Is Hong Kong Really China?

Is Hong Kong really China? Well that, my friends, is a complicated question with a complicated answer.

Before I came to China, I always thought that Hong Kong was definitely China. I knew it had a lot of British influence, and the people spoke Cantonese instead of Mandarin, but I never really viewed it as separate from the mainland.

Is Hong Kong really China?

Three years ago, when I was planning my original trip to Hong Kong, my first shock came when I realized my flight from Beijing to Hong Kong was considered “international”. What is this? Isn’t Hong Kong  a part of China?

I slowly began to notice more differences. Wait… Hong Kong has a different currency? People in Hong Kong drive on the left? I have to pay international ATM fees here? My phone doesn’t work in Hong Kong? Wait a second… I can get on Facebook without a VPN? Whoah! People are protesting the Chinese government?

The more time I spent in Hong Kong, the more I realized Hong Kong was nothing like the China I knew.

Hong Kong light show

Hong Kong at night

What are the differences?

If you’re heading to China, or you’re just curious, I’ve got a list of the biggest differences between Hong Kong and mainland China. Some of these I already knew, while others really surprised me!

1. The Language

Mainland China’s official language is Mandarin Chinese, while Hong Kong uses Cantonese.

Firstly, there are a lot of misconceptions about the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese, mainly because people call them “dialects” of Chinese. Technically, according to my Chinese linguistics class in college (yes, I took that), Mandarin and Cantonese are topolects not dialects…. but whatever. In layman’s terms, Mandarin and Cantonese are completely different languages.

Mandarin and Cantonese don’t sound anything alike. People who speak Mandarin can’t understand a word of Cantonese and visa versa. When I visit Hong Kong, I may as well be in Vietnam because I don’t understand a thing. Also, Mandarin has four tones, while Cantonese has six or something ridiculous like that.

There are some parts of China that speak Cantonese, like southern Guandong province. Mainland China also has a lot of minority languages and regional dialects too, but for simplicity’s sake I won’t get into all that. Let’s just say I understand the “Ningbo dialect” just as much as I understand Cantonese.

So… If Mandarin and Cantonese are two different languages, why do we call them dialects of Chinese?

Well the easy answer is we shouldn’t. But the reason we probably do is that Mandarin and Cantonese have the same writing system. Since Chinese uses characters rather than a phonetic alphabet, both Mandarin and Cantonese are exactly the same when written.

This means that if a person who speaks Mandarin writes something down and hands it to a person who speaks Cantonese, the Cantonese speaker will be able to understand every word. But if the two were to read the sentence aloud, they’d be completely different languages. How cool/crazy is that?

2. The Writing System

Now I know I just said Hong Kong and China have the same writing system, but I kind of lied. Hong Kong uses traditional characters, while Mainland China uses simplified. Basically in the 1980’s the Chinese government dumbed down all the characters to make Chinese easier to write. However, it’s pretty easy for Chinese people to understand the other system, even if they’re not so good at writing it.

To make things even more confusing, Taiwan speaks Mandarin Chinese but uses traditional characters. 

3. British Influence

Since Hong Kong used to be a British colony, you’ll see a lot of British influence. English is much more widely spoken in Hong Kong, and is written on a lot of the signs. You’ll see Christian churches everywhere, British-style taxicabs and English street names (like the popular “Nathan Road” in Kowloon). Hong Kong even drives on the left side of the road!

Hong Kong painting

I bought this painting of the Hong Kong harbor!

4. Censorship and Protests

If you didn’t already know, Mainland China is pretty famous for its censorship. Not only are Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Google and Gmail all blocked, non-Chinese websites are purposely slowed down so they might as well be blocked too. To be honest, the internet censorship gets worse every year and it’s basically impossible to use the internet without a VPN.

If you head to Hong Kong you’ll be happy to know that all your favorite sites load perfectly without a VPN and the internet is fast. You’ll see locals protesting the mainland government, especially the treatment of Falun Gong members.

Hong Kong is a huge proponent of free speech. There’s a reason why they harbored Edward Snowden for so long!

If you think back to October, you’ll probably remember Hong Kong’s Yellow Umbrella protests, where students shut down the main business district of Hong Kong. Starting in 2017, Hong Kong will have its first popular vote; however this October, 2014 the mainland government announced it would be vetting all the candidates, thus insuring the leader of Hong Kong will be a puppet of the mainland. Protests broke out in the streets, student protestors were tear gassed, and Instagram was blocked in mainland China.

Overall, Hong Kong’s population is much more politically active and aware of their rights. They are allowed much more leeway when it comes to freedom of speech and access to information.

Hong Kong harbor

Hanging out at the Hong Kong harbor

5. Food Safety and Product Quality

Hong Kong has much stricter requirements when it comes to food and products. While China is filled with malls and markets selling fake designer goods and electronics, Hong Kong is famous for selling the real thing for cheaper prices than what you can pay on the mainland. This is part of the reason mainland tourists flock to Hong Kong for shopping.

There has also been a big issue in mainland China concerning tainted baby formula (I know, horrible right?!). Because of this, Chinese people have been heading to Hong Kong in droves, buying all the formula off the shelves. Last year Hong Kong had to implement a law that each person can only bring back a certain amount of baby formula to keep entrepreneurs and frightened families from buying up all the stock.

When I was heading over to Hong Kong for my visa, one of my co-workers actually asked me to buy baby formula for a friend. I was a little scared when I saw all the signs at immigration!

6. Manners and Etiquette

China is famous for its “bad manners” by Western standards. Cutting in line, pushing and shoving without apology, spitting in the streets, etc. are all commonplace in mainland China.

While I’m a huge proponent of going with the flow while traveling and never judging another country’s culture (especially when I’m a guest), Hong Kong has vastly different etiquette norms than the mainland, which can lead to big conflicts.

For example, last year a mainland Chinese family on holiday let their two-year-old pee outside on a busy Hong Kong street. While this is perfectly acceptable on the mainland, it is not okay in Hong Kong. A local man spotted the child peeing and whipped out his phone to record the incident. He was then attacked by the child’s father, who took the man’s smart phone. Both mainlander parents were then arrested by the police for assault and theft.

The incident sparked outrage on both sides. People from Hong Kong spouted off anti-mainland rants online, describing the mainlanders as barbaric. On the other side, the mainlanders threatened to boycott Hong Kong and discussed “declaring war on Hong Kong’s civilization” by peeing all over Hong Kong’s streets. Yeah… they went there.

Hong Kong doggy latrine

Maybe the kid should have peed in the “doggy latrine”

For the past few years, there has been a lot of animosity from the Hong Kong natives towards mainlanders. I’ve seen this sentiment expressed by a lot of my friends from Hong Kong, who are annoyed by the amount of tourists that show up in Hong Kong and don’t abide by Hong Kong’s etiquette standards.

I even met one girl in a hostel in Hong Kong who was from Taiwan. She started speaking to everyone in English instead of Mandarin because she felt she was judged by the locals who thought she was from the mainland.If I speak English they’ll probably think I’m from Singapore“, she told me one afternoon while she studied Cantonese phrases from her guidebook.

Hong Kong's harbor

Hong Kong’s famous harbor

7. Going to Hong Kong counts as leaving China

Last but not least, going to Hong Kong actually counts as leaving China for visa purposes! All China expats know of the famed “Hong Kong visa run”, where we fly down to Hong Kong to renew our visas.

Also, if you’re on a tourist visa, you can take a quick trip to Hong Kong and your 30 days (or however long you have) will renew itself. This means that if you have a 30-day visa that’s valid for one year, you can go to mainland China for thirty days, spend a weekend in Hong Kong, and travel in China for another 30 days again. You can theoretically do this for an entire year if you want… and some people do.

To go to Hong Kong you’ll have to pay for an international flight. You’ll go through customs and get a stamp in your passport. Chinese people even need a visa to go to Hong Kong!

Hong Kong Kowloon

Is this really China?

So… is Hong Kong Really China?

If you ask a person from Mainland China, the answer will be a definitive “yes“, but if you ask someone from Hong Kong, you’ll probably get a “not really“.

If you were to visit Puerto Rico, a territory of the USA, would you consider that visiting America? Sorry if I offend any Puerto Ricans here, but if someone were to ask me if Puerto Rico is “really America”, I would probably say no. It’s not a state, they mainly speak Spanish, and they have a completely different culture from the mainland. Granted, many areas of the US have completely different cultures from one another and there are definitely places that don’t speak English. It’s complicated.

The best advice I can give you is to view visiting Hong Kong as exploring a completely different culture. When visiting mainland China, don’t expect it to be like Hong Kong (excluding some areas of Shanghai), or you’ll be in for some major culture shock. China is different and diverse, and Hong Kong is no exception.

So, is Hong Kong really China? At the risk of offending my Chinese readers, I’m going to go ahead and say “not really”. But you know what? That’s what makes China so special.

Hong Kong at night

What do you think: Is Hong Kong really China? Also, did I miss any big differences (I know there are more!) 



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

27 comments on “Is Hong Kong Really China?

  1. Richelle,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I had no idea that there were so many major differences between China and Hong Kong. Honestly, I didn’t even know the situation was different at all until I moved to Asia, but I’m slowly becoming enlightened. I’d be very interested to visit mainland China and Hong Kong and see the difference for myself.

    I’m from Puerto Rico, and you’re right, most Puerto Rican’s would not consider themselves American’s even though we all hold the same passport.

    • Yes! Someone from Puerto Rico to back up my point! Hahaha. But yeah, I think you have to live in Asia to really understand the complicated dynamic mainland China has with Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

  2. Hi Richelle,

    For someone who grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in the UK, I’m well impressed with the differences you’ve listed here, because I don’t think I can say it better myself, and I really enjoyed reading your post.

    I really like your use of Puerto Rico as an example, it shows some objectivity in your conclusion of Hong Kong is “not really” China. I’d probably give the same answer if I’m asked, to signify Hong Kong is different to modern China, but I’d also argue modern China is not China either (I think I’m going to offend a lot Chinese readers here too).

    The wide spread of corruption, the dishonesty and disrespect in trade (e.g., knock offs and SUB-standard/dangerous products), the materialism and the arrogance showed by Chinese tourist abroad or netizens online, none of these are the positive attributes that were taught since Confucius time.

    I’m sure it’s not the whole story and there’re way more good natured and conscientious Chinese people than the corrupted ones. It’s just sad to see the minority holds the power and rules the land.

    • Wow, I’m so glad you agree with my assessment. Sometimes it can be hard to get everything right if you’re not actually from a country, but I feel like I did my best from an un-biased outsider’s perspective.

      I definitely agree that it’s a shame about the amount of corruption in China. Although I will also say that many Chinese people I know are extremely warm-hearted, kind, giving individuals. Hopefully the mainland can get it together in regards to corruption, fake products and product safety sometime soon. I think the middle class will demand it.

  3. I have family in mainland China so I’ve visited both Hong Kong and the mainland a few times. I feel like Hong Kong is most definitely not a part of China. You can feel the differences almost instantly as you cross the border.

  4. Heck NO Hong Kong is not china! When we spent two months in china we ended in Hong Kong. It shocked us how in China we only saw Chinese people and when we got to Hong Kong it was a huge melting pot of people! I guess that happens when you get off the beaten path of places you only see locals!

  5. I totally agree with you. When I went to Hong Kong I was shocked at how familiar it all felt. (I’m British by the way.) Strangely, it felt like another type of Britain LOL! I don’t consider it to be anything like China at all and when people ask if I’ve been to China, I always say No!

  6. yes haha im from hong kong i grew up there now im studying in Europe. t hong kong was a british colony and hong kongers hold a different passport and stuff and also when i see chinese pushing and yelling in our theme parks and holdin huge luggages in the metro i feel disgusted, but i am ok being friends with chinese but sometimes they dont understand english and i dont understand chinese.also i’ve been to london at christmas 2014 and it is like hong kong but so much prettier and cleaner, i felt like i was literally in hong kong when i went to chinatown and i order food in cantonese and people actually understood me, i grew up with all the mixed cultures and different opinions (like the umbrella revolution protest), but that’s what make hong kong so special

    • Yeah to be honest I was so surprised when I discovered how different Hong Kong and China are! Hong Kong is such an interesting mixture of cultures, which is probably why I love it so much.

  7. Oh man, I can tell you that Taiwanese people think similarly about Mainland Chinese! Of course the relationship is super complex and as an American, I can only speak from observation. A lot of locals would snicker or shake their head at the mainland tourists, and they were usually easy to spot since they dressed more “flamboyant” and “outlandish” than the average Taiwanese. Great informative article, btw!

    • I totally got that vibe in Taiwan too. Basically from what I’ve seen people from Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan feel really strongly about their association with the Mainland and are actually pretty discriminatory towards mainlanders. They identify with the Chinese ethnicity and history, but not the current culture at all. As an American I just try to stay out of it! haha

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  10. This post is silly. It’s like saying Hawaii is nothing like US so Hawaii is not US. Your hand doesn’t look like your face or your body, is your hand really yours?

    • Hong Kong is an autonomous region with a different currency, language, laws, and culture. Flying to Hong Kong counts as an international flight and is considered “leaving the country” for visa cases. If you actually read the post you would realize that your comment is the thing that’s silly.

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  12. “Since Chinese uses characters rather than a phonetic alphabet, both Mandarin and Cantonese are exactly the same when written.”

    I would like to give some insight on this. Although there are some overlap in written Mandarin and Cantonese, they are not exactly the same if Cantonese is written as how it is spoken. It would be unintelligible to Mandarin speakers if they have no prior knowledge in Cantonese, although they might be able to pick up a few characters but they would not understand the full meaning.
    The misconception that Cantonese and Mandarin are the same when written and the only difference is the pronunciation origins from the fact that Standard Written Chinese (SWC), which is based on Mandarin, is widely used in Hong Kong. When Hong Kong locals read an article written in SWC they would pronounce the characters with Cantonese pronunciation. However, since SWC is based on Mandarin, it sounds nothing like the spoken Cantonese, meaning that we never “speak SWC” in daily conversation. If someone actually do so, it would be so awkward that others will perceive him/her as a retard!
    In addition, there are lots of differences in the written Chinese used in Hong Kong and Mainland China, as the two places have been under significantly different political systems for 150 years. In Mainland China it had been under the rule of Communist party since 1949, and there are lots of Communist influences on the written Chinese in Mainland China, such as some Communist-related proper nouns and different adjectives to describe a certain things. In Hong Kong, it was under British ruled for a long time and there were lots of English loan words being introduced into the written Chinese in Hong Kong , and of course the lack of communist influences. In fact, written Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan are much more similar to each other as Taiwan has never been ruled by Communist party.

    The linguistic situation in Hong Kong is just simply ridiculously complicated!

    • Wow this is so interesting! I just assumed that they were more or less the same based on what my Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong friends have told me. I had a few Hong Kong friends in Mandarin classes and they basically implied that they could more or less read everything, and it was only a matter of learning simplified Chinese. Thanks so much for taking the time to teach me about SWC. I learned so much!

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