China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.
7 October 2014
hey carried umbrellas and goggles for the teargas, but also textbooks and homework. The mass pro-democracy movement that seized the streets of Hong Kong has been obviously and overwhelmingly youthful.
With numbers shrinking rapidly, and hopes of winning meaningful reform fading even faster, the question now is what lies ahead for these “angry – but peaceful” young men and women. Will the unprecedented protests embolden them to fight for their beliefs in future, or convince them that resistance to Beijing’s will is futile?
“People are criticising what we are doing as pointless and saying we won’t achieve anything, but history has shown us that is not the case,” student leader Joshua Wong told the crowd last week. “All our actions are like planting a seed.”
Young people are far more likely to be dissatisfied with China’s handling of the region and with the Hong Kong government than their elders. They also sense that time is running out.
Hong Kong-based author Suzanne Pepper said many thought the “one country, two systems” framework allowing the region its autonomy after the 1997 handover was in effect permanent, and would eventually allow the introduction of democracy. Now they are realising that it came with only a 50-year guarantee – “and they think: ‘We are going to be one country, one system before 2047,’” she said.
Beijing’s attempts to introduce a draconian national security law in 2003 and “patriotic education” in 2012 were turning points. Then came the decision to tightly restrict the long-promised universal suffrage.
“People are finally saying: This is it – this is the end – and this has fuelled this sudden anger and frustration,” Pepper added.
Underlying economic grievances are not unique to Hong Kong, but are exacerbated by a system in which “fewer than 10,000 wealthy business voters can veto the wishes of all seven million other inhabitants(pdf), and fewer than 200,000 voters elect half of the legislative seats”.
The territory’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying, has become a lightning rod for the protesters’ anger. “He doesn’t fight for us,” said protester Miu Law, 25. “In a political sense, he is ruling Hong Kong for the Chinese government. Practically, he’s running it for the tycoons. We are twentysomethings; we have jobs; it is time to leave our family homes. But we will never buy a flat. Never.”
In real terms, young people’s salaries have fallen by 10% to 15% since 2000, points out Michael DeGolyer of the Hong Kong Transition Project, which tracks the region’s changes. Meanwhile, property prices have soared to around 14 times annual incomes.
People in their 30s are still living with their parents – and often supporting them, and perhaps grandparents too, thanks to utterly inadequate pension provision. Income inequality is among the highest in the developed world, and has hit a three-decade peak.
An influx of mainlanders has increased the competition for professional jobs, housing and seats on public transport. Tourism numbers have soared from 23m in 2010 to 47m last year, in a city of just 7m; the government wants 100m by 2020. At the high end, luxury tourism is driving out established businesses: “People are looking for the little noodle shop that has been replaced by a Versace store,” said DeGolyer.
The protests have appeared free of the hostile anti-mainlander rhetoric which has sometimes burst out in Hong Kong. But young people are far more likely than their parents to identify themselves primarily as Hong Kongers(pdf) rather than as primarily Chinese or with a dual identity.
“Hong Kong students find that they have much less in common in values with the Chinese whom they are in contact with on a daily basis, and increasingly so,” noted Shirley Lin, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
That shift is to some extent balanced politically by the high numbers of new arrivals; there will soon be a million mainland-born residents. Pro-Beijing groups have proved adept at welcoming them into the fold, and at grassroots organisation.
Law’s friend Kiwi Chan said that younger people had a different set of expectations. They are highly educated and have had more opportunities; stability and putting food in their family’s mouths is no longer the only concern.
“Our parents think economics is the first priority. For us it’s human rights and freedom,” she said.
Yet older people have been drawn into the protests too: not just democracy veterans, but citizens inspired by the younger generation. Law’s parents, who initially opposed her protesting, backed her after she explained her views. The youthful nature of the leaders has inspired sympathy: “If the movement was led by politicians, people would say they had other intentions,” Law said.
Popular outbursts of political action do not always lead to long-term success, or even longer-term activism. Millions on the mainland took part in the pro-reform protests of 1989 which began in Tiananmen Square, but after the bloody crackdown, fear and economic inducements ensured they turned away from politics.
Beijing has other means to make itself felt in Hong Kong. But the “umbrella movement” has proved yet again that the one thing guaranteed to inflame public feeling is an obvious attempt to impose its will.
Han Dongfang, who was jailed as a leader of the Tiananmen protests and now runs the workers’ advocacy group China Labour Bulletin from Hong Kong, believes Beijing can compromise when it sees it is necessary.
“I don’t believe it didn’t hear [the movement]; I don’t believe the Hong Kong government didn’t hear it,” he said. “Most importantly, the Hong Kong people heard it.”
On Tuesday officials agreed to start talks on the electoral system with student representatives, but made it clear that substantive changes were not on the table.
“The central government will not let Hong Kong have its say so easily,” said Law. “But I can see society is changing. People have started to see that politics is part of their lives: they have dignity and have a right to discuss issues with those around them, no matter whether they are for or against Occupy. We still have hope in fighting for a fairer electoral system – but it isn’t the only thing we are asking for.”