Hong Kong and China – Diversity and Permeability


Image: The New Garden Path Along the Great Wall of China. Image source: Trey Ratcliff via Flickr Creative Commons

Image: The New Garden Path Along the Great Wall of China. Image source: Trey Ratcliff via Flickr Creative Commons

When one thinks of China, ‘walls’ can sometimes spring to mind.

When looking for a classic pun to describe China’s compendium of internet controls and regulations, or colloquially; ‘the Golden Shield’, the world’s commentators alighted on the term the ‘Great Firewall of China’.

The internet, as a powerful symbol of article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, that of freedom of information, expression and association has modernised, popularised and deepened the ‘Great Wall’ discourse so that everyone with sufficient access to ICT can partake in ideas of China’s impenetrability.

The ‘Great Wall’ sits alongside another set of ideas about China – that it is very permeable to ideas, things and people. The recent and on going political demonstrations over Beijing’s white paper on Hong Kong’s democratic election system is the strongest indication that the ‘two systems’ of China’s two-systems-one-country approach interact and have – maybe a dangerous – potential to transform the other.

Now consider food. From the deadly outbreak of avian flu, or H5N1, back in the early 2000s to more recent scandals on milk powder and now ‘tainted’ chicken, Hong Kong and South China are hyper-connected in an intimate ‘food shed‘. That a sizeable Chinese population still cross the border into Hong Kong to parallel trade in milk powder and rice is a source of tension, but it also highlights the robust movement of people and materials between Hong Kong and China.

Image: China-Hong Kong Border (Shenzhen checkpoint). Image source: Canadian Pacific via Flickr Creative Commons

Image: China-Hong Kong Border (Shenzhen checkpoint). Image source: Canadian Pacific via Flickr Creative Commons

Hong Kong’s visa regime also demonstrates how permeable China is. Reflective of its past and its ambitions, Hong Kong’s application-on-arrival visa scheme extends to Europe, parts of South and Central America, Southeast Asia and India. Conversely, only Singaporeans and the citizens of Brunei, Japan and a handful of other countries are awarded a visa-on-arrival in China, and the corresponding Chinese visa system of invitation letters privileges very specific types of trade and, now increasingly, tourism.

China’s 2010 census indicates that there are slightly less than 600,000 foreigners living in China: a doubling of foreigners since the 1990’s when China’s market-oriented reforms would have made an impact¹. Figures reported in media sources suggest that this is a severe undercount.

That China is attracting long-stayers, including West and East Africans is, of course, partially a product of its ‘Going Out’ policy – as Chinese businesses set up in parts of Africa and Asia they actively thicken lines of migration.

But what of short-term African and Asian traders who, in the popular imagination, seemingly make up the bulk of the immigrant numbers in the above media reports? China’s increasing diversity is also a product of the Guangzhou-Hong Kong trader connection. Guangzhou, and its media moniker ‘China’s chocolate city’ indicate that it is very much embedded in the movements of Southern traders. Hong Kong is implicated in this process – the Canton Trade Fair in Guangzhou is a peak period for Hong Kong Immigration authorities. Hong Kong’s notorious Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui is, a ‘world centre’² for small commodity traders from South Asia, Middle east, and West and East Africa is minutes away from the train line which connects Hong Kong to Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

These visible minorities in China’s southern manufacturing belt are both, perhaps irreconcilably, framed as a political problem and an economic solution. Increasing trade disputes – for example between Indian traders and Chinese manufacturers coupled with the significant number of traders having to overstay or simply deciding to remain in China illegally, all go to indicate the kind of commitment of resources and time required to make South China’s small commodity manufacturing a success in the country’s increasingly globalised economy.

These traders, it seems, have always needed to be managed, policed, their mobility curtailed somehow. The very fact that many foreign traders are still required to be invited by their Chinese partners to obtain their visa, an invitation that can be highly political if there are disputes to settle, takes away the whiff of extra-territoriality³. But the fact that they cluster in urban ethnic communities – Chungking Mansions is an example, Xiaobei in Guangzhou is another – is a kind of technology that makes policing these populations both easier and harder. In response, some city administrations are allowing increasing powers of consultation with foreigners to enable them to ‘police’ themselves.

It is an uncomfortable status quo, but one that is looking ahead at long promised and comprehensive Chinese reforms to ‘normalize’ and professionalize immigration, guaranteeing rights and systems of accountability. Chinese migration expert Pieke predicts suggests that China is moving slowly and reluctantly. This is because such reforms agitates at the heart of China’s own domestic strategies, such as population management and Chinese access to the benefits of economic reform. This results in a retreat to old psychological grounds, where foreigners ‘are still treated on the basis of the old exclusionary discourse as carriers of subversive influences that may harm Chinese society..’4

Since China commenced its open-door policy in 1979, and now since handover in 1997, Hong Kong has been a key facilitator in China’s contact point with the world5. China’s increasing diversity and permeability is underpinned by Hong Kong’s role as an international hub for southern migrants. But psychological walls exist, more powerful than real or technological ones, that inhibit China’s true networking into the global economy of which small southern traders are a fundamental part.


1. Pieke, F. 2012 Immigrant China. Modern China 38(1) 40-77. pg. 45
2. Mathews, G. 2011. Ghetto at the center of the world : Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. Chicago, Ill. and London : University of Chicago Press. pg. 43
3. Thampi, M. 2005. Indians in China 1800-1949. Delhi: Manohar Publishers. pg. 225
4. Pieke, ibid. pg. 64
5. Sung, Yun-Wing. 1991. The China-Hong Kong Connection: The key to China’s Open Door Policy. Hong Kong: Cambridge University Press. 27-28.

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