It started on the subway. A Hong Kong guy told a Mainland mother, who was letting her kid eat dried noodles, and drop some on the floor, that eating wasn't allowed on the train. Other Mainland Chinese sitting nearby mocked the Hong Kong guy's less-than-perfect Mandarin. He retorted that this was Hong Kong – they should be speaking the language here – Cantonese. A verbal feud broke out and police came in.
Eventually, the guy told another Hong Konger who'd come to his defense — "don't bother. Mainlanders are just like this."
All this was captured on video, and the video went viral. Some Hong Kongers called the guy a hero. A Peking University professor named Kong Qingdong, hit back on a talk show in Beijing.
"We don't have the responsibility to speak dialect, but everyone has the responsibility to speak Mandarin," he said. "Those who think they don't have to are bastards. Many Hong Kongers think they are not Chinese. Those kinds of people were British running dogs. Now they are just dogs."
That video went viral too. So did a music video out of Hong Kong, that put new words to the popular Canto-pop song "Under Fuji Mountain" by Eason Chan. It calls Mainlanders locusts, and depicts them as "stealing, cheating, and lying." "Thanks to Mainland China," it says, "Hong Kong is deteriorating inch by inch."
It wasn't meant to be like this. When Britain handed sovereignty of Hong Kong over to the People's Republic of China on a soggy June evening in 1997, China's leaders expected that Hong Kong would return with its heart, as well as its territory. Anxiety at the time ran high, both among Hong Kongers and among international investors.
But fears were soon calmed, when China showed it was mostly serious about its agreement with Britain to maintain "One Country, Two Systems" for at least 50 years. The Hong Kong media remain far freer, Hong Kong courts far more impartial and Hong Kong's financial world far more transparent than anything found in Mainland China.
Still, Hong Kongers complain that some erosion to civil rights have occurred, and the younger generation has shown itself to be more vocal, even vociferous, in defending Hong Kong rights and identity. Some have even sung the Cantopop locust song at Mainland tourists as they walk by. Mainland tourists have given Hong Kong's economy a boost, but annoy Hong Kongers with what's often seen as uncouth and brash behavior.
Mainlanders could point to uncouth behavior by Hong Kongers, too. Quan Xixi, a Mainland graduate student in journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says a friend of hers was spat on because she was speaking Mandarin on the phone to her mother back in Mainland China.
"My friend just cried, and called me to ask for help," says Quan Xixi. "This made me very angry. I think there are always some extremist people and — I don't like their attitude."
Quan Xixi is young and hip and open to Hong Kong culture. She finds it interesting that there's a statue of the Goddess of Democracy on her campus — a sculpture made by students to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing, and says if she'd been young and in China then, she probably would have joined the demonstrators.
"I think students in Hong Kong have a serious enthusiasm about the Tiananmen Square event … Every student in Hong Kong talks about it and is curious about it," she says. "For them, it's a signal that Hong Kong has a higher democracy than the Mainland."
She can accept that, but she says Hong Kongers also look down on Mainland Chinese in other ways.
"In their mind, Chinese people are less cultivated," she says. "They don't want to become a part of them. And internationally, Hong Kong has a higher status than Mainland people. So they don't want to admit they're Chinese. They just say, 'I'm a Hong Konger.'"
At the same university, government studies professor Ma Ngok suggests a few reasons Hong Kongers might be feeling this way.
"Some people are worried that the Mainland tourists came and pushed local consumer prices up," he says. "And for the lower class immigrants, some worried that they took away welfare, and were a burden on Hong Kong society. Of course, the most recent debate is about Mainland women, who come down to give birth in Hong Kong."
More than 30,000 such women came last year — paying a premium to give birth in Hong Kong, so their babies would have Hong Kong resident status, and could go to better schools and hospitals in Hong Kong, even if their parents still live across the border. Hong Kongers complain this is a drain on resources.
Even Mainland women who have Hong Kong husbands are protesting. A group of them and their supporters recently gathered outside the Hong Kong Chief Executive's office to deliver a petition. They want to be given priority for hospital beds over Mainlanders with no Hong Kong ties.
"They don't treat us fairly," said Yang Li Xiang, 21, who married her Hong Kong husband 11 months ago and is due to give birth in April. "Our husbands are Hong Kong residents who pay taxes. We shouldn't be treated the same as someone who comes from outside."
Some Hong Kongers agree, while others say, Hong Kong services should be for current Hong Kong residents only. But there's more going on than anger over food in the subways, or Mainland women in Hong Kong hospitals. There's also been a shift in how Hong Kongers feel about being part of China.
"Hong Kong is a free society. We treasure different views," says Robert Chung, director of the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Program. "And when we see dissidents in China being oppressed and being jailed, of course people are skeptical about it. That has been very clear to us and Chinese officials know that too."
For 20 years now, Chung has been doing regular surveys of how Hong Kong people see themselves. His most recent survey found that, for the first time, a majority identify as "Hong Konger" rather than Chinese. It also found that trust in the Chinese government has fallen sharply over the past three years, as that government has cracked down on and imprisoned civil rights activists in China.
The survey results have irritated the Chinese government. The response has been — metaphorically — to shoot the messenger. Hong Kong media with ties to China's Communist Party have called Chung a traitor, and accused him of having ulterior motives.
"That's not really welcome by me, or by Hong Kong society. Because those are not really civilized ways of discussing a problem," he says. "I don't mind discussing with anybody about the motives of our work, the findings of our work, the methodology of our work, but I think it has to be done in a very civilized way. "
But that's not the way Hong Kong's Beijing-friendly leftist press operate, says government studies professor Ma Ngok. He says they've been known to target individuals in Cultural Revolution-style smear campaigns, hoping to discredit the target, and dissuade others from speaking out.
"The leftist press have always been unhappy with certain figures in Hong Kong, because they think they're anti-China," Ma says. "I think they are testing the waters, and if it will work, and if it will silence some critics, they will go on. But if it creates a big outcry, they will silence a little bit for awhile. And then they will pick another time."
They'll have another opportunity next month. That's when Chung plans to run a civil referendum – a kind of shadow election, to see who Hong Kongers would elect as their leader – if they were given that right. They were supposed to have had it five years ago —they'll have to wait at least another five. But there's always Chung's referendum.
"It will be Internet voting, plus of course on-site polling station type of voting," Chung says. "We think this will be some sort of futuristic technology for civil society participation."
And it's happening just days before a Beijing-approved group of delegates elects Hong Kong's next Chief Executive. There are two candidates. Public opinion polls are already showing the one favored by Beijing, Henry Tang, is polling in the low 20s. If Tang is chosen, when he's known to be unpopular, it could provoke an outcry from Hong Kongers, and could embarrass Beijing in a year when China faces its own leadership transition. In the midst of all this, Robert Chung says he's already getting more criticism for his plan to hold the civil referendum.
"I won't say the Mainland government, because they have not made any statement," he says. "But the commentators, the radical leftist commentators, they have already branded this activity as unconstitutional, and with separatist motives."
Chung chuckles. In his sweater and wire-rimmed glasses, he looks pleasant and scholarly — hardly a threat to China's territorial integrity. And he's not, he says. He suggests his data could be useful to China's and Hong Kong's leaders — to help them better understand, and serve, the people they govern. And that just might help more Hong Kongers be more accepting of their Mainland compatriots — and of their own status as citizens of the People's Republic of China.