Hong Kong protests commentary
Are Hong Kongs pro-democracy protests a threat to society? To Beijing? And could they turn violent? Will they persist indefinitely? Robert Horrocks, CIO Matthews Asia, comments.
These are the kinds of questions that run through people’s minds. While in Hong Kong recently, I took the chance to visit two protest sites in Hong Kong—Mongkok and Admiralty. I wanted to take a closer look for myself to see what was going on and what the impetus is behind the rallying cry for “universal suffrage.”
First of all, these are very peaceful protests. These are not the sites of the Occupy movement that we saw in US cities.
They are clean: equipped with first-aid clinics, provision tents, even places of worship. The students and other protesters (ages range from the youth to middle-age and beyond) are unfailingly polite. People walk by on the busy shopping streets or on the way to work without any fear for their safety. The sites are generally very quiet.
While I strolled around the Admiralty site—near Hong Kong’s great financial centre at 7:30 in the morning—a voice from behind me asked, “Excuse me. Would you like some breakfast?” A student then proffered a cardboard box full of sandwiches. I demurred—I’d spent a comfortable night in a hotel; I wasn’t going to take a sandwich away from someone sleeping out in a tent all night! So, these are hardly violent protests. These protesters want to make sure people see them as they see themselves—a fundamental part of Hong Kong society.
The protesters have also not set themselves against Beijing. Indeed, their posters explicitly align themselves with Chinese president Xi Jinping or him with them. Pictures of Xi, dressed casually and holding an umbrella (the movement’s symbol) are commonplace throughout the tents.
The protests have been careful to aim their discontent mostly at the chief executive of Hong Kong (a kind of local Beijing appointee) and against the Hong Kong elite. They couch their demands in terms of a desire for universal suffrage for the chief executive, making it seem like a dispute over voting procedures rather than a challenge to political authority. Is that really all they are after? Is there really little dissent?
Of course not. And here it is necessary to understand that the movement is not just students but is also backed by trade union groups and some Hong Kong legislators.
The movement also grew out of the similarly peaceful Occupy movement in Hong Kong. And like that movement, there are economic causes and triggers for the protests.
There is a sense that students are fearful that when they graduate, owning a house may be beyond their means. Land prices are largely controlled by the Hong Kong government and elite; property ownership, like in many global cities, is not necessarily within reach for long-term residents or natives. A lifetime of paying rent may not exactly be a hardship but the idea of owning property is very important to Hong Kongers.
But the clearer goal is a desire to address income inequality with some kind of government transfer from the rich to the poor. This is where universal suffrage comes in—for without a popularly elected official at the head of the executive branch, Hong Kong will not have the kind of leader that would enact bold anti-inequality reforms. Rather, the status quo between local elites and a pro-business Beijing government will perpetuate the low-tax environment in Hong Kong.
Both sides have been pretty explicit that this is the real issue at hand. This explains why there is a coalition of different groups in the protests and why the elites and Beijing are unlikely to give any real concessions on universal suffrage. It’s not just a protest about democracy, but one about using the power of the ballot box to force a reshaping of Hong Kong society.
It also means that the protests will persist as part of the Hong Kong political landscape—not necessarily in a physical sense.
The quiet and clean sites nevertheless do cause traffic to get more blocked up than usual and there are plenty of grumblings, among the well-heeled as well as the small shopkeepers, that “enough is enough” and it is time to pack up and go home. But the protesters’ redistributive desires are backed by interest groups among the population and within the legislative council. It is part of their vision for Hong Kong and is unlikely to go away.
But how different is that to the political disagreements that happen in the US and Europe every day? Indeed, Beijing, too, is struggling with similar issues. So, some of the people I spoke to looked at this with great comfort—no matter which side of the political fence they stand on—it’s just civil disobedience done right.