Hong Kong’s fraught relationship with mainland China is not off to an auspicious start in the Year of the Dragon. On social networking site Tianya.cn and Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, netizens have spent days throwing verbal bombs after well-known Maoist Kong Qingdong declared that “many Hong Kongers are dogs” on an online news show. This follows a recent war of words which erupted when a Hong Kong branch of Dolce & Gabbana appeared to give its mainland customers favorable treatment.
On January 19, while a guest on V1.cn, Kong Qingdong, a professor at the prestigious Peking University, declared that “many Hong Kong people are good people, but many Hong Kong people are still dogs.” He also said that all Chinese had a “duty” to speak Putonghua, the standard mainland dialect supported by Beijing. Those who “purposefully do not speak Putonghua…are bastards.” His comments came after a video showing Hong Kongers criticizing mainland visitors, mostly in Cantonese, for eating on a Hong Kong subway went viral on the Internet.
Kong’s rant spurred online commentary that resembled a crash course in both modern and classic Chinese insults. Commenters alternatively labeled Kong, or those critiquing him, “dogs” and “bastards,” but also more au courant expletives such as the net slang “2B.” People from the mainland were “uncouth,” people from Hong Kong “snobs.”
But interspersed among the bitter rhetoric, some reasonable debate managed to survive. A netizen from Shanghai pleaded, “Please do not casually call people ‘traitors’ or ‘running dogs,’ posting [these comments] does not encourage ethnic harmony…please do not be a bad example to [our] children.” Others pleaded for civility during Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, saying that a cease-fire during Spring Festival was an “unwritten rule.”
Many netizens criticized Kong’s rhetoric as “extreme” or “harsh.” Kong’s critics did not just hail from Taiwan or Hong Kong. In one poll on Weibo, whose users are overwhelmingly mainland Chinese, 41% felt that Kong “should apologize,” while 47% felt Kong should resign because his “conduct was unbecoming [of] a Peking University professor.”
Some netizens countered that Kong was quoted out of context, although Kong repeated his insults several times and seemed determined to make his views explicit. Others felt people in Hong Kong were being too sensitive; “Someone insulted a minority of you…the sky is not going to fall.” One netizen calling herself “just a small commoner” reminded Hong Kong that its people’s average income was “at least three times the [average income] in the richest mainland city; we are [thousands of miles] away from achieving Hong Kong’s standard of living.” This sentiment suggests that a healthy dose of jealousy lurks behind some of the resentment that mainland Chinese harbor towards Hong Kong citizens. The irony is that many Hong Kongers are equally jealous of the flagrant displays of wealth by affluent mainland visitors, who seem to snap up Gucci handbags and luxury apartments with abandon.
In part because some protesters called on the Hong Kong government to punish Kong for his comments, many netizens focused on freedom of speech and its limits. Some criticized the Hong Kong citizens who protested Kong’s words, writing without evidence that they were being paid to do so, or inferring they came from the “lower rungs” of Hong Kong society and were using Hong Kong law as a cover to persecute Kong for his unpopular views. Others argued that Kong’s words went beyond mere speech and his “insults were at best a civil offense, at worst a criminal offense.” One netizen cited with approval Germany’s “wise laws” prohibiting fascist speech.
In truth, both mainlanders and Hong Kongers have reason to be aggrieved. Professor Kong’s words were indefensible, and some netizens’ contention that his words were calculated merely to inflame is the most charitable interpretation. Meanwhile, the Hong Kongers in the video to which Professor Kong was responding appeared to over-react to the rather anodyne sight of a mainland child eating noodles on a subway.
Many netizens pointed out that the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China is imminent, and “it has already gotten to the point…[that the situation cannot support] preserving one country.” It may be dawning on both sides that the 35 years remaining before Hong Kong’s full integration into China may both be too much time for the mainland to stay away, yet not enough time to repair the rift between the two. With millions of mainlanders streaming over Hong Kong’s border, and millions of Hong Kong citizens traveling to the mainland for business and pleasure, more dustups will doubtless occur. More videos of occasional boorish behavior from individuals on both sides will be captured and will then go viral. All the twain can truly control is whether to respond with venom or grace.