Phone cams and hate speech in Hong Kong


In Hong Kong, antagonisms toward mainland Chinese are at a fever pitch. From mass to digital media, political debate to everyday talk, ordinary people from mainland China are targets of intense yet also unthinking ridicule and criticism. The South China Morning Post, an otherwise respectable daily, even boasts of a genre of “rude mainland Chinese” stories that its editors gleefully observe “go straight into the site’s top 10 most read articles”.

While in social media, a viral video parody of Psy’s “Gangman Style” entitled “Nasty China Style” displays the most extreme stereotypes of mainland Chinese people as rude savages lacking in manners and civility. Its lyrics include: ”I’ve just pooped…Picking up my poop is you Hong Kongers’ responsibility”. In mainstream and social media then, we see not only a rehash of old stereotypes between “uncivilised” mainland Chinese versus sophisticated Hong Kong cosmopolitans, but also an increase of recent anxieties about the supposed effects of mainland migration on rising costs of housing and competition for jobs.

While city/province stereotypes have long been present in public discourse, it wasn’t too long ago that Hong Kong people expressed great optimism and positivity about closer interactions with mainland Chinese people. The 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China took place in the context of the Asian financial crisis, and Chinese tourism and trade were then viewed as new economic opportunities. As recent as 2006, surveys indicated that people with direct interactions with mainland Chinese have “higher pride and affection” for mainland China. However, shifting practices in the “One Country, Two Systems” political framework as well as post-recession economic challenges are generative resources to the fashioning of a hostile public environment for mainland Chinese in Hong Kong.

In my own research as media sociologist, I have found that social media make up a crucial part of this hostile public environment in their everyday use as both 1) technologies of surveillance and as an 2) archive of hate speech. As technologies of surveillance, mobile phones become ideal tools for the recent popular practice of phone-cam shaming. This involves ordinary people taking surreptitious, or “ambush”, photographs of other people they view as loud, rude, unfashionable and all forms of shameful going about their business in malls or public transport. These images are then uploaded and shared in social media and are taken-for-granted as undeniable evidence of mainland Chinese misbehaviour. Among the most shared photos is this image of a (supposedly mainland Chinese) child urinating in the middle of a shopping area.


Unfortunately, there is very little public reflection on the ethics of phone-cam shaming, as debate has centred only around people’s rights to use their phone-cams. In December 2012, when security personnel of Dolce & Gabbana in the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district forbade locals from taking pictures outside of their stores – presumably to protect their mainland Chinese customers from being photographed with their designer spends and shamed by locals for their “new rich” excesses – Hong Kongers staged demonstrations to reclaim their rights as citizens.

Absent in the discussion is talk about their own responsibilities toward migrants or tourists, the fairness of ambush photography, and the validity of images as evidence of mainland Chinese misbehaviour: As Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese share similar physical markers of Chinese ethnicity, how can anyone be certain that the objects of photographs are always of mainland people?

As an archive of hate speech, social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and other Cantonese-language message boards are used as spaces of image collection, display and collective public discussion that, by their very structure, exclude possibilities of debate and dissent from mainland Chinese users. YouTube hosts a widely popular user-submitted video called “Locust World” that re-splices the aforementioned photographs into a music video that laments the mainland migration as a “locust invasion” of their imagined once-pure and prosperous city. The video contains emotionally charged language such as “Locusts come out of nowhere / overwhelm everywhere / Shouting, screaming, yelling / Like no one could hear”. It is also misleading in how it repeats and magnifies evidence to make generalisations about mainland Chinese behaviour, such as in reusing one photograph of a defecating child on a train several times within a four-minute montage to illustrate an entire group’s uncivilised behaviour.

The video has over one million views, thousands of comments and a depressingly large number of “likes” over “dislikes”. The skewed and self-affirming nature of users’ comments is largely a function of the strategic choice of YouTube as the space to carry out the discussion in spite of being (or precisely because it is) a censored website in mainland China. Structurally, these social media platforms exclude the possibility of direct engagement, as mainland Chinese people are spoken about but not spoken with through audio-visual hate speech.

By lacking any sort of access to these videos and forums, mainland Chinese visitors are unable to present counter-evidence, challenge stereotypes, or even learn about the criticism in the first place, as for the most part they arrive in Hong Kong with great confusion as to locals’ chilly reception.

Discrimination is, of course, far-reaching and extends beyond social media and shopping malls: in the university where I taught for two years in Hong Kong, it was unfortunate to see clear divisions among locals and mainland students both inside the classroom and in their friendship groups.

While it is crucial to call out individuals on their everyday bigotry and morally irresponsible (though perfectly legal) use of personal technologies, Hong Kong policymakers and media pundits are faced here with a great dilemma to facilitate cultural inclusion either through policy measures of redefining hate speech claims, creating more positive images of mainland Chinese people in local news or even soap opera and opening up spaces for public dialogue that not only allow for dissent but even just basic participation. Hong Kong’s ambitious claim to be “Asia’s World City” must be backed up not only by snazzy branding, but by a more comprehensive agenda of social and cultural inclusion through policy and media representation.

*Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong [2007] was a Gates Scholar at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, where he received a PhD in Sociology. He is currently Lecturer in Media & Communications at the University of Leicester. His research is on media ethics and hate speech. He has a forthcoming book entitled The Poverty of Television (Anthem Press: London & New York). Picture credit: posterize and



5 responses to “Phone cams and hate speech in Hong Kong

  1. i am just going to laugh at you and no matter what you are replying is just non-sense due to your whole paragraph is BS.
    “As Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese share similar physical markers of Chinese ethnicity, how can anyone be certain that the objects of photographs are always of mainland people?” <<< you are not able to tell the different from north and south but the locals can. HongKongerse and Chinese don't even speak the same language.
    China is controlling the government and media in Hong Kong, this is the only shout out locals can do to tell the world what is happening, and you are standing on China's side to suppress the weak, what's the different of you saying "Tibet is a part of China and Tibetan shouldn't be racist to the Chinese'?
    YOU are getting me sick to the stomach. If you love China so much, please live there for the rest of your life and MAKE SURE to have a surgery make your face Chinese so you don't get the special rights in there when those people will treat you nicer just because you are white.

    • Well, first off I would like to point out that the author is not white. Second, any system which dehumanizes another group is dangerous. Does that even need to be discussed? Do you not see how mainland Chinese are being dehumanized by these acts?

  2. JT I had a quick read on this article and your bio perhaps I’ve jumped to conclusion a bit too quick but you struck me as a typical leftie. Nothing wrong with that, except the situation and dynamics in HK are drastically different that what’s happening in the West or the New Worlds.
    About rude behaviors of Mainland Chinese tourists- the fact is there’re just as many rude Hongkies, Italians, Americans, Brits, Indians and Martians. The problem is the sheer mass of Mainland Chinese tourist presence all over the world. Even if only few of them act like a**holes, you’re talking about a large amount of people displaying quite unacceptable manners. If one person shits and spits in public, I can turn a blind eye. If fifty of them do this in public, it just gets bit difficult for the rest of the community to stomach such acts in public.

    • I would like to make it clear that I am not the author of this article and that there is no bio on me to read, so in your quick read some misunderstanding occurred. Also I don’t think that anything this article contains, or anything a non-existence bio contains is enough to make statements about supposed political leanings nor would political orientation matter to a sensible discussion of the issue as long as people kept the points relevant and without vitriol.

      So lets get to the core of your point: the situation in Hong Kong is unique because of the sheer number of spitting, pooping Chinese tourist from the mainland (and thus warrants dehumanizing mainland Chinese?).

      I am not sure if you are implying the part in parenthesis, but keep in mind that the complaint that the author and I are making is against dehumanizing people from mainland China. We are not dealing with the problems the Chinese bring when they come to Hong Kong, so that is what you are arguing against.

      I can’t speak on behalf of the author from this point on, but I think it is acceptable for a person to judge culture as either constructive or destructive whether the culture is the person’s own or another culture. Thus I can agree with you that spitting and pooping are not dignified and should not be encouraged in a culture. But I would like to make two points clear: while every situation is unique of course, the scope of what Hong Kong faces is not that unique; the other point is that dehumanizing a group is destructive culture in its own right and it likely won’t help with the situation of mainland Chinese offending the Hong Kongers.

      For consideration of the former point, I would like to offer you examples of Mexican/Hispanic immigration to the US and African/Arabic Muslim immigration to France. I feel the scope of these issues are greater because they don’t involve tourist but rather immigration, and also the cultural differences between the host and guest are different.

      As for the latter point being from the USA, I am most familiar with the issues surrounding Hispanic immigration. The numbers were so great that in some areas of the US today, there are more Hispanics than other groups of people. With Hispanics comes different religion (Catholic as opposed to Protestant), different languages (Spanish, etc as opposed to English) and many other issues such as the taking of jobs from US citizens and straining the social services. Without going into too much details as this would really make my post long, many in the US began to dehumanize the immigrants. This created problems in individual pain and isolation, caused gangs and drug trade to flourish, problems in education and many more. As the US culture became more accommodating in its attitudes, the Hispanic immigrants really made a great contribution to the US economy, culture and society.

      If the mainland Chinese are really creating a problem with their spitting, pooping, etc, than I wouldn’t have any worries if Hong Kong started a public awareness campaign aimed at mainland tourist or started fining people for doing that. I understand that Beijing passed a similar fine before the Olympics. It is just the dehumanizing part that worries me, so if anyone argues further, explain to me how dehumanizing is valid in this case and how it will help.

      Also I have been to Hong Kong. I had a good time. It is a beautiful city, and I didn’t notice anyone spitting, or pooping, etc. Of course this is purely anecdotal, and I have not spent enough time there to really know the place.

  3. Just imagine one day in London, you find more Chinese than British and the Chinese take up all the benefits without paying a penny for tax. And British hardly able to afford a home in London. Then how would the British feel? I believe HK people never intend to dehumanize any race, it’s just a natural response when someone step on your toes you fight back. The social problems caused by mass influx of immigrants could not be solved as we have no control over it! One country 2 system?! It just didnt happen at the first place, nothing is in our control as to our chief executive election.

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