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What’s Really Going On in Hong Kong?

The discontent is rooted in the massive social inequality in Hong Kong – one of the world’s major financial centers – and the growing lack of opportunity for its citizens.

Occupy Central behind barricades in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. September 29, 2014. (Photo: Alcuin Lai)

Hong Kong has been making headlines this past week after thousands of citizens have taken to the streets to demand an open democratic process, after China proposed reforms that would effectively allow it to control who would be able to run in future elections. After days of mostly peaceful protests, tensions increased over the weekend as people opposing the demonstrations began assaulting protesters, angry over their disruption of the city and accusing them of trying to fix a political system that is not broken.

The current upheaval in Hong Kong goes beyond the fight for electoral reform, however. Nor is it simply about the its relationship with mainland China, as the media has largely framed it. The discontent is rooted in the massive social inequality in Hong Kong – one of the world’s major financial centers – and the growing lack of opportunity for its citizens.

What Sparked the Protests

On August 31, the National People’s Congress (NPC, the Chinese legislature) ruled that Hong Kong would be granted universal suffrage for its upcoming 2017 elections, on the condition that the candidates who run be pre-screened by a nominating committee. The ruling has angered citizens who say it is an obstruction to the democratic process.

China promised future universal suffrage for Hong Kong when it was handed over to them by the British in 1997. In the handover, Hong Kong adopted The Basic Law and China’s official policy of “one country, two systems,” which allows it to operate with its own political and legal institutions. While The Basic Law guarantees future elections, it also stipulates that the candidates will be selected by a nominating committee – thus China is not revoking a past promise, which has been commonly reported in the media.

Currently, Hong Kong’s head of state, the chief executive, is selected by a committee of 1,200 members, which is formed mainly of people who are sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Under the proposed reforms, a similar body would vet all potential leaders to ensure that they would be “patriotic” to China, before taking part in national elections. Up to three candidates will be allowed to go forward to a public vote.

Although China is not trying to implement more control on the island nation that lies only 1,200 miles from Beijing, it is exercising control over its electoral process.

The political reform will be presented to Legco, the legislative council of Hong Kong, in the first quarter of 2015.

Students were the first to organize and protest against the NPC’s new ruling, mainly under the auspices of three main groups: the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Scholarism and Occupy Central. They began by boycotting classes, and by the last week of September had organized major demonstrations and occupied various public spaces – including the city’s main political and financial districts – with the support of tens of thousands of citizens.

The initial protest site was the central business district of Admiralty, however occupy camps have been set up all over the city to cause as much economic and political disruption in the city as possible.

The protest has adopted the name “Umbrella Revolution” after a demonstration on September 28, when police used pepper spray, tear gas and batons to breakup peaceful protesters who used umbrellas to defend themselves.

Why Unrest Will Continue

Although students make up a significant portion of the demonstrators, the movement is very diverse and includes everyone from white collar and middle class workers, as well as several unions. But supporters did not join the movement solely to fight for the right to vote in open elections, but also for social justice in one of the most unequal developed economies in the world.

“One of the reasons that this movement has been so successful is that they really stitched together a broad, cross-cultural alliance. And I think in part that speaks to the high level of inequality in Hong Kong,” Eli Friedman, assistant professor at Cornell University and China analyst, told teleSUR. “Really almost everybody, except the super wealthy, have been excluded from having any kind of political voice.

Hong Kong has long been hailed as an economic powerhouse. In the 1980s, it was one of the “four Asian Tigers” due to its booming manufacturing sector, and over the years adopted policies favoring economic growth. According to the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom by the Heritage Foundation, Hong Kong is the world’s freest economy, and has held this status over the past 20 years.

“Hong Kong has one of the world’s most prosperous economies, thanks to a commitment to small government, low taxes, and light regulation,” reads the report. It also boasts the world’s lowest tariff rates and “few barriers to foreign investment,” making it an important financial hub. Its stock market is also the sixth largest in the world, and second largest in Asia, according to a report by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council released in May.

Yet, despite this economic prosperity, one in five Hong Kong citizens live below the poverty line, while 30 percent of the population, some two million people, live in cramped public housing estates. The city’s Gini coeffcient – an economic indicator where 0 represents total equality in a society and 1 represents complete inequality – is currently at 0.537, one of the highest in East Asia, and higher than the United Kingdom, the United States, Singapore and Australia.

“Hong Kong is probably the most unequal developed economy anywhere in the world. [The protesters] are using precisely the language that they used in Occupy Wall street, but the level of inequality is actually worse [in Hong Kong],” said Friedman.

“The social contradictions of global capitalism are manifesting in Hong Kong,” Yuezhi Zhao, professor at the School of Communications at Simon Fraser University, told teleSUR. “[The protests] are not just an out of the blue phenomenon, I do believe it has been built up [over time],” she added.

Workers in the region also see very few rights. There are no collective bargaining rights, no unemployment benefits, and no pensions, while the average workweek is 49 hours. The minimum wage, which was only introduced in 2010, is only HKD$28 per hour (roughly US$3.60), in a city where housing prices are some of the highest in the world.

One of the major sources of Hong Kong’s wealth is real estate – in terms of proportion of income, housing in Hong Kong is more expensive than New York, Paris or London, said Friedman.

“Changing the situation would require some political changes, but those real estate tycoons are standing in the way and trying to prevent expansion of things like public housing, rent control or anything like that,” said Friedman.

According to the Economist’s latest crony capitalism index, Hong Kong tops the list of “politically connected businessmen who are more likely to prosper,” by a long shot. Zhao echoed these concerns saying that many of Hong Kong’s wealthy elite have close connections with the Chinese government.

“Since Hong Kong’s return [to China]… the mainland government and the Hong Kong elite have been trying to help each other in the sense of maintaining Hong Kong’s stability through elite rule, through the business elite, through the technical elite in Hong Kong,” she said.

The concern for the people of Hong Kong then, is the extent to which this close connection between the elite and political power will be maintained when citizens are not allowed to chose their own political candidates.

“There is real resentment of elite rule in Hong Kong, and that’s to the extent that the economy is dominated by big businesses or the extent to which the lower social classes are not benefiting from increased economic integration with the mainland economy, and they are suffering,” added Zhao.

The current chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, has long been criticized for his close connections with the Chinese government. When he came to power in 2012, he promised to fix the gaping inequality in the region, but two years later has failed to address the issue. This is one reason why students have singled him out in the current protests, demanding his resignation.

Their list of demands also include: an apology from Leung’s regime and its officials, the China’s withdrawal of the proposed ruling, the implementation of genuine universal suffrage and civic nominations, and reforms for workers rights as recommended by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. These reforms include regulation on working hours, universal pension and collective bargaining rights, Hong Kong activist Au Loong Yu wrote in New Politics.

The “pro-democracy” protesters are not simply demanding the symbolic right to vote, but are demanding to participate in government because they see a direct link between inequality and political freedom.

“Pro-Democracy” Does Not Mean “Anti-China”

Although there is resentment towards the elite rule in Hong Kong and its connection with the mainland, the media has been quick to frame the protests as an anti-China movement. Some media reports have even labelled those who are against the pro-democracy movement as being “pro-Beijing.” However, the movement itself never claimed to be against China, or Chinese rule, only to have greater autonomy within it.

“If you look at what the protesters are actually saying, almost nobody is saying we should be independent from China,” said Friedman. “There’s a very small far right faction which is sort of Hong Kong nationalist and trying to separate, but this is really a very small percentage of the protesters.”

Since Hong Kong’s population is approximately 94 percent ethnic Chinese, most people would consider Hong Kong to be a part of China, according to Friedman, but want more autonomy under the preexisting “one country, two systems” policy.

“There’s nothing in having real democracy that contradicts being part of China,” he added.

Despite China’s firm hand in Hong Kong politics, the region has more autonomy than it did under the 155 years of British Colonial rule, when its leaders were appointed by the queen and its laws dictated by London. According to Friedman, one of the only social groups that are not present in the current protests is the older generation – those who remember what life was like under the British and saw less political freedoms than today.

Conversely, under China’s “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong operates its own legal and social institutions. China has also provided it much financial support in attempts to “appease” the region, according to Zhao – which has been an important market for China – rather than operating as a “colonial master that dominates.”

The movement in Hong Kong is being oversimplified, says Zhao, to be an issue of nationalism and democracy, when the deeper issue is actually about class and inequality.

“Class tensions got articulated in terms of national, or in this case as mainland versus Hong Kong, tensions, and this is so typical of media framing,” said Zhao. “Is this a problem of mainland domination, or is this a larger problem of Hong Kong or, you know, the overall global problem of capitalism?”

Other reports have also surfaced in the media revealing connections between some of the leaders behind the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and government funding from the United States – particularly funding from the National Endowment for Democracy to leaders of Occupy Central. According to the reports, the US has been promoting democracy in Hong Kong for years in attempts to create unrest on the island and peel it away from Beijing – with the current protests being part of this larger US strategy.

However, Friedman is skeptical about this argument since western leaders, including President Barack Obama, have largely been silent on the issue so far.

“This distracts from the real issue, which is the massive economic inequality and a political system that excludes everybody except for the ultra wealthy,” he said. “It’s also totally condescending for all the protesters who are out there, you know the tens of thousands of people who are risking a lot, by saying ‘oh no, they’re just pawns of American imperialism.’”

Nevertheless, the reports do bring up important issues of international interests in the region which houses two very important economies. If the people of Hong Kong are successful in their fight for political reform, they should be left to establish it on their own terms and not those of outside interests.

The tensions in Hong Kong escalated Thursday night when anti-Occupy gangs brutally attacked two of the camps, while police largely stood by and allowed the violence to happen. The aggressions, however, seemed to increase support for the movement as tens of thousands of people attended a demonstration in Admiralty on Saturday in the largest gathering yet seen. There are signs that the government and student protesters may soon agree to participate in talks, but as the occupy movement enters its second week both sides remain strong.

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