Edward Kus is a Research Associate in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
Beijing's political influence over Hong Kong is growing, but the cultural and ideological flow between Hong Kong and the mainland is not one-sided. Hong Kong ideals are slowly drifting into mainland China as increasing numbers of mainland Chinese travel between Hong Kong and their homes, raising awareness among mainlanders of the differences between the two systems, and potentially providing a spark for social change on the mainland.
Beijing is stepping up its soft-power influence over Hong Kong. The architects of the handover in 1997 envisaged an incremental return to governance with 'Chinese characteristics' in Hong Kong. But even though the Hong Kong Basic Law stipulates 'the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years', most Hong Kong residents will tell you things are already changing.
Examples of Beijing's growing influence abound. A proposed new history curriculum for Hong Kong elementary schools has struck a nerve with Hong Kong residents because it contains materials describing the Communist Party of China as 'progressive, selfless and united'. Another major change has been the influx of mainland Chinese visiting and living in Hong Kong, leading to fears that cultural values may begin to change.
But many mainland Chinese leave Hong Kong with a heightened awareness of the media controls and lack of freedom of speech back home. One New York Times report explains how several hundred of the tens of thousands who protested during the new Hong Kong CEO's swearing-in were actually from mainland China. A mainland protester is quoted saying: 'It is not possible to protest in China, so we come here instead'.
What does it mean for China if its citizens increasingly voice their grievances in Hong Kong? As these visitors return home with the experience of a robust rule of law and relative freedom of speech it is only a matter of time before these ideas are voiced in mainland communities.
Indications suggest the next five years of China's development will be characterised by a renewed emphasis on 'justice' or 'fairness' in order to further entrench the rule of law (link is in Chinese). But, given Beijing's preference for pilot reform programs (or as Deng Xiaoping called it, 'crossing the river by feeling for the stones'), China's Special Economic Zones will likely be the beneficiaries of these reforms before plans are rolled out to other regions. Shenzhen is a prime candidate, particularly given its proximity to, and increasing links with, Hong Kong.
One thing is certain: mainlanders want to talk openly about contentious issues. They find voice on social media such as Weibo (China's version of Twitter), where in recent weeks the devastating Beijing floods and the anniversary of the Wenzhou high-speed train disaster have been hot topics. Unfortunately, Beijing's censors still hastily remove any controversial tweets. One Weibo user named Wang Wei, whose post was removed, said: 'this issue (the Wenzhou high-speed train disaster) has been dropped into a black hole. Can such a huge price in human lives be forgotten and harmonized?'
Perhaps the growing ideological drift from Hong Kong will provide the spark for further political pluralisation and Hong Kong will end up being the tail wagging the dog.
Photo by Flickr user angel.a.acevedo.