Politics of belonging under the Umbrella, Part 2

Guest blog by Beatrice Lam, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong

A reflection on the role of mainland Chinese in the Umbrella movement, and the tensions exposed between mainlanders and Hong Kong people in the process

In Part 1, I talked about some of the negative responses of mainland students to the Umbrella Movement. What struck me more, however, were the views from those who sided with the protesters. They appreciated what the protesters were doing. They witnessed the spirit of Hong Kong, and saw what marked Hong Kong as different from the PRC. They did not participate in the sit-ins, protests, or ‘shopping tours’, however, and found themselves to be the outsiders of the movement because they are not Heunggongyahn. Moreover, they felt that even if Hongkongers could successfully fight for universal suffrage, it would mean little to them, and to people in mainland China, for the PRC wouldn’t change. In other words, they do not see themselves belong to the Umbrella community; they do not see they have any role to play in the movement.

To be truthful, there were local protesters who actively excluded mainlanders from sites of occupation. They taunted or swore at persons who were presumed to be mainlanders (e.g. because of their accent), even if these persons were fully supportive of the movement. One should also be reminded that protesters from mainland might choose to deliberately make themselves invisible by wearing masks, shades and/or caps as they busied themselves around the occupation sites, for fear of being captured on the camera. This has the unfortunate effect of further marginalizing their voice in the movement.

The antipathy of some local protesters towards the presence of mainlanders should be understood in the context of China-Hong Kong integration. From imported labour in the 1980s, female spouses and children since the 1990s, to the more recent border-crossing of tourists, students and professional migrants, mainlanders have always been seen as different, if not inferior, to ‘local’ Hongkongers[2] – a drain on public resources, invaders of local space, and a threat to local culture and identity. The narrowing of the economic gap between Hong Kong and China notwithstanding, cultural boundaries continue to be redrawn as Hongkongers try to reassert their Heunggongyahn identity against the increasing political intervention from Beijing. So people say: Mainlanders are uncivilized, because they eat on the MTR, pee in the street, and spoil the children[3]. We can be proud of our freedom of speech and press and the rule of law in Hong Kong; you, mainlanders, are brainwashed[4]. That the SAR government sought an extended public consultation about the revision of the anti-discrimination ordinance, with the aim to better protect mainland Chinese persons in Hong Kong, only fueled the avalanche of abuses targeted at mainlanders on social media platforms during the movement. It is in this sense that we can understand why mainlanders were found unwelcome in sites of occupation, and why some mainland students see themselves as no more than bystanders of the movement.

The fact that some mainland students see themselves as outsiders in the movement should also be understood in terms of the discrepancies between the respective interpretative frameworks of ‘democracy’ employed in the PRC and among local protesters. Democracy in the PRC is one defined primarily in procedural terms, the practice of which variably configured by local power relations[5] rather than enabling the public to influence and participate in government decision-making. It is also one that must align with the kind of nationalism that has been promoted since the early 1980s: an emphasis on national pride and loyalty to the Chinese Communist state[6]. The pursuit of democracy as represented in the Umbrella Movement is however one geared towards self-determination – deciding how we envision our home and participate in the practice of our visions. It is about enacting our rights as citizens, and is constitutive of our identity as Hongkongers. Some protesters see Hong Kong’s pursuit of democracy as pivotal for the democratization of the PRC, its ‘motherland’; whereas others believe that democracy can only be realized in Hong Kong when ties with mainland China are severed[7]. Either way, such framings of democracy are deemed politically incorrect from Beijing’s perspective: because ties between Hong Kong and her Chinese ‘motherland’ are supposedly eternal and indissoluble, there is no room in the ‘unified’ nation of the PRC for ‘self-determination’ and ‘(local, Hong Kong) identity’. Put simply, pursuing democracy in Hong Kong, through formal political processes or citizens’ participation in the civil society, is ‘unpatriotic’ from Beijing’s point of view. This is why mainland students, with their upbringing in their discursive context of PRC’s nationalism, do not necessarily see the pursuit of democracy in the way local protesters do. We continue to struggle to bond with one another in terms of our identification as political citizens.

‘Hong Kong is the crying baby that gets the milk (from Beijing)’, according to Global Times, the strongly pro-government Chinese tabloid that is known for its promotion of nationalistic sentiments. The Umbrella Movement has been reduced to an act of petulance arising out of Hongkongers’ frustrations with blocked mobility chances (especially among the youth) and paranoia towards mainlanders’ intrusion (in the form of investors, tourists, mothers giving birth in local hospitals, students crossing the border every day, and parallel imports[8]). Nonetheless, there are also those mainlanders who are grateful for having the chance to learn more about tabooed subjects, such as the Cultural Revolution and the June 4th Tiananmen Massacre, in Hong Kong; they envy the freedom Hongkongers enjoy in political participation, and admire the conviction and courage of local protesters in the Umbrella Movement. For different sorts of reasons and under a variety of circumstances they might have chosen whether or not to participate in the Umbrella Movement – if they did, they often did so beyond the purview of the locals. The sharing of experiences has alerted me to the potential for Hongkongers and mainlanders to bond with each other as actors of a political community. In the process, new collective identities – aside from those of economic agents or patriots, as promulgated in the official ‘national identity’ discourse – can be formed, solidified, and asserted vis-à-vis the Chinese state. Thus, to carry on our fight for democracy, it is not only in the local communities and neighbourhoods where work is to be done. For all the differences experienced between ‘them’ and ‘us’, prejudice and exclusion is ideologically incoherent with the movement’s professed commitment to democracy and celebration of diversity. It is high time for us to confront our politics of belonging and reexamine what our imagined borders mean to us in political terms, in order that we can make the most of what we have learnt from the Umbrella Movement.

Dr Beatrice Lam is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong, with research interests in education, social stratification, gender studies, and Hong Kong society. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Manchester. Further information available here: http://www.sociodep.hku.hk/html/ppl_teach_beatice.html


[1] ‘Shopping’ was a repertoire of collective action that was developed in response to the clearing of the Mongkok site of occupation. For an explanation of the inspiration behind, please refer to


[2] It should be noted that many Hongkongers who self-identify as ‘locals’ or ‘natives’ were former immigrants from mainland China. They see themselves as different from more recent arrivals.

[3] For a discussion of how the antipathy of Hongkongers against mainlanders has developed and evolved since the 1970s, please see:

Mathews, G, Ma, EKW, & Lui, TL (2008) Hong Kong, China : learning to belong to a nation. Chapter 4, 6. Routledge.

Chan, E (2000) Defining Fellow Compatriots as ‘Others’ – National Identity in Hong Kong, Government and Opposition, 35(4): 499–519.

For information of the intensifying tensions between Hongkongers and mainlanders, please see:

http://timeout.com.hk/feature-stories/features/50010/the-china-syndrome.html; and

Chan, CK (2014) China as “Other”: Resistance to and ambivalence toward national identity in Hong Kong, China perspectives, 2014(1): 25-34.

[4] For information of how values of freedom of speech, freedom of press and the rule of law serve as the foundation upon which Hongkongers dissociate themselves from mainlanders, please see:

Fung, YHA, & Ma, KW (2007) Negotiating Local & National Identifications: Hong Kong Identity Survey 1996-2006, Asian Journal of Communication, 17(2): 172-185.

[5] This is exemplified in the impediment of democratic governance in villages in rural China, despite the semblance of openness and fairness of their election procedures. For further information, please see:

O’Brien, KJ & Han, R (2009) Path to Democracy? Assessing village elections in China, Journal of Contemporary China 18(60): 359-378.

[6] For further information, please see:

Fairbrother, GP (2003) Toward critical patriotism : student resistance to political education in Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong : Hong Kong University Press.

[7] The former camp is best represented by those who began participating in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. They see Hong Kong as sharing the same destiny with China, their motherland, in the road towards democracy. The latter camp is best represented by the supporters of the ‘Hong Kong Autonomy Movement’, who aspire to Hong Kong developing into a democratic, self-governing city-state vis-à-vis an incorrigible, authoritarian PRC.

[8] Please refer to footnote 5 for further information.


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