The following report is from a long term permanent resident of Hong Kong who along with the rest of Hong Kong has watched the long Summer of Discontent, with disbelief at how rapidly the city has fractured and deteriorated. It analyses what is happening and why and is pessimistic about a solution to the current problem in the near future.The writer is a university lecturer who wishes to remain anonymous for reasons of personal and professional security.
In June at the first march against the Extradition Treaty there was a strong sense of purpose and a feeling of outrage that the government had not consulted the people and was in effect handing over the heads of Hong Kongers on a platter to China. Since that time, as there has been a fracturing of allegiances and opinions. Protesters have been blamed for making unrealistic demands from China, police are blamed for their heavy handed tactics, the Hong Kong elites have been blamed for siding with Chinese development interests and making profits at the expense of the average person who has seen their living standards decline. The average person will not own property in their lifetime and the soaring rents in the most expensive real estate market in the world, has made it unaffordable for the poor to even rent. As one piece of graffiti said “If I can’t even afford a 75meter room, what makes you think I’m afraid of jail?”.
Hong Kong is caught in an uneasy stalemate as it attempts to keep order in a situation of escalating violent confrontations. Right now there is no viable political solution. It is painfully obvious and even admitted by Carrie Lam, that the demands for the freedom of self governance is out of reach for Hong Kong. The trust in government and in the police is completely broken although there is a minority that support them. However, it is clear that the police are in unenviable position of not just keeping law and order but in carrying out a political agenda and as such, they are out of their depth and has increasingly used harsher measures that include teargas thrown in public areas, arbitrary arrests, and occasionally spraying pepper spray at the annoying press that are always on their heels.
With 20/20 hindsight, we should have seen this situation coming. In the last decade, the divide between rich and poor has rapidly increased and the quality of life has declined. Property which is the lifeblood of the city has been gobbled up by Chinese property developers and graduating students see low salaries and prospects as their future along with the need to live with their family for a long time ahead, because of high rentals. In addition, the promises of the Chinese government to maintain the one country two systems rule are hollow and the reality has been encroachments on Hong Kong sovereignty. Crossing the HK border to kidnap the Hong Kong booksellers showed they did not respect their boundaries and their refusal to grant real universal suffrage of which was agreed upon in the 1997 Handover, sparked the Umbrella Movement in 2014.
Hong Kong is angry at its elites but it doesn’t have the same ideology as the West. Despite calls for democracy and freedom even the most die hard protesters recognises Hong Kong’s SAR status but would like to have control over local affairs and the continuing infrastructure that has allowed it to become prosperous. When I first came to Hong Kong in 1995, it struck me that the elites were admired by my University students and they still are. The average person aspires to be rich and having wealth is envied. At the same time, the rich have obligations and that is to be benefactors and to help out the community. This sense of purpose runs right through the community. Student protesters are not motivated by a sense of individualistic rights but instead it is a sense of duty to the future of Hong Kong. The rhetoric and even the new ‘Hong Kong’ anthem emphasises collective values. They are angry at the elites for having sold out Hong Kong and for their collective unconsciousness of the increasing hardships of the city. So while there is this resentment, the anger is directed more at identity politics i.e. us Hong Kongers vs China.
Hong Kongers are largely pragmatic, and in the beginning, the demands were to have some degree of freedom to do what they do best and that is to make money. The ill conceived Extradition Law proposal, burst the lid on the seething tension of the city. The city is imploding under the weight of factionalism, straight out thuggery and escalating violence. Tourism is now down by 40% and there is real economic hardship. Despite this chaos, a large number believe that China will not take military action. Their reasons are that China doesn’t care about Hong Kong. There is a persistent belief that China and Carrie Lam’s government are colluding to allow Hong Kong to nearly destroy itself. When that time comes, the large Hong Kong reserves would be used to nationalise key industries as a way of controlling the city. This is one among many speculations on how this situation will end but it is interesting to note that military action seems less likely as the political situation becomes more complex. The roots of this belief is that China has many weapons at its disposal including sophisticated propaganda and there is no need for a crass solution. There is no real way to predict what will happen although it’s safe to say that the chaos will increase and Hong Kong will keep burning as there is no easy solution that will put out the flames in the near future.