Immigration Perceptions in Hong Kong: Anti-Mainland Sentiment

James Downes investigates why anti-mainland sentiment persists in Hong Kong, the implications this poses for society and the importance of the current Equal Opportunities Commission consultation process.

Although Hong Kong is a diverse society, current attitudes amongst citizens towards particular immigrant groups is strained. Seventeen years after the handover of sovereignty in Hong Kong, it appears that the divide between citizens in the former British colony and those from the mainland are increasing (Skeldon, 2014). This article investigates why some Hong Kongers hold negative perceptions towards mainlanders and the implications this poses for an inclusive Hong Kong society.

Public Opinion Surveys

Evidence from Hong Kong public opinion surveys in recent years has further shown the rise of anti-China sentiment in Hong Kong amongst residents (Chou, 2012; Chou et al, 2013). Various explanations can be put forward to explain this trend.

1. Birth Tourism

Much of this sentiment is centred on the perception of a rise in birth tourism, a phenomenon where mainland Chinese women have crossed the borders in order to give birth. Current legislation permits Ethnic Chinese babies who have been born in Hong Kong to receive the right to live and work in Hong Kong alongside automatically obtaining the right to carry a Hong Kong passport.

2. One Child Policy

Another perception advanced by Hong Kong residents is that mainlanders migrate to Hong Kong in order to avoid the one-child policy and give birth in Hong Kong, so as to avoid heavy fines imposed by the People’s Republic of China Government.

3. Mainland Tourism

A third and perhaps more fundamental reason has centred on increased levels of tourism amongst affluent mainland Chinese citizens and recent rows have erupted over this issue in affluent Western shops in the area of Tsim Sha Tsui in 2012.


Recent Developments

In 2012, an anti-China campaign known as the “anti-locust” campaign featured in the widely read Apple Daily Newspaper and has again resurfaced in the last year. Gordon Matthews a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong argued that the 2012 protests in Tsim Sha (BBC, 2012) Tsui are typified by a combination of envy on behalf of Hong Kong residents towards affluent Chinese mainlanders (Chou, 2012). The rise of anti-Mainland sentiment amongst Hong Kongers alongside other contemporary issues has led to the Equal Opportunities Commission to undertake a consultation review on its four anti-discrimination ordinances, in particular involving reform of the racial discrimination ordinance. The author of this article attended the recent consultation session in Taikoo Shing and noted how the focus fell largely on anti-mainland sentiment. The public forums in Cantonese have also focused on the issues of anti-mainland sentiment and de facto marriage. The next section explores some theoretical underpinnings behind anti-mainland sentiment in Hong Kong.

Realist Conflict Theory

Classic sociological theories have examined how ethnic in-groups take an unfavourable stance towards outsider groups in societies. (Blalock, 1967). These theories have been applied in examining the effects of ethnic in-group and out-group attitudes on extreme right-wing support in Europe (Lubbers, et al, 2002). According to this theory, Hong Kongers may hold high levels of anti-immigrant sentiment towards mainland Chinese immigrants as they perceive them to be a threat towards existing economic resources. Recent surveys conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Education verify this trend with around 50.6% of Hong Kong citizens outlining the need to reduce the number of mainland immigrants (South China Morning Post, 2012).

Split Labour Market Theory

Split Labour Market theory argues that labour market competition is the centripetal force which drives ethnic conflicts between groups in society. The logic of the theory holds that ethnic in-groups will react in a hostile manner to the introduction of another ethnic group into the labour market due to the perceived economic threat that this group poses in driving down wages. Financial insecurity is likely to increase and conflict between ethnic in-groups and ethnic out-groups may occur as a result (Bonacich, 1972; 1979). A recent economic study has highlighted increased levels of inequality in Hong Kong between the rich and poor (Business Insider, 2012). When a dominant economic group is perceived to be threatened, it more or less follows that scapegoating takes place, with a minority ethnic group being attributed blame for declining economic conditions. This socio-psychological mechanism may account for the recent trend in increased levels of anti-mainland sentiment amongst the Hong Kong citizenry. For example, the recent “anti-locust” campaign by sections of Hong Kong citizens disgruntled at the recent influx of mainland Chinese tourists embodies this trend (International Business Times, 2014).

Social Identity Theory

This theory explores how a sense of superiority is obtained through a shared social identification process and not through economic categories (Tajfel, et al; 1979). In line with Social Identity Theory, ethnic in-groups apply favourable characteristics towards themselves and unfavourable characteristics towards outsider groups (Huddy 2001). This theory can be applied to the perceptions held by Hong Kong citizens towards outsider social groups such as mainland Chinese migrants. Furthermore, research undertaken by Keung and Bond (2002) confirms that Social Identity Theory and the perception of intergroup relations in Hong Kong was persistent in Hong Kong before the British handover of Hong Kong sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

Losers of Modernization Theory

The losers of modernization theory explores how a breakdown in social norms can occur due to rapid social change (Betz, 1994). This breakdown in social norms may be more prevalent amongst the working classes in society. The twenty-first century has seen an expansion of the world economy, with the onset of globalization fostering international trade alongside increased levels of migration across borders. A consequence of this transformation is that the traditional working class may feel threatened by the arrival of new migrants and an aversion to anti-globalization is likely to take place. In the European context, research has shown that extreme right-wing parties have attracted disenchanted individuals in society who feel threatened by immigration (Norris 2005, Lubbers et al 2002). With economic interdependence and the onset of globalization, these individuals will feel that their socio-economic position is threatened by immigrants. Applied to the Hong Kong context, this theory may conceivably shed light on the core drivers which predispose Hong Kong citizens to hold negative perceptions and in some cases prejudice towards Mainland Chinese immigrants who migrate to Hong Kong.


Anti-mainland sentiment clearly has a detrimental effect on creating an inclusive Hong Kong society. The current Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) consultation that is being undertaken offers a chance to revise the racial discrimination ordinance by extending it to cover discrimination against nationality and citizenship. The EOC’s systematic consultation process should be applauded not only in seeking to revise Hong Kong’s Basic Law, but in bringing it into line with international law and marks a step in the right direction for combating prejudice towards immigrants in Hong Kong.


Betz, Hans-Georg (1994). Radical right-wing populism in Western Europe. London: Macmillan

Blalock, Hubert, M., (1967). Toward a Theory of Minority-group Relations, John Wiley & Sons

Blumer, Herbert, G., (1957). “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position.” Pacific Sociological Review 1(1)

Bonacich, Edna. (1972). “A Theory of Ethnic Antagonism: The Split Labor Market." American Sociological Review 37: 547-59

Bonacich, Edna. (1979). “Advanced Capitalism and Black/White Race Relations in the United States: Split Labor Market Interpretation." American Sociological Review Vol. 41 (34)

Blinder, S. (2012). “UK public opinion toward immigration: overall attitudes and level of concern“, The Migration Observatory. University of Oxford, Policy Briefing, at

Chan, Chi-kin, (2005). “A Study of Hong Kong’s Immigration Policy for Mainland Chinese.“ The University of Hong Kong (Pokfulam, Hong Kong)

Chou, Kee-Lee, Chow, W.S., Wong, K.F., Yip, Hak Kwong (February, 2013). “A Study on New Arrivals from Mainland China“. Central Policy Unit: The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Policy 21 Limited

Chou, Kee-Lee (2012). HKIEd Survey: “HKIEd Survey: Negative Perceptions Hinder New Immigrants Integration into Hong Kong Society". In: The Hong Kong Institute of Education Media, 22nd November 2012

Facchini, G. and Mayda, A. M. (2008). “Attitudes and migration policy”. Economic Policy October

Huddy, L., (2001). “From Social to Political Identity: A Critical Examination of Social Identity Theory.” Political Psychology, Vol. 22 (1)

Keung, D. K. Y., & Bond, M. H. (2002). Dimensions of political attitudes and their relations with beliefs and values in Hong Kong. Journal of Psychology in Chinese Societies, 3, 133-154

Lubbers, Marcel, Gijsberts, Méove and Scheepers, Peer (2002). Extreme right-wing voting in

Western Europe. European Journal of Political Research, 345-378.

Norris, Pippa (2005). Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Skeldon, Ronald, (2014). "Hong Kong’s future population and manpower needs to 2030“, Technical Report, Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, Hong Kong

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33-48). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Copyright © 2015 The Ballot Box
Template By Herdiansyah Hamzah | Design By Jabin Law