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Hong Kong Troubles: Interview with Cam MacMurchy (Part 2)

In the second part of this interview, Cam MacMurchy continues the conversation on social divisions between the small territory of Hong Kong and its country, China. Interview conducted by Kevin Kwok.

Question 4: Do you have hope that the divide will be bridged in due course?

Cam Macmurchy: One of two things will likely happen: Hong Kong will be overrun with people from the mainland, thus watering down the so-called “Hong Kong identity” and declawing Hong Kong. Should this happen, I think it would be a very sad day for Hong Kong and China.

The second possibility is Hong Kong and the mainland develop a respect and understanding for one another. Both sides have a lot to offer each other, and I think it behooves all Chinese people to show a respect for cultural differences, even if they are inside one’s own country.

I have to stress this is anathema to traditional Chinese thought. China sees strength in uniformity, whereas the west has recently adopted a model that seeks strength in diversity. China is a diverse country, and it saddens me when people advocate using Putonghua in Guangzhou, or assimilation in Xinjiang and Tibet, or even a diminished role for Shanghainese in Shanghai. I often feel that Beijing’s respect for regional differences will more likely result in reciprocal respect for Beijing. 

Finally, I do believe there is still a segment of mainland society (Kong Qingdong, for example) that still feels aggrieved by British involvement in Hong Kong and views Hong Kong people’s motives suspiciously. The culture gap is seen as Hong Kong’s problem, the result of “brainwashing” at the hands of Britain.  Furthermore, Hong Kong was prosperous and making movies and music that infiltrated the mainland, spreading images of a vibrant city into parts of China during times of turmoil and poverty. I think, on some level, there is some sense of payback on mainland people’s part when they come down to Hong Kong and flash money around, knowing the tables have turned.

Ultimately though, China is now overseeing a very active civil society that it doesn’t have a lot in common with. People on both sides are uncomfortable with this, but both sides need each other and can benefit mutually if they work at the relationship.

Question 5: In January, you wrote a post for your blog entitled, “What it means to be ‘Chinese’ in Hong Kong”. The post spread like wildfire amongst Hong Kong netizens – it was everywhere on my social media feeds at the time – and garnered significant public attention. Why do you think the post got so much attention? What about it do you think struck a chord amongst your readers?

Cam Macmurchy: I remember I wrote that post in the evening and went to bed, and woke up and saw it had been read thousands of times. For the next week, the blog went crazy as the post circulated in overseas Chinese communities and went viral on Facebook. I think in a 7-day period it was read some 32,000 times.

I think the post really struck a chord because it said what most Hong Kong people are feeling. I was contacted by the editor of a Hong Kong newspaper who said he sent the article to his son, who was having identity issues in Australia. That meant a lot. 

Still, I think it’s strange that kind of a post ended up being written by a foreigner!

Question 6: In spite of all that’s happened, what are some things that you think Hong Kong people could yet learn from their mainland brethren? Likewise what are lessons that people from mainland China could learn from the people of Hong Kong?

Cam MacMurchy: I think Hong Kong people need to make a better effort at learning more about contemporary China. I know there is no love lost for the Communist Party, but China has changed and continues to change in amazing ways. Some of my Hong Kong friends tell me they haven’t been to Shenzhen since the late 1990s, and Shenzhen is only an hour away. I think Hong Kong people need to give China a chance, and give it more credit for how far it’s come.

On the flip side, I think mainland Chinese people (and, I should note, some foreigners living in the mainland) should give more respect to Hong Kong as a diverse and unique society in China. I often compare Hong Kong to Quebec in Canada: it’s a different region with a different language, culture, and history. That’s a good thing, and something worth preserving. Hong Kong doesn’t need to be like the rest of China to be Chinese.

Question 7: What are your thoughts on the emerging trend of expats leaving China for good? Do you think Hong Kong is susceptible to that trend, and why (or why not)?

Cam MacMurchy: This is a very good (and timely) question. I’ve watched the expat exodus (if one indeed exists; this is debatable) with interest. I am not surprised some foreigners have decided to leave, because I’ve been in the same position. I noted on The Nanfang that perhaps China is a young person’s game, and not suitable for those with families. Some of the issues being raised, such as food quality and air pollution, are reasons that resonate with me and ultimately factored into my decision to leave the mainland. However, that wasn’t the full story.

I love China, and I knew that after having lived in Beijing for three years I was beginning to make contacts and friends and put down some roots. I was making enough money and living well and having a good time. But I asked myself: is this where I see myself staying? Do I want to invest a good portion of my young career here? Is China stable and safe enough for the long term? Do I foresee raising kids here someday? 

Unfortunately, despite my enjoyment of China at the time, the answers to many of these questions was “no”. So my move from China, like that of Charlie Custer and Mark Kitto, was done as a conscious choice to try and better myself on some level. I feel that Hong Kong is more stable in the long term, the level of professionalism is higher, the legal protections are greater, the pay better, and I still get to deal with China on a day-to-day basis and visit on weekends if I miss it.

Ultimately, each individual needs to make up his or her mind on whether staying is worthwhile. For many industries, China remains the place to be despite the pollution and other health hazards. But I don’t believe anybody should stay anywhere just because it’s comfortable, or just because they’ve stayed there a long time already. We should all be somewhere we choose to be, not where we end up.

Question 8: Do you ever see yourself moving back to China from Hong Kong? How are your efforts at your new website The Nanfang influenced by your time in China even as you are now based in Hong Kong?

Cam Macmurchy: I’m really enjoying working on The Nanfang. I do feel the Pearl River Delta region is the most dynamic and interesting region in the mainland. The sheer density of cities makes the area compelling: you can gamble in Macau, take a dip in a hot springs in Zhuhai, have dim sum in Guangzhou, golf in Dongguan, party in Shenzhen, and shop in Hong Kong all in a few days. I also like the dual-language component, as it’s fun to flip between Cantonese and Putonghua depending on who you’re talking to.

Also, it used to bother me when people in Beijing would refer to Shanghai as “south China”. Technically it is, but there’s a whole lot more that’s further south than Shanghai! We wanted to build a website that celebrated the “real” south of China and provide resources to foreigners and other English-speaking people, because this area had nothing like that before. Beijing and Shanghai were overrun with online resources, and we felt it was time to do something down here, too.

Doing the site from Hong Kong does pose challenges, because Hong Kong is so removed from what’s happening in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, even though they are only a few hours apart. I also found when I lived in the mainland, things would happen to me each day that were interesting and compelled me to write, whereas Hong Kong is rather boring in that respect. It’s just so established and set in its ways already.

I don’t know if I’ll ever move back to the mainland. I’m fairly set on staying in Hong Kong for the next few years, perhaps to get my permanent residency, as it will be nice later in life to have a place in Asia I can call home. That being said, I am up in Shenzhen and Guangzhou nearly every weekend for Nanfang-related work, so I do still spend a lot of time up there. If the site takes off, you never know.

The views expressed in this interview are the interviewee's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.