Thursday, July 31, 2014

HK’s democracy movement isn’t just about Beijing

The Phnom Penh Post - 30 Jul 2014
Toby Carroll Analysis

POPULAR analyses of burgeoning political agitation around universal suffrage in Hong Kong often side-step an inconvenient reality – the underlying story is not simply about relations with the mainland or concerns over its authoritarian ways, but rather about massive social inequality and the diminishing opportunities available to many Hongkongers.

On June 4, Hong Kong’s Victoria Park filled with people to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Less than a month later, massive numbers of Hongkongers – many of them young – once again turned out on July 1 for the annual pro-democracy march through the city’s financial hub. Both of these events exhibited the excitement and tension associated with increasing levels of political activity which has all too often been characterised as stemming from democratic deficits currently built into the region’s governance.

It’s true that in recent years anti-mainland sentiment has risen, with popular targets being Beijing’s influence, stories about the behaviour of mainland tourists and the impact of mainland investors on inflating property prices.

Beijing asserting its authority over Hong Kong has undoubtedly contributed to simplistic narratives to explain the large mobilisations recently seen. Moreover, the increased presence of mainlanders in the autonomous region has quite likely contributed to exacerbating inequality in certain sectors.

But to unmask the real reasons behind the dissent, it is also important to look at the city’s sky-high inequality rates, which are more about market dominance and governance than simply mainland influence.

In 2013, around 1.3 million people (19.6 per cent) were deemed to be living below the official poverty line in Hong Kong. The city is also famous for its painful delays to public housing (up to 10 years). And the mention last weekend of a new release of miserably sized private apartments (just over 170 square feet) for under HK$2 million (US$260,000) would hardly calm the nerves of those already at breaking point.

Indeed, such announcements likely only add to popular anger, highlighting unattractive living spaces on offer in a city where many are forced to live in what are bleakly known as “cage homes” and in former warehouses.

For the last couple of months, we have seen a steady who’s who of elite financial and economic figures instilling fear with respect to political mobilisations, one of which (Occupy Central) is yet to actually occupy any public space. The stunning stream of paranoid predictions has been revealing.

But what, really, is the positive impact on most people of Hong Kong’s status as a financial centre? Are the interests of people facing high property prices, high costs of living and diminished social mobility really aligned with a system centred on low corporate tax?

The alignment of Beijing’s political aspirations and those of a tiny but powerful elite may prove a formidable pairing. But given Hong Kong’s material conditions, political dissent will not easily be contained.

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