China And Hong Kong, Diary Of A Difficult (Re)Marriage

The bumps and bruises continue 15 years after Hong Kong returned into Chinese hands. Now it’s up to both to try harder.

Central Hong Kong viewed from the Avenue of Stars promenade (Ed Coyle Photography)
Central Hong Kong viewed from the Avenue of Stars promenade (Ed Coyle Photography)
Yan Yung

BEIJING - On July 1st Hong Kong celebrated the 15th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule. What is familiar in this celebration in comparison with the last one five years ago is the stately discourse from China's central government as well as the words of gratitude from Hong Kong officials. What is different are the much more vigorous sounds of civic discord coming from both the Hong Kong public and prominent scholars.

A famous spat between the locals and the mainlanders over eating food on the metro turned into name-calling by both parties. A Chinese professor labeled the islanders "poodles of the British," to which the Hongkongese retaliated by posting ads calling the mainlanders "locusts," citing the tens of thousands of pregnant mainland women who've dropped in to give birth on the island.

These clashes have soured the two peoples' view of each other. Coupled with this popular resentment is the view shared by numerous intellectuals in Hong Kong that the island should be careful to guard its city-state autonomy rather than succumb to the interests of the mainland.

What has caused such changes? The pessimists believe that the differences between the two different groups of people, formed by different political systems and laws, can sometimes be even bigger than that existing between two different ethnic groups. Thus, Hong Kong will stay forever Hong Kong, China will be always China, and the two are never going to be integrated.

There are also those who hold the arrogant view that this mutual antipathy exists because Hong Kong used to be so much more advanced than mainland China. Now facing the rise of China and its own economic stagnation, Hong Kong's confidence has been shattered and resentment has made its people unbalanced. After all, before the opening up of China, the Hongkongese used to aid mainland refugees who ventured across the border to arrive in Hong Kong, whereas today the Chinese with their money are buying up its most expensive real estate and shops.

Nevertheless, in the process of integrating the two parties, the friction is not necessarily a bad thing, and may be a normal byproduct of the deepening fusion. The year 1997 is but a ceremonial point in time. Just like a couple, the real joining together continues long after the wedding.

Looking back over the last 15 years, the exchanges of people, goods and capital between the mainland and Hong Kong are all making them gradually more entwined. Since the start of the Individual Visit Scheme in 2003 whereby the Chinese traveler can visit Hong Kong and Macau on an individual basis, Hong Kong receives nearly 30 million mainland visitors a year. Chinese youngsters go to the colleges there; young mainland parents buy their baby milk there; and yes, pregnant women flock to give birth in Hong Kong's hospitals.

Hong Kong is also the offshore currency trading center of the ambitious Chinese Yuan, while businessmen from the island continue to find opportunities northwards on the mainland.

History is forever evolving and forming a different environment. Both the mainland and Hong Kong are in a new historical context and they both need to transform.

The generation in the prime of their life today in Hong Kong is mostly composed of those who grew up during the period when China was closed. To them, the mainland was a strange, isolated adjacent area that they shut out of their consciousness so as not to disturb their prosperity and stability.

However, the favorable factors of the 1970s and 1980s that created the golden age of Hong Kong weren't going to stay around forever. Meanwhile, China has developed to such a degree that the geographic advantage of Hong Kong is reduced. Hong Kong no longer monopolizes the interests of the Pearl River delta hinterland. Beyond all the rhetoric and public spats, mutual integration is indeed the growing tendency on both sides.

Myths, old and new

At the same time, no one can deny that Hong Kong has been hit hard: by external factors, changes in the population structure and the long-term partial eclipse of its industry, along with structural unemployment and underemployment. The lower rungs of the social ladder complain that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Young people do not see any future. Hong Kong has to adjust its own imbalance.

To the mainlanders, Hong Kong was a myth. Now they are writing their own myth with the realities of their economic rise --and feeding their self-confidence in this process.

People talk about the various problems that Hong Kong is encountering. But are Chinese people really ignoring the glory that this city still possesses? Hong Kong is unique not only for its geographic advantages, but also a financial sector that is still clearly formidable.

In 2010, when Rusal, the world's largest aluminum company, was listed on the Hong Kong exchange, its Moscow-based bosses described the city's regulatory environment as "tough but fair." Hong Kong's financial sector took that as the utmost praise. They believe that the financial center is more than ever the core of its soft-power competitiveness --and the spirit of freedom, fairness, openness and integrity is still around.

This past month in Hong Kong, people were far more concerned about the horrendous scandal of the poor Chinese woman who was forced to undergo a late-term abortion than the successful launch of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft that China cheered with fanfare.

Both the mainland and Hong Kong need to change, and they must find a way to talk to each other as these changes occur.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Ed Coyle Photography

*Note: due to an editing error, an earlier version mistakenly stated the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong. It happened 15 years ago.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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