Mainlanders in HK protests

HONG KONG — As Hong Kong is rocked by political chaos, Chinese mainlander Briony Lin has found herself joining the mass protests, an act that would be unthinkable under the authoritarian regime back home.

The huge rallies and clashes coursing through the international finance hub are the latest outburst of anger by Hong Kongers who believe Beijing is stamping down on the city’s unique freedoms and culture.

But for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese mainlanders who make the city their home, the movement sparks mixed emotions.

Some strongly disagree with the protests, which were set off by a now-suspended plan to allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.

Many have sympathies with the movement, but keep it to themselves — fearful of retribution by Chinese authorities, or being made to feel unwelcome by local protesters.

A small number of people, like Lin, have taken to the streets.

“This is the first social movement that I’ve experienced,” said the 27-year-old, who moved to Hong Kong four years ago from a city in northern China.

“Hong Kong is the only place in China where freedom of speech can be exercised... I want to be there for my own rights and be there to see for myself what the protests are like,” she told AFP.

Lin said she was happy to give her name and, unlike many, eschewed wearing a mask at the rallies — although she has stayed clear of the more violent confrontations.

Some one million mainlanders have migrated to Hong Kong since its 1997 handover to China, a diaspora that is itself a source of friction in a city of 7.3 million beset by sky-high property prices and a huge housing shortage.

Inside Hong Kong they are afforded the same free speech protections as any other inhabitant, but they risk censure or punishment on return to the mainland should authorities deem them to be critical of Beijing.

Lin said she was indifferent to politics before she moved to the city.

But the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers into Chinese mainland custody — and discovering more about the Cultural Revolution on its 50th anniversary — changed that.

“If the (extradition) bill is passed, the disappearance of booksellers would happen again within the law,” she said.          

Not all share Lin’s bravado.

In China the protests have been portrayed as a violent, foreign-funded plot, not a mass movement against Beijing’s increased influence over the semi-autonomous hub.

AFP approached some 20 mainland tourists in Kowloon to ask them their thoughts and only six had heard there were rallies.