Year of the Goat sees Hong Kong more divided than ever on China

Coverage by Western media of Occupy protest seen as too one-sided by many residents

The Year of the Goat (or Sheep, or Ram, or Ewe) is only a few days old, and people in Hong Kong are speed-walking back to work, while across the border in Shenzhen, people are still on holiday for another few days.

Chinese New Year is a holiday with very different characteristics, depending on which version of China you find yourself in.

The world’s biggest annual migration, which takes place in mainland China every year, sees hundreds of millions of Chinese people head back to their family homes for a week of reunions, of tidying their parents’ houses, of avoiding questions about why they aren’t married.

For many migrant workers, it means a time of wrenching loneliness at the prospect of going back to the city for work for another year, of making decisions about whether to change job and, this year, of worrying about whether slowing economic growth will make for a troubled year ahead.


Copious amounts of baijiu are drunk, people watch the Chinese New Year Gala TV show – although this year, only 690 million people tuned in, an eight-year low. The content was heavily focused on Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption, and this does not seem to have set many hearts a-flutter.

Same but different

In Hong Kong, a Special Adminstrative Region of China, but a territory with its own laws and, yes, traditions, Chinese New Year is the same but different. Since Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997, the law of “one country, two systems” also applies to Lunar New Year traditions.

People also visit their families bringing tangerine trees bearing red envelopes of money, “lai see” gifts to spread the fortune at the changing year.

Red flowers abound, the lights in the skyscrapers spell out the Chinese characters for goat.

The whole holiday is a flurry of red envelopes, children gather them up and for them it’s like making your Confirmation for Irish Catholics, except it comes around every year. One young friend of ours picked up more than €120 on New Year’s Day alone in the little red packets.

Restaurants are full, although the Apple store was closed – it’s so strange to see shops shuttered in consumption-frenzied Hong Kong during daylight.

The temples are full in both Hong Kong and the mainland. Day three of Chinese New Year is known as “Tsek Hau”, or “red mouth”, a day on which you avoid your family because you are very likely to have a huge fight.

In some ways, the current tensions between Hong Kong and China are an extended version of “red mouth day”.

Most Hong Kong people come from mainland China originally, either from Shanghai or the east coast, or neighbouring Guangdong, many of them after the revolution which brought the Communists to power in 1949.

The Year of the Goat sees a Hong Kong more divided than ever on how to deal with mainland China, especially since the Occupy Central protests last year, which closed off large chunks of the city after Beijing’s refusal to grant a fully democratic election for the city’s chief executive in 2017.

Many in Hong Kong bitterly resented the way Occupy shut the city down, and said it only fuelled perceptions in China that Hong Kongers were spoiled and ungrateful.

Foreign elements

A sizeable number of people, no fans of Beijing’s heavy-handed way of dealing with Hong Kong, felt Western media coverage of the

Umbrella Movement

was too one-sided, and didn’t reflect the complexity of the situation. They fear it will just fuel Beijing’s mantra that foreign elements are responsible for stirring up unrest.

The musicians John Legend and Common were the subject of wide debate on Twitter after they name-checked the Occupy Central pro-democracy protests in their acceptance speech for best song at the Oscars, but their remarks went unmentioned in TV coverage in the territory.

In the run-up to the New Year, a campus election at the University of Hong Kong turned into an attack on mainland Chinese candidates, which shows just how tens things are here since the Occupy movement.

The People’s Daily, the official organ of China’s ruling Communist Party, says things are getting tougher for the 150,000 Chinese mainland students and young people living in Hong Kong as they were being singled out as “collateral targets”.

But some bridges are going to be difficult to span, and this goes beyond the impact of Occupy Central, or Beijing’s efforts to muzzle democratic impulses in the former Crown colony.

In a Hong Kong hotel on New Year’s Eve, a young mainland girl flounced past in a hotel lobby, moaning to her parents in northern Chinese dialect: “I hate Hong Kong.”

And it cuts both ways. When a mainland tourist muscles his way past us in a queue for a clothes shop changing room to take our booth, the shop assistant rolls his eyes and says: “Mainlanders”.