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Young Hong Kongers who defied Xi are now partying in China

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In 2019, Leung joined a Hong Kong movement to boycott Chinese-owned restaurants like many protesters opposing President Xi Jinping’s encroachment of the former British colony. Now she and her peers regularly go out of their way to the neighboring mainland city of Shenzhen for cheap food and massages.

“Hong Kong used to have freedom,” said Leung, who asked to use only her last name because she joined what authorities deem as illegal protests. “Now it’s lost all that. So why wouldn’t I go to mainland China, where at least things are cheaper?”

Xi’s efforts to crush dissent in Hong Kong have weakened its distinct identity from China and instilled a new sense of political apathy. In the wake of the crackdown, many disillusioned residents left for democracies such as the U.K., where more than 180,000 Hong Kongers have applied for a visa that provides a pathway to citizenship since 2021. For those who stayed, some have set aside their ideals and embraced a new cross-border lifestyle they once rejected.

Travel to the mainland has been made more compelling by new infrastructure that cut travel times in half between the cities, a booming array of entertainment choices and low prices further driven down by China’s longest deflation streak since the Asian financial crisis. In February, Hong Kongers’ trips to Shenzhen hit a new high for that month since records began in 1984, packing the city’s subway trains and filling a new Costco Wholesale Corp. store.

That’s a boon for Xi’s efforts to integrate Hong Kong with Shenzhen and nearby cities into a region called the Greater Bay Area, which Beijing hopes will challenge the Silicon Valley in terms of innovation and economic output.

“It will certainly be viewed as an improvement of the Greater Bay Area integration,” said Dongshu Liu, an assistant professor specializing in Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong.

 

But he added the integration could raise questions about the city’s identity: “If Hong Kong is moving closer with mainland China and becomes another mainland Chinese city, then what is the unique value of Hong Kong?”

Stephen Roach, the former Morgan Stanley Asia Ltd. chair who caused a heated debate last month arguing “Hong Kong is over,” said the city risks playing second fiddle to Shenzhen in Xi’s plan.

“Hong Kong is at risk of getting marginalized,” Roach told Bloomberg TV. “It still has the talent, the institutional heritage, the rule of law, and you hope that all of that remains enduring features of Hong Kong in the years ahead. But many are asking questions about those very attributes.”

The Shenzhen frenzy dovetails with Hong Kong residents’ growing willingness to work and live in mainland China. A survey of people under 40 in the city by the Hong Kong-Guangdong Youth Association conducted last year found 66% of them are now open to employment across the border, tripling from 22% in 2020.

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