Recently, a friend of mine studying at a university in Hong Kong told me that she is considering leaving her school and transferring to one in the United Kingdom or somewhere else. “It’s starting to get a bit difficult here…” she texted. “I want to either leave this place for a semester or so or just transfer somewhere else.”

She is one of my most apolitical friends, and certainly in no way an admirer of the mainland regime. In fact, both of us, despite being mainlanders, hold a considerably critical attitude towards our government and “great leader.”

Yet my friend is starting to feel veritably unsafe at her university in Hong Kong  —  and so do many other mainland students. As far as I have been able to gather, it seems that exposing oneself as a mainlander on the streets of Hong Kong — which is inevitable for most of us because of accent differences — has become truly dangerous.

In mainland media, news is circulating about a man being beaten on the streets of Hong Kong while talking to his wife on the phone in a distinct mainland accent. While he did indeed shout out nationalistic slogans after being called out for his accent, it is a curious fact in itself that he was called out for the way he spoke in the first place. I admit that the intricacies of this incident do warrant further investigation, but the kind of reality it captures is telling. As a mainlander myself, and having been to Hong Kong many times, I am certainly not alien to the customary animosity towards mainlanders that can so easily spring from ordinary Hong Kong citizen’s speeches and actions. Yet what is happening recently seems to take this kind of animosity to a new level.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way endorsing the mainland narrative regarding the current protests, nor am I condemning the Hong Kong people’s more than legitimate appeals. What I am trying to say is that animosity toward mainlanders cannot help Hong Kong’s cause and may even harm it. I may be wrong, but I do have the feeling that amongst the people of Hong Kong there is a tendency to equate mainlanders with the mainland regime, and to oppose the Chinese Communist Party by opposing “Chineseness,” whatever that is. In my opinion, this is counterproductive to say the least.

This is counterproductive because it directly plays into the mainland narrative that the Chinese Communist Party is the Chinese State and that the party directly represents the Chinese People and the Chinese nation, and by extension, all of China, which is not actually true. By equating mainlanders with the mainland regime, by identifying the mainland with “China” and by categorizing Hong Kong as something apart from “China,” the Hong Kong people effectively alienate almost all mainlanders, and certainly all proud Chinese, and therefore do themselves and their cause tremendous harm. For example, most mainlanders who ardently rally around the world against the Hong Kong protestors are doing so because they believe that the latter are “traitorous separatists,” not because they want to implement a more autocratic rule in Hong Kong. The important thing to know about most counter-protestors is that their passion comes not so much from a will to defend an autocracy than it does a desire to “protect the integrity of the motherland.” In short, by unnecessarily binding their pursuit for freedom with “independence from China” (which should not but is unfortunately equated with the People’s Republic), the people of Hong Kong have actually added an entire layer of unnecessary political burden to their cause and successfully removed the hope of gaining any kind of widespread support from within the mainland populace.

Then there is also the problem of violence. Most mainland Chinese media either deny these allegations altogether or exaggerate them to the extent of drawing similarities to the Cultural Revolution. Both are not acceptable. While it is indeed important to acknowledge the legitimacy of this movement, we must also admit and address its evident excesses. To my limited knowledge, a civilian man who confronted some protestors on a bridge recently seems to have been immediately set ablaze via a bucket of gasoline by the latter group. Again, I’m not condemning the Hong Kong people or their appeals, I just feel it necessary to point out that supporting their cause should not be done in a naïve way, because that will only result in counter-productivity. You don’t oppose a totalitarian regime with active violence unless it is of a military nature, because as a totalitarian regime it can always wield more of that force against you.

Of course, there is much to be said about the chauvinistic and jingoistic nature of the official mainland narrative regarding Hong Kong. Most mainlanders do, unfortunately, hold a combined attitude of cynical apolitical distancing and radical nationalistic fervor towards problems pertaining to Hong Kong (and also Taiwan, for that matter). It is, however, problematic (to say the least) to equate this attitude with any sort of active support for autocratic communist rule. What the people of Hong Kong want is the preservation and furtherance of their democracy, and what the people of the mainland want is “the territorial integrity of the Chinese state.” In my view, these are not, despite rhetoric from both sides, goals that are diametrically opposed to each other. We can have both, and we have indeed enjoyed both for the past 20 years under the Two-Systems framework, which despite its many insincerities and imperfections, is still the most politically and economically viable option we have. 

By falling into the linguistic and ideological trap of the Communist Party, well-meaning Hong Kong citizens risk alienating themselves from their greatest potential ally in their pursuit for democracy: the Chinese people. They also risk pushing a historically ruthless regime to the point of employing violence, which as we saw 30 years ago, will not in any way help their cause.