Beijing (AFP) – When Naomi Wu was a teenager, she and her friends would ride the train from mainland China to Hong Kong several times a year to shop for clothes and designer handbags.
But the 23-year-old computer programmer, who lives across the border in Shenzhen, now shuns a city that two decades after the handover from Britain has lost its allure for many mainlanders.
“Chinese gadgets are as good or better than foreign,” said Wu, who prefers to shop online from her home in Shenzhen, which has transformed from a shabby backwater into an industrial powerhouse.
“There’s lots of new malls that are well-designed, and new buildings everyplace else. There are new subway lines and lots of parks. Shenzhen built more skyscrapers last year than US and Australia combined,” she said.
As Hong Kong readies to mark the July 1 anniversary of the handover, it is increasingly eclipsed by China, which has become a global superpower with a vibrant consumer and cultural scene of its own.
Beijing and Shanghai boast a sophisticated array of bars and restaurants as well as sprawling shopping centres and arts districts that put space-starved Hong Kong to shame.
China has leapfrogged from seventh to second place among top economies since 1997 and become a vital engine of global growth, while Hong Kong has fallen from 24th to 33rd.
Import taxes on foreign goods are still much higher in China, but shoppers who once flocked to luxury flagship stores along Hong Kong’s glittering Canton Road are now also heading to cities such as Paris and New York.
The changing fortunes have seen the number of tourist visits from the mainland to Hong Kong steadily decrease, dropping nearly seven percent in 2016 compared to the previous year.
Disneyland even opened in Shanghai last year, attracting millions as visitor numbers sag at its older sister theme park in Hong Kong.
And Hong Kong’s waning cultural clout has also seen it disappear from mainland screens which it dominated during the “golden age” of Hong Kong cinema in the 1990s.
“Hong Kong films and Hong Kong music have faded from our lives, and there is a variety of mainland-produced music and shows,” said Li, a trading manager at a state-owned enterprise who declined to give his full name.
“China’s rapid economic development has greatly reduced the gap between the mainland and Hong Kong.”
– ‘Full of hostility’ –
As the scales tip, there is growing resentment in Hong Kong over the perceived “mainlandisation” of the city as China extends its influence in a range of areas, from business to politics, education and media.
Some see this as a way for Beijing to tighten its grip on Hong Kong and erode the city’s identity and cherished freedoms — fears reflected in mass student-led rallies calling for democratic reform in 2014.
One of the results is that the mainland tourists who continue to visit Hong Kong don’t always feel welcome. Wu was shocked to hear open criticism aired on the subway during a recent visit.
“Mainlanders go to Hong Kong and spend lots of money, but then get sneered at for our trouble. I speak Cantonese, and they are still rude to me,” she said, referring to the variant of Chinese spoken in the city.
Manners have long been a source of tension, with Hong Kongers complaining about what they see as the unrefined social habits of their “nouveau riche” mainland counterparts.
The growing tension is a hot topic on China’s internet forums.
On Zhihua, a question-and-answer site, nearly 1,400 people posted responses to the question: “Fewer and fewer people go to Hong Kong to shop. Why?”
“I loved the shops and restaurants, the public transport was so convenient… and people were very friendly,” wrote Jennifer Liu.
“But the last time I went there was a very different atmosphere… on the streets, young people would glare at me,” she added. “Since then, the news I see from Hong Kong is very strange to me, full of hostility.”
– Free society –
But mainland Chinese still lack the personal freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong, which remains semi-autonomous under the “one country, two systems” deal agreed before the handover.
Thousands make the move to Hong Kong each year to pursue higher education and work opportunities, and the city’s red-hot property market is fuelled by Chinese seeking a bolthole or a place to park their cash.
That is part of an exodus of those with the means to secure property and passports abroad, in search of cleaner air, safer food, and better opportunities.
“Hong Kong’s attractiveness to the mainland Chinese is in decline, but many people still want to go to Hong Kong for education because they feel it is safe there,” Qiao Mu, a media studies scholar in Beijing, told AFP.
“They still long to live in a society that is free.”