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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's been 15 years since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty. And still, tensions between locals and people from the Chinese mainland run deep. Residents of Hong Kong used to regard the mainlanders as country bumpkins. Now they resent the wealth and the large numbers of people visiting from the mainland.

As NPR's Louisa Lim reports, those tensions are surfacing as a committee meets to choose Hong Kong's new chief executive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: It may sound like a pleasant Canto-pop ballad, but this is an anthem of hate. It sums up the anger some Hong Kong people feel towards their mainland neighbors. It says mainlanders are experts in stealing, cheating, deceiving and lying. And it calls them locusts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LIM: A choir of local activists sing this offensive tune to mainland tourists. Mainland visitors to Hong Kong have almost doubled in five years, making up two-thirds of all visitors, hence the locust tag.

CHIN WAN-KAN: Because locusts come in groups. When they come in thousands and thousands, it looks like a swarm of locusts.

LIM: That's Chin Wan-kan, a professor at Lingnan University, who's a vocal critic of mainlanders. He admits mainland tourism is good for the economy, but says ordinary people aren't benefiting.

CHIN: It's good in a sense. It makes it look more prosperous. Actually, neighborhood shops are going and the prices are not good. At the same time, we have to fight for spaces together with the Chinese tourists. We lose money and we lose time for common people. But for land tycoons, for big business, it's good for them.

LIM: I'm now in Tsim Sha Tsui, one of the main shopping districts. And here, the mainland money is really obvious. Outside all the luxury stores, there are long queues of people waiting. And outside Cartier, I met a young hospital worker from Shanghai called Chen Xia. She said she couldn't understand why Hong Kong people would not like having mainland visitors.

CHEN XIA: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Our spending power is very good. They should like us, she says. She's here to exchange a 10,000-US-dollar bracelet. She's decided she wants the rose gold version. We are stimulating their economy, she argues. That much is true. Chinese tourists spend twice as much as all other tourists put together.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

LIM: But a culture gap is growing as illustrated by this video which went viral. It shows a heated argument on the subway between mainland tourists who are eating on the train, which is against the rules, and locals trying to stop them. Some Hong Kong people worry their way of life is threatened: their language, their identity and their rule of law.

City University's Joseph Cheng says Hong Kongers are struggling with the new order.

JOSEPH CHENG: In the late '70s, '80s and even the early '90s, Hong Kong people believed that they were better educated, more prosperous than their counterparts in mainland China. There was a certain superiority complex. In recent years, as many rich mainlanders come to Hong Kong, there is a little bit of inferiority complex.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Over a thousand pregnant women, mothers and their supporters took to the streets to protest...

LIM: This TV report shows even pregnant women are protesting. Last year, 40 percent of the births in Hong Kong were by mainland mothers. This gives their babies Hong Kong residency, meaning they'll be eligible for publicly funded schooling and medical care. There are fears that resources could be strained.

But paradoxically, Michael DeGolyer, director of the Baptist University's Transition Project, believes this debate shows a stronger affiliation with China.

MICHAEL DEGOLYER: Hong Kong people are saying: We're Chinese. You're not supposed to come into our city, just like we're not supposed to go into your cities and crowd out your services and so forth. That's not a rejection of China. It's saying: We're Chinese too.

LIM: At China's recent congress meeting, a top official, Zhao Qizheng, shrugged off the tensions, saying siblings can't avoid spats. But Chin Wan-kan fears Beijing wants to make Hong Kong into just another Chinese city.

CHIN: I would call it imperialist approach. They think they will subsume Hong Kong people and make Hong Kong people more obedient, but that will destroy Hong Kong.

LIM: These simmering strains could find a political focus too. This weekend, the favored few choose Hong Kong's next leader. Polls show deep opposition to Henry Tang, once thought to be Beijing's favorite. Beijing has promised that Hong Kong's next leader will have public support. Otherwise, the economic and social tensions could just explode into large political protests.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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