Friday 13 July 2012

Why the people of Hong Kong are angry

By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 12 Jul 2012

OVER the past few weeks, Hong Kongers have been venting their frustrations.

The weekend of June 30 saw not just the pomp of new leader Leung Chun Ying's inauguration, but also a three-day marathon of loud and rowdy protests.

On June 30, a 1,000-strong march over Tiananmen Square activist Li Wangyang's suspicious death in Hunan saw scuffles between protesters and the police.

On July 1, tens of thousands demonstrated with posters showing Mr Leung with a wooden nose a la Pinocchio, while some young people declared that they wanted Hong Kong to return to being a British colony.

The next day, more mobbed Mr Leung at a community dialogue, forcing him to beat a hasty retreat.

A week later, shouting matches erupted at another dialogue. Young protesters held up a banner saying 'The Wolf Doesn't Represent Me', in an allusion to Mr Leung's nickname, and chanted as the Chief Executive tried to speak. Outside the venue, yet more protesters clashed with police.

While protests in this city are hardly uncommon, the past days' chain of events represent an uptick in the noise level that has some people wondering: What has gotten Hong Kongers - especially the young ones - so angry and up in arms?

It is a vivid manifestation of one of Beijing's fears over Hong Kong before the British colony was handed over to China as a Special Administrative Region in 1997: that it would become a 'political city' - hindering the executive's ability to govern effectively, and hence Hong Kong's ability to function as an economic city.

Some immediate factors have stoked residents' anger.

The death of Mr Li - allegedly from suicide while on police watch - riled many. So did the discovery of illegal structures built in Mr Leung's home, severely undermining his credibility.

Resentment also simmers over Beijing's increasing interference in Hong Kong's domestic affairs, sparking fears that it is curbing the city's freedoms and civil liberties.

There are underlying political and economic factors that amplify the discontent.

First, Hong Kong's political system encourages polarising grandstanding.

The Basic Law - Hong Kong's mini-Constitution - that came into effect in 1997 endows the Chief Executive with significant formal powers. However, he is circumscribed by two restrictions: He cannot be from any political party and he cannot be popularly elected. Beijing's rationale was that this would avoid messy party politics.

There is increasing frustration with the delay in the granting of universal suffrage, which is enshrined in the Basic Law.

And so, as dissatisfaction with the establishment grows, other players in the system position themselves accordingly.

Mindful of the impending Legislative Council elections on Sept 9, the political parties have acted in opposition to the Chief Executive when it is expedient to do so.

Radical parties that have emerged, such as the League of Social Democrats and People Power, have been accused of using 'emotional tactics to push younger Hong Kongers to rise up against the executive' - as Mr Tam Yiu Chung, chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), charged. These parties condone - even encourage - riotous behaviour such as the hurling of water bottles and vulgarities alike at the authorities.

But even the pro-establishment bloc sometimes quietly distances itself from the Chief Executive and his proposals, such as the plan for a government revamp.

What exacerbates Mr Leung's woes is that he has no mandate of his own from the people, having been 'elected' by 689 out of an elite coterie of 1,200 Hong Kongers.

And so, deprived of democracy, with no vote to express their wishes, many Hong Kongers vigorously exercise their freedom to demonstrate and protest as a substitute for power at the ballot box.

Mr Julian Kwan, 18, for instance, joined People Power two months ago. He turned up on Sunday with friends to heckle Mr Leung.

'He's not elected by us, we didn't choose him. This is the only way to get our voice across, we are the true representative of most Hong Kong people,' said the otherwise soft-spoken student who is waiting to enter university.

But politics and economics are rarely divorced, and such passions may not have gained traction if Hong Kongers were not also increasingly aggrieved over bread-and-butter issues.

A new generation of young people feel they lack the opportunities their parents had, say observers. Much blame is being placed at the feet of property interests that dominate the economy. Today, 50 per cent to 60 per cent of government revenue comes from land sales. Mortgages are a major business in the banking sector, Hong Kong's other economic pillar.

A government so dependent on property vested interests has stumbled in diversifying the economy to provide economic opportunities for young Hong Kongers.

A case in point is Cyberport, envisioned as a high-technology incubation facility to develop the city's information technology wing.

Critics point to the government's decision in 1999 to grant tycoon Richard Li's PCCW conglomerate the US$2 billion (S$2.5 billion) tender without bidding. Today, Cyberport is known more for its luxury Bel-Air Residences than any ground-breaking work.

Meanwhile, rents - both industrial and residential - around the city continue to soar, deterring both would-be entrepreneurs and those who wish to set up their homes.

Aspiring businesswoman Joanna Kwan, 27, who has just set up a clothing stall in Causeway Bay, is paying HK$30,000 (S$4,900) a month for a 100 sq ft space - and hoping for the best.

It does not help that there is growing stiff competition from the mainland for plum jobs.

Hong Kongers vying for management trainee spots want HK$15,000; those from the mainland will accept HK$5,000.

Salaries of university graduates have stagnated. The median monthly gross salary for graduates of Hong Kong's top university - the University of Hong Kong - fell from HK$14,521 in 1997 to HK$11,000 in 2002, before creeping back up to HK$13,500.

All these take place against the backdrop of First World expectations of what life should be like.

Mr Mok Kin Wing, 31, a member of the Wong Tai Sin District Council in Kowloon, who spearheads a youth group affiliated to the DAB, put it this way: 'Young Hong Kongers feel very bewildered about the future. There's a lot of anger. They don't have their homes, yet they see no ability to move upwards and earn more.'

It is an issue that Mr Leung is aware of. At the dialogue on Sunday, he spoke sombrely of how Hong Kong's economy over the past decade had failed to keep pace with that of Singapore.

In 2002, Hong Kong's gross domestic product per capita was US$24,213 - a notch higher than Singapore's US$22,028. Last year, Hong Kong managed US$34,049. Singapore far surpassed it at US$49,271.

Said Mr Leung: 'What's important is for us to find ways to grow our economy. If young people cannot rely on hard work to achieve something, that is truly problematic for us.'

The new Chief Executive is now bearing the brunt of Hong Kongers' anger.

To resolve the structural failings of the political system, he will have to negotiate with his political masters in Beijing.

The economic challenge is tough, but perhaps more within Mr Leung's grasp. And just as much will ride on his ability and will to improve the lot of Hong Kongers.

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