By Zhang Yu
By answering mainlanders’ questions about Hong Kong on ‘Zhihu,’ a Chinese question-and-answer site, a Hong Kong teacher tries to diminish stereotypes about the city and improve mutual understanding. While his detailed, well-researched answers have made him a minor Internet celebrity, he has also met some trouble.
FOUR years ago, Hongkonger Lam Gin-gin took part in an exchange program which sent him to Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
In the icebreaking session, all his classmates were asked to introduce themselves. All the others said they were from Shandong, Yunnan or Guangdong provinces. But Lam simply said, “I’m Chinese.”
Lam wasn’t trying to be humorous. Previously, when taking classes at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, when he introduced himself as a Hongkonger, he was scorned. This was when he realized that calling yourself a Hongkonger, without adding the adjective “Chinese,” can sometimes be seen as politically incorrect in the mainland, where public opinion about Hong Kong is often mixed with stereotypes, misunderstandings and biases as tensions have risen between the city and mainland amid political movements led by radical activists in Hong Kong.
It was a period when mainland-Hong Kong relations were at their worst. Today, relations have warmed as the Occupy Central movement has faded away. When Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, visited Hong Kong last year, he said that Hongkongers will not lose their unique identity or autonomy. The city is now preparing for a grand celebration of the 20th anniversary of its handover to China and the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
In 2014, Lam returned to Hong Kong and started to answer mainland netizens’ questions about Hong Kong on “Zhihu,” a question-and-answer website, hoping his answers would minimize mainland stereotypes and biases against Hong Kong and Hongkongers and improve mutual understanding.
According to a 1997 definition coined by Hong Kong sociology professor Lui Tai-lok, Hongkongers can be divided into four generations. Members of the fourth generation are those born between 1976 and 1990 who, in many ways, share many similarities with the post-1980s generation in the Chinese mainland.
Both were born in an era of relative material abundance, and yet the increasingly stagnant social mobility in their societies has left both a sense of powerlessness.
Among the things that separate them, though, one is the Internet. Hongkongers use Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp as their social media and instant messaging tools, while mainlanders enjoy the convenience of their Chinese counterparts: Sina Weibo, Tencent WeChat and online forums such as Tianya.
As a result, despite growing exchanges in tourism and trade between Hong Kong and the mainland after 1997, their netizens have little interactions on the Internet. If anything, the separate online spaces they occupy have driven polarization. On Tianya, one of the most popular online forums on the Chinese mainland, discussions about Hong Kong often turn into mainlanders mocking Hong Kong’s chaotic political scene, cramped living conditions and less glamorous recent economic achievements—as opposed to that of the mainland.
In turn, on Hong Kong’s biggest forum Golden, many posts about the mainland are negative. Hong Kong netizens refer to the mainland satirically as “the powerful country,” to mock what they see as a country of conceited, self-important people whose favorite topic is to brag about China’s achievements.
Lam, himself a fourth-generation Hongkonger born in 1989, is trying to connect these two parallel worlds. He discovered Zhihu in 2013 through his ex-girlfriend, a mainlander who was then studying in Hong Kong. Back then, Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, was quickly becoming the most popular social media website in the mainland. For Lam, however, Weibo was too individual-centered. Weibo users were more interested in online celebrities, or “Big Vs,” than the authentic discussion of ideas, and many “discussions” were really verbal wars between fans of Big Vs with opposing views. In comparison, Zhihu is question-centered and encourages rational discussion.
In 2014, as tension grew between Hong Kong and the mainland, driven by movements like Occupy Central or the Umbrella Movement, questions about mainland-Hong Kong relations started to increase on Zhihu. “What did mainlanders do to Hongkongers to make them hate us so much?” “Is the Hong Kong SAR of any value to China anymore?” “Why are some young Hongkongers so radical?”
“Generally speaking, I appreciate mainland netizens’ curiosity about the world – I guess this is part of the reason why the mainland is developing so quickly nowadays,” Lam said.
But Lam also thinks many mainland netizens have little understanding of Hong Kong. “Most young mainlanders’ views of Hong Kong are pretty extreme. Some obviously resent the city, but a lot are willing to defend Hong Kong and Hongkongers,” he said.
Becoming an answerer
With a double major in sociology and liberal arts and a minor in history, Lam started to engage in scholarly discussions on Zhihu. Hoping to provide a more detailed context to mainland netizens, most of his answers are extremely lengthy.
In answering a question about whether young Hongkongers identify themselves as Chinese or not, for example, Lam used 22 pictures, 4,600 characters and references to various academic and government sources. He traced the issue of Hongkongers’ self identification to early British-controlled Hong Kong, when Hongkongers were most pro-China. That changed in the 1970s, when the British colonial government’s welfare policies and Hong Kong’s booming economy boosted localist consciousness among Hongkongers. This further changed in 1997, upon handover of Hong Kong to China, and in 2008 with changes in the geopolitical situation. That answer was upvoted 6,981 times on Zhihu, one of his most popular answers.
In response to another question asking why Hongkongers are much less tolerant to mainland tourists than Taiwan residents, Lam used statistics—Taiwan’s land area is about 30 times that of Hong Kong but 10 times more mainland tourists visit Hong Kong than head to Taiwan.
Lam said questions about Hongkongers’ self-identity are his favorite type of questions. “The change in Hongkongers’ self-identity involves complex historical and social reasons, and these changes often occur along with social events at that time. Observation of these changes is to some extent the observation of the entire society,” he said.
Sometimes, Lam’s answers reflect his own prejudices. In one answer, Lam complained that mainlanders reject Cantonese and traditional Chinese characters, which are part of Hong Kong culture. Many mainlanders commented that they have no such feelings at all. Lam later deleted this point in his answer and thanked mainland netizens for pointing that out to him. “Many netizens have very constructive views, for example some pointed out that Hong Kong missed out many opportunities, which helped me to reflect on the city’s limitations,” he said.
Not all questions are political. In fact, Lam said the most common questions about Hong Kong are lifestyle queries such as those about the best restaurants in the region or underrated Cantonese pop songs. “For me it’s a good thing. Their curiosity about our lifestyle shows the mainland and Hong Kong are on good terms,” he said
For Lam, all answers require complicated context, and he can sometimes spend five to six hours on researching a question in the Hong Kong Public Records Building. He never tries to offer a solution, but his answers offer a new perspective to many mainland netizens.
“It’s already difficult for a young Hongkonger to be willing to share his understanding of Hong Kong in a website where 99 percent users are mainlanders, and try to help the two groups boost understanding. We should thank Lam,” one mainland Zhihu user Mingo, commented under the question “How to evaluate Lam Gin-gin’s answers on Hong Kong-related topics?”
Sharing, not shouting
But not every mainland netizen is happy with Lam’s answers. Some, apparently, are not able to accept his answers, which differ from their understanding.
The only time when Lam’s presence on Zhihu collided with his real life, as a liberal arts teacher in Hong Kong, occurred last year, when his school received a “letter of accusation,” claiming that Lam was posting “separatist views on the Internet.” Lam said he doesn’t want to talk too much about it—he has on many occasions reiterated that he is not a separatist, and that Hong Kong and China can’t and won’t be separated. But it’s difficult to stop the abusers. “Sometimes whether you’re a separatist isn’t something you can decide,” he said.
Abuse also sometimes pours into his inbox on Zhihu. “I rarely fight back, but this abuse can really affect my mood. And when I’m down, I answer some questions in an intense way in the hope of provoking them,” he said.
In the case of one question that might have been answered in such a manner, Lin wrote: “Netizens never wanted truth, but only an occasion to mock Hong Kong … Even if I write lengthy answers, I can’t fight public opinion.”
“But soon I’d realize that this is not in line with my initial purpose to share my knowledge about Hong Kong on Zhihu,” he said.