2014 Virtual Edition: Nicole Newendorp

Postscript to Contesting “Law and Order”: Immigrants’ Encounters with “Rule of Law” in Postcolonial Hong Kong

The central issues under discussion in this article—including how the “rule of law” is perceived in Hong Kong by both Hong Kong people and mainland immigrants to the region—are just as salient today as they were during the first decade after Hong Kong’s return to mainland Chinese sovereignty in 1997. On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the bloody suppression of protesters in Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong people (for whom that event epitomizes the difference between their own rule of law-based system of governance and the authoritarian mainland and who have held candlelight vigils in remembrance of that event each anniversary) continue to fight for the maintenance and expansion of a local rule of law-based system of governance that continues to protect Hong Kong ways of life.

Primary among Hong Kong residents’ concerns is the continuation of freedom of speech, which seems increasingly in peril through targeted attacks on newspaper editors in Hong Kong as well as through proposals to introduce a standardized “moral and national education” curriculum for all Hong Kong students. Moreover, Hong Kong people continue to struggle with Beijing over the terms of election for the Chief Executive, with many in Hong Kong supporting universal suffrage and direct election in 2017.

The mainland immigrants whose experiences with the rule of law I describe in this article entered a politically charged environment in Hong Kong in the years immediately following Hong Kong’s establishment as a “Special Administrative Region” of China. The scale of local concern and the urgency of debate over the meaning and importance of the rule of law in Hong Kong have escalated significantly over the past decade, as have Hong Kong people’s publicly voiced concerns about newly arrived immigrants from the mainland.

The mainland immigrants interviewed for this article primarily entered Hong Kong as legal wives of Hong Kong residents in the fall and winter of 2000, just three years after Hong Kong’s newly-created political status as a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). My research on their transition and adjustment to Hong Kong focused on their socially and economically marginalized status as outsiders to Hong Kong ways of life, despite sharing a formal citizenship status as PRC nationals and sharing other important cultural, regional, linguistic, and familial ties with the same Hong Kong people who ostracized them inside and outside their Hong Kong homes. I followed most of these women through their first seven years of Hong Kong residency—the period of time required by law for them to attain permanent residency rights (the local equivalent to citizenship) in Hong Kong—to 2007, the end of the first decade of Hong Kong’s promised fifty years of gradual transition to a greater mainland Chinese political and social orbit through the “one country, two systems” policy.

Over this time, even as heightened public concern about the possible negative social effects of incorporating increasing numbers of mainland Chinese immigrant wives into Hong Kong life continued, the locus of that concern shifted away from discourses identifying these legally-abiding wives with the negative and potentially destabilizing characteristics of the Chinese mainland. (It was this identification that had singled women out for identification card checks and made them vulnerable to violations of the law by their Hong Kong employers and family members, as I describe in this article.) Instead, by 2007, public scrutiny focused more squarely on the pressing concern of mainland women with no Hong Kong ties, connections, or family members who were entering Hong Kong in the last stages of pregnancy to give birth to PRC citizen babies who would have Hong Kong residency rights.

In January 2007, while I was in Hong Kong conducting a final round of interviews with legal mainland wives, legislation was enacted to stop pregnant women from the mainland to enter Hong Kong to give birth. As a result, many conversations with my interviewees included thoughts about this issue. Through these discussions, it was clear that the immigrant wives I knew no longer primarily identified as immigrants. Instead, they identified as Hong Kong mothers. Like other locals, they felt the restrictive legislation was necessary to protect bed space for Hong Kong resident women in local maternity wards. This larger social context no doubt contributed to the subjectivity shifts in thinking about and understanding rights discourses that I describe for mainland immigrants in this article.

Thus, while the situations of these particular immigrants have improved over time in Hong Kong, the tensions forming the backdrop for this study have grown. Today, the stakes for Hong Kong people are higher than ever, as uncertainty over their political and legal future and concerns about continued access to rights and freedoms dominate social life in Hong Kong. At the same time, increasing numbers of mainlanders enter Hong Kong each day, primarily as tourists, who bring their “disorderly” behavior from the mainland with them. Mainland immigrants also continue to come to Hong Kong—wives and, increasingly, children, some of whom do not have immediate family in Hong Kong. These mainlanders, whether legally resident or not, have been labelled by locals as “locusts”—referencing both the size of the “invasion” as well as mainlanders’ seeming proclivity to “eat up” Hong Kong social welfare resources.

News media worldwide picks up stories reflecting this animosity between Hong Kong people and mainlanders. Whether legally resident or not, immigrants from the Chinese mainland in Hong Kong are caught up in a public fight to maintain local control over Hong Kong systems of governance and to protect their “orderly” and law-abiding social practices. In so doing, the rule of law in Hong Kong continues to seem fragile, particularly from the point of view of immigrants negotiating unclear futures in a context of heightened social emotion and political uncertainty.

Nicole Newendorp is a Lecturer on Social Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of Uneasy Reunions: Immigration, Citizenship, and Family Life in Post 1997 Hong Kong (Stanford University Press, 2008), which received the 2009 Francis L.K. Hsu Book Prize from the American Association of Anthropology’s Society for East Asian Anthropology.