China finds Hong Kong hard to swallow

Mainlanders think new compatriots are `stuck up'
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According to the ubiquitous posters put up by the Hong Kong government, the former British colony has now returned to the embrace of the motherland. But that does not answer the question of who is running what, particularly in southern China, just across the border.

Hong Kong's influence seems to be all-pervasive here. Most families keep their televisions tuned to Hong Kong channels, restaurants evoke a Hong Kong connection to suggest a better quality of food and service, and Hong Kong fashions, rock stars and all forms of popular culture, are everywhere.

The former British colony accounts for three-quarters of foreign investment in the province. Some 50,000 Hong Kong companies employ around five million workers in the region, far more than the three million workers they employ back home.

Travelling to the provincial capital of Guangzhou from the border opens up a panorama of Hong Kong influence. The highway connecting the two places was built by the ebullient Gordon Wu, a Hong Kong businessman; the factories on either side of the road are predominantly Hong Kong run.

This proximity and influence is not necessarily translated into affection. The people of Guangdong Province (better known as Canton) often appear to have the same attitude towards their Hong Kong neighbours as wartime Britons had of American soldiers: over-sexed, over-paid and all too often over here.

They recognise the Hongkongers are needed, but that does not necessarily make them welcome, with their flashy Rolex watches, their "second wives" across the border and their know-it-all manner.

At the Rock'n'Roll Club, in Guangzhou, the epitome of a Hong Kong-style fashionable disco, a young man who calls himself "Jimmy" is dismissive of the Hong Kong people. He uses a Chinese expression to describe them which roughly translates as being "stuck up".

"They think we're rustic people," he complains. But, he asks, "what they do they know, except money?"

Yet in many ways he wants to be like his compatriots. He likes Hong Kong fashions, has purchased a flat and aspires to more or less everything a typical Hongkonger aspires to. It's just Hong Kong people he can't stand. He accuses them of lacking knowledge of things Chinese and being too westernised.

These views tend to lurk beneath the surface. In a host of other ways Guangdong and Hong Kong are coming closer together. The linguistic link is crucial. Officially, the whole of China is supposed to speak Putonghua, "the common people's language". In reality, regional dialects or languages are showing a tenacity for survival which defies the intentions of central planners.

In Guangdong the use of Cantonese has been greatly reinforced by cultural influences coming from Hong Kong. The popular radio stations, trying to compete with stations from Hong Kong, have switched to Cantonese. Local officials who are supposed to speak only in Putonghua while on duty quickly switch to Cantonese in an attempt to gain public support.

As standards of living improve in Guangdong, the similarity in lifestyle grows by the day. Sometimes it is difficult to remember that the province is part of a Communist state. But the prosperity which is evident in Guangzhou soon peters out in the northern parts of the province.

Last month there were reports of rioting in Beixiang village, some 150 miles north of the city. Farmers besieged local officials, whom they accused of short-changing them in payments for grain. This was both a reminder of continuing state control over agriculture and the readiness of local people to protest.

While the rest of the country was swept by the 1989 democracy protests, Guangdong more or less kept its head down. The province may be guilty of the "spiritual pollution" which the Communist Party is busy fighting, but it shows few signs of being engaged in "counter-revolutionary activity", a rather more serious matter.

Hong Kong, however, is also the source of counter-revolutionary information and, if the more paranoid Chinese leaders are to be believed, counter revolutionary activity. Access to the Hong Kong media ensures that Guangdong people are far better informed about world and Chinese affairs than the rest of China.

For the time being, this information does not appear to have any damaging impact on the Communist Party's control of the province. But there may be a price to pay. It is hard to reconcile the high level of propaganda about Hong Kong's return to the motherland, and the preservation of its capitalist system, with an insistence that the freedoms and rights accorded to the people of the former colony should not be extended to the rest of China.

For the time being, double-digit economic growth and enormous improvements in the standard of living are helping to keep subversive thoughts at bay.

However, as the Chinese Communist Party knows all too well, Guangdong has been a hotbed of revolution before. As it grows apart from the rest of the country, with Hong Kong assistance, it may return to its former role.

Forked tongues

Hong Kong has traditionally spoken Cantonese, often described as a dialect. But although the written characters are roughly similar to those used in mainland China, there is a huge difference in the spoken language, with Cantonese employing at least seven spoken tones, to Mandarin's five.

Mandarin, the language of China-at-large, covers many different dialects. The regional differences in spoken Chinese can be alarming. "To wash your hair" in spoken Shanghainese sounds to a native of Peking like saying "to beat your head in". The concept of putonghua ("common language"), based on northern pronunciation, was introduced this century, as a means of creating linguistic unity.