Underlying reasons for the unrest in Hong Kong

As some of you know, since earlier this year, there is civil unrest in Hong Kong centered around the so-called “Occupy Central” (referring to the Central Business district or 中环 in Chinese, not the Central Government of China, as several people I discussed this with mistakenly assumed) movement. The movement’s aims are to fight for true universal suffrage in 2017. While the current proposal drafted and now approved by the National People’s Congress offers universal suffrage to select the city’s leader, the Chief Executive, it also stipulates that all candidates must be approved by a majority the 1200 member Election Committee which contains many Beijing supporters, effectively ensuring that only those loyal to Beijing will be allowed to run for the top office. This is deemed unacceptable by the so-called pan-democratic persons in Hong Kong. The main goal of Occupy Central is to remove this stipulation in the 2017 election and allow anyone who chooses to run to be deemed a candidate.

On the surface, this seems like the same story that has happened again and again throughout history. Even the organizers behind Occupy Central have compared their proposed campaign of civil disobedience to the likes of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, with the goal of opposing a tyrannical and oppressive regime and unfair treatment of people. This may very well be true, but there are other factors that run deep beneath the surface.

One has to understand that Hong Kong, aside from being a British colony for a hundred years and a place where the residents are used to a British style of government and way of life, it is also a prime destination for mainland refugees fleeing from various situations in China after the establishment of Communist China in 1949. Many of the refugees were members of the bourgeois or land owner classes, which were mercilessly persecuted by Communist China. Others escaped the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward and the fearful period of the Cultural Revolution. The point is, many of the people in Hong Kong have a deep grudge against the Communist Party of China, as their own families have suffered greatly at the hands of China’s current rulers. They may not necessarily be pro-democracy, but they are definitely anti-Communist.

This is combined with a more delicate social history. Many of the people who fled to Hong Kong have found their way to a better way of life and prosperity after leaving their homes. There is a feeling of vindication, and definitely superiority, towards China. While the Mainland languished in the Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong boomed as a financial and economic hub. By the time China opened up its borders in 1978 under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, Hong Kong was already a modern and cosmopolitan city. It is not even a secret that Hong Kongers widely feel they are superior to mainlanders, deeming mainlanders uncouth and uncivilized. For a long time, economic reality reflected much the same. This changed, however, in the past decade, when China’s unprecedented economic rise has placed it higher on the economic spectrum than Hong Kong. While Hong Kong enjoyed consistent economic growth since rejoining China in 1997, the growth rate is much slower than in the mainland. While in the late 90’s and 2000’s China’s economy boomed at double digit growth rates, Hong Kong’s economy grew at a relatively modest 4-5% range. This gap in growth rate has shifted economic realities. Now many mainlanders north of the border enjoy much more wealth and a higher standard of living than many middle class members of Hong Kong. However, the attitude of superiority of Hong Kongers towards mainlanders has not changed; and this has caused much resentment.

Further, the policy differences between Hong Kong and the mainland have exerted a lot of pressure on Hong Kong’s social fabric. Since Hong Kong’s laws are different than in the mainland, and usually much more transparent with a more or less independent judiciary, it is considered essentially a ‘foreign’ land in terms of investments. Thus many wealthy mainlanders see fit to invest in Hong Kong real estate, just as they would buy real estate in hot foreign markets like Vancouver or Australia, as a secure way to park their money. This has driven up prices in the most densely populated place in the world, dashing the dreams of home ownership for many middle class Hong Kongers. Undoubtedly this reality has caused significant resentment among Hong Kong’s populace. Secondly, because Hong Kong citizens enjoy a special status in the context of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong citizenship is deemed highly desirable. Many mainland pregnant women have essentially snuck past the border to give birth in Hong Kong, making their offspring Hong Kong citizens. This has caused undue stress on Hong Kong’s hospitals to handle women going through labour, and have created resentment as well. Further, Hong Kong is a place where foreign products are widely available; and things like baby formula are highly desirable for mainland Chinese (context: about 6 years ago there was a so-called ‘tainted milk’ scandal in China where bad baby formula caused death and serious injury or mental impairment for over 40,000 babies, thus scaring people off domestic brands). This has created shortage in Hong Kong.

My point is, the current turmoil is not as simple as a bunch of freedom-minded people fighting for rights and freedoms. It is a continuation of a long history of mistrust and hatred towards China’s ruling party, and continued economic tensions between the mainland and Hong Kong.

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