small number of radical Hong Kong residents even held a demonstration against the IVS, describing mainland shoppers as "locusts" and urging the government to limit the number of mainland visitors.

The "anti-locust" campaign will not only hurt tourism in the region, but also harm relations between Hong Kong residents and their mainland compatriots. This is a very dangerous trend.

Hong Kong residents have to realise that the advantages of the IVS far outweigh its disadvantages for Hong Kong. The Asian financial crisis forced Hong Kong into recession, increasing unemployment. And the 2003 SARS outbreak dealt a further blow to Hong Kong's economy.

 

The central government responded swiftly by launching the IVS to boost Hong Kong's economy, which has helped increase the region's retail sales from HK$170 billion (S$28 billion) in 2003 to HK$440 billion nowadays. Mainland tourists have also helped create thousands of jobs in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's tourism-related industries employ about 600,000 people, accounting for about one-sixth of its total labour force. The region's booming tourism industry not only contributes a big chunk of the local revenue, but also helps provide many resources for social welfare.

In the past, Hong Kong's economy was driven mainly by finance, trade and real estate. And since these sectors were controlled by social elites, a handful of people lorded over the major part of the social wealth. By creating more jobs, especially for people not highly educated, the tourism sector has restored some balance in social wealth distribution. The IVS has played a major role in revitalizing the tourism industry and regulating the social division of labour.

By calling mainland shoppers "locusts", the protestors have exposed their ignorance about their mainland compatriots. Accepted, mainland tourists have strong consumption power. But by doing so, they energize the local economy of the places they visit, and Hong Kong is no exception.

Mainland tourists are more like bees, pollinating Hong Kong's economy so that it can bloom. By trying to drive off mainland tourists, the protestors are rocking the local economy's boat, which could cost many people their jobs.

Some Hong Kong residents have also suggested various schemes to reduce the number of mainland tourists visiting the region. It would be naive to assume these people don't know anything about Hong Kong's social and economic reality. Which means they are inciting trouble not in the interest of Hong Kong residents but with an ulterior political motive.

With the support of anti-China forces from abroad, many of these people are trying to sow the seed of discord between Hong Kong and the mainland, and hoping to eventually seize the "sovereignty" of Hong Kong and realise "Hong Kong's independence".

They disguise themselves as fighters for democracy, use so-called genuine universal suffrage to conceal their real intention, and spread falsities saying present day Hong Kong is not as good as it was in the past to gain public support. Their aim is to deceive the public into supporting them to split Hong Kong from the motherland.

Sensible Hong Kong residents should not see the "anti-locust" campaign as an isolated event where some Machiavellian elements are blowing off steam, because tolerating such acts could create a false impression that the government is in the wrong.

A small-scale protest could turn into a major social turmoil - the socio-political turbulence in Thailand and Ukraine today could be seen in Hong Kong tomorrow. Of course, the central government is fully capable of controlling any situation, but it is always better to take preventive measures.

Hong Kong residents love democracy and attach great importance to freedom of speech. And they detest political wrangling and social unrest. Therefore, it's time the government warned political careerists to abandon their evil designs.

The government has to maintain public order and safeguard citizens' life and livelihood. Else, some people will have a real reason to complain that "the present is not as good as the past".

The author is a Hong Kong media commentator.