The Roots of Hong Kong Protest

The demonstrations in Hong Kong Monday night were large and peaceful. Yet such protests are not new and are at the heart of the dilemma of Hong Kong’s political system.

The protest tradition began in 1989, in response to the massive demonstrations in China, particularly at Tiananmen Square. Beijing’s violent crackdown shocked Hong Kong and ended any optimism that China would take a hands-off attitude towards the territory after it resumed sovereignty in 1997. The view emerged that a democratic political system was necessary to deter and check violent Chinese crackdowns in Hong Kong. Beijing, for its part, concluded that Hong Kong support for the Tiananmen protesters revealed intent to become a base for undermining communist rule in China. So it designed the Hong Kong political system in such a way that it retained a significant degree of control over who held power. The underlying goal: effectively shut out the pro-democracy forces. To fortify its rule, Beijing also allied with Hong Kong’s business community.

But Hong Kong’s protest tradition did not die. In 2003, massive crowds came out to protest proposed legislation against sedition, out of fear that the implementation of the new law would restrict civil liberties and political freedoms. The large turnout caused the establishment coalition that had supported the new law to fracture, and the bill was withdrawn. Protests in 2012 forced the government to withdraw a plan to strengthen “patriotic education” in Hong Kong schools. The lesson that Hong Kong’s middle class learned: protest works. Hence the demonstrations of the last several days.

But periodic protests are not just one-off responses to specific policy proposals of Beijing or the Hong Kong government. They are also a symptom of Hong Kong’s concentration of both economic and political power.

On the economic side, income inequality in Hong Kong is among the highest in the world. According to Forbes’s rankings, Hong Kong has forty-four billionaires, which is the highest in the world once population is taken into account. Young people believe, with some justification, that they will not be able to secure a standard of living that is as high as their parents. A key reason is the control that a small number of property firms have over the real estate market, which raises prices for both residential and commercial space. For many couples, owning even a small apartment is increasingly out of reach. Moreover, competition for jobs has intensified as the flow of smart, eager applicants from China grows. The divide between the One Percent and The Rest continues to deepen.

In most advanced societies, democracy provides a check against excessive wealth and market concentration. Not in Hong Kong. Beijing designed the territory’s political system to limit the scope of democracy and give preferential access to political power to its supporters (mostly wealthy businessmen, some members of communist trade unions). This is particularly true of the election for the chief executive (CE), where, until now, a 1200-person selection committee dominated by Beijing’s allies picked the CE. With the proposed shift from selection by 1200 to election by all eligible voters, there was substantial hope for a system that would permit the possibility of competitive elections and of a popular check on concentrated economic power. That hope was dashed on August 31st, when Beijing decided to control who got nominated to run in a one-person, one-vote election. It is that decision that Hong Kong’s disadvantaged middle class is protesting.

Economic power and political power in Hong Kong are two sides of the same coin. They reinforce each other. And, to a significant extent, the same people dominate each arena. The public feels unrepresented in both board rooms and government chambers, but they have learned that there is one arena that they can dominate: The Street. For the immediate future, the question is whether middle class protest cause enough damage to business that the tycoons themselves decide that more democracy will actually enhance stability rather than undermine it.

Beijing has pushed the idea that political unrest in Hong Kong is being engineered and manipulated by foreign forces, particularly the United States. There is, of course, no basis for this charge. In fact, it flies in the face of the fact that Hong Kong’s protest tradition is totally homegrown, a response to policies that have alienated the majority of the public. So too, the solution to Hong Kong’s political dilemma will be found at home, by engaging the public rather than trying to shut it out.