The inharmonious society

Often viewed as stable and prosperous, the failure of Hong Kong’s out-of-touch ruling elite to address social issues is driving up youth disaffection, political radicalism and protest.
Chris Wilkins
19 October 2011

Open hostility greeted Li Keqiang, China’s Vice Premier, on his recent visit to Hong Kong, causing a good deal of consternation on the Mainland. ‘Hong Kongers are addicted to causing trouble’ moaned one blogger. Mr Li, who came with a ‘sincere heart’, according to another, was subjected to raucous protests by Hong Kongers who ‘confused right with wrong and almost caused chaos.’ China’s leaders are similarly irritated by Hong Kong’s fierce attachment to freedoms which don’t exist on the Mainland, having agreed to preserve the former British colony’s autonomy after reacquiring sovereignty in 1997 – on the assumption that over time, China’s rapid development would inspire money-loving Hong Kongers to choose patriotism over protest.

Even in Hong Kong itself, the appropriateness of political protest can be a controversial issue. Of course, debates over the proper balance between freedom of expression and public order are not unique to Hong Kong; this timeless dilemma it shares with any society whose civil liberties are (in theory) enshrined in law, and Hong Kong should feel rightly proud of its long tradition of peaceful and orderly protest. In recent years, however, Hong Kong society has witnessed a growing polarisation in attitudes, with increasingly robust protests often met with surprisingly vociferous condemnations from the authorities and sections of the media.

Those who speak loudly of respect for order, stability and deference to authority seem keen to snuff out protest as far as possible. The growing influence of this attitude was shown during Mr Li’s visit, when police were accused of adopting over-the-top security arrangements and heavy-handed tactics. The intentional blocking of news cameras and forced detention of protesting students in a stairwell during Mr Li’s speech at Hong Kong University, in particular, attracted the ire of demonstrators in the aftermath of the visit. While some commentators bemoaned likely pressure from Mainland security officials to keep the dignitary’s visit trouble-free, most pointed the finger at new police commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung as the mastermind of this decidedly authoritarian turn. Tellingly, his nickname among activists is ‘bald eagle’ – a reference to his apparent hawkishness – and his appointment represents the establishment’s growing intolerance for unruly protests.

At the other end of the spectrum is an increasingly radical fringe movement, populated by left-wing activists and members of the disaffected ‘post-80s’ generation – a phenomenon much talked about in the Hong Kong media – whose noisy and confrontational protests have occasionally led to outbreaks of violence. Some well-known veterans of left-wing politics – notably the League of Social Democrats’ ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, an elected councillor famous for his flowing locks and Che Guevara T-shirts – have turned to increasingly outrageous antics in recent years to get their message across, such as hurling eggs and bananas at politicians in the Legislative Council chamber.

Likewise, New Youth, a group made famous by their penchant for wearing masks inspired by the film ‘V for Vendetta’, have been accused of exploiting their anonymity to commit violence. The group formed in early 2010 during widespread protests against funding approval for the unpopular Express Rail Link to nearby Guangzhou, and has participated in a string of protests since. Most recently, in September this year, youths wearing Vendetta masks barged into a public forum debate on Legislative Council by-elections, after being denied entry despite the presence of vacant seats inside, injuring four assistants at the venue and attracting widespread condemnation in the media.

For the most part, Hong Kong society has little stomach for such radicalism. For many years the world’s freest economy and capitalism’s leading light, the Special Administrative Region of China has long prided itself on being an oasis of political and social stability in a tumultuous region. It can be tempting to contrast this relative calmness with the violence witnessed elsewhere. The great cities of the world, so often envied and admired by Hong Kong as an aspiring global city, have had a particularly tough run of late; four nights of rioting in London left the world stunned, while the eruption of protests on Wall Street led New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to deliver an ominous warning of the very real potential for severe unrest and rioting on the streets of his city. In 2005, Paris’ banlieues went up in flames, a conflagration triggered by social tensions that largely remain. Add to this a general malaise throughout the developed world as economies on both sides of the Atlantic teeter on the brink of ruin, and escalating social unrest seems a real possibility.

‘Such things would never happen here’, has perhaps been the reflection of many Hong Kongers. It would be a mistake, however, to consider Hong Kong immune to severe social unrest and political radicalism. The city has seen its fair share of violence over the years, notably during the 1967 leftist riots, when pro-communist demonstrators, inspired by the Cultural Revolution in neighbouring China, launched widespread protests against colonial rule. The protests quickly degenerated into violence, leaving 51 dead and many more injured. More insidious tactics used by the protestors included bombings and targeted assassinations of journalists who had opposed them in the media. Many young people in today’s Hong Kong are unaware of this dark chapter in their history, and even if they were, would not easily be convinced that such events could ever be repeated. Yet recent demonstrations, although far removed from the violence of 1967, have certainly become noisier and angrier, reflecting a deteriorating mood among many Hong Kong people.

It is also mistaken to believe that radicalism and protest are somehow inherently un-Chinese, a view influenced by the Confucian tenet ‘know thy place’ and more recently Beijing’s promotion of the ‘harmonious society’ concept. China’s leaders would have everyone believe that rapid economic development has rendered political protest unreasonable, unpatriotic and, worst of all, alien or ‘western’. This view discounts the immense historical role played by radicalism and protest in moulding modern China, where robust, often violent, challenges to the status quo have occurred frequently. Where would China be today, for example, if Sun Yat Sen had taken heed of moderate voices instead of demanding outright revolution to bring down the Qing dynasty in 1911? How could the famously authoritarian Chinese Communist Party have brought about ‘the birth of modern China’ in 1949 without using political violence to oust the Kuomintang? Even today, the participants of the 180,000 officially recorded protests throughout China in 2010 seemed little concerned with a supposed Confucian deference to authority and hierarchy in voicing their dissatisfaction with the many inequities of modern Chinese society.

Most worrisome for Hong Kong’s establishment is the fact that social indicators are especially bleak. A lack of political will to address the income gap, underpinned by an almost religious deference for the free market, have caused Hong Kong to be named the most unequal society in the entire developed world, according to the UN’s Gini coefficient, with a fifth of the population living below the poverty line. Figures from the University of Hong Kong show that the rate of suicide among young people has been increasing steadily in recent years, as youths grapple with tougher competition and fewer opportunities than previous generations. To make matters worse, Hong Kong’s political class shows a worrying lack of either compassion or understanding of social realities, with the likes of Henry Tang Ying-yen – Beijing’s favoured candidate to replace the outgoing Donald Tsang Yam-kuen as Hong Kong’s de facto ruler next year – happy to clink glasses with tycoons against a backdrop of rising inequality, while exhorting Hong Kong’s youth to pursue opportunities for social mobility that no longer exist. The growth of disaffection and youth radicalism is a product of these factors. Add the potential for an economic slump in Mainland China, which provides Hong Kong’s economic lifeblood, and the consequences could be disastrous.

Equally worrying are the scornful attitudes that have emerged in the wake of rising disaffection. Many have been quick to condemn protestors where demonstrations have spilled over into violence. It is only natural to react negatively when people are hurt or injured. Yet some elements of Hong Kong society have taken this a step further, seeking to demonise those behind the protests, branding them rioters, troublemakers and society’s losers. This is a mistake. Marginalising the disaffected, especially in a society so plagued with inequality, threatens to create a heavily polarised society that could become a tinderbox for political violence. No amount of indignation will put an end to protest, so long as growing numbers seek to challenge the poor deal currently on offer to most Hong Kong people. Many have no choice but to work incessantly hard from early childhood and battle against intense competition to secure a university place, that often leads to little more than a low-wage job and limited prospects of social mobility. Many will never be able to buy their own property, with private housing the least affordable in the world, according to a recent survey of median incomes versus house prices published by Demographia. All the while, young people are lectured to admire and emulate an entrenched business elite still basking in the glory of a bygone age of opportunity, yet whose only desire is to accumulate wealth and propagate itself with the keen assistance of business-friendly bureaucrats. Add to this the lack of official channels for political expression in an undemocratic society, coupled with the government’s clear disdain for public opinion – as illustrated by the recent appointment of the highly unpopular Stephen Lam Sui-lung to a key government post – and it is perhaps surprising that radicalism and violent protest are not already widespread.

As the principal powerbroker, China’s Central Government has a huge role to play in Hong Kong’s future success, despite being viewed with suspicion by many in the city. Over the years, China’s leaders have become dissatisfied with the performance of the Hong Kong government, as shown by their increasingly hands-on approach. Tacitly recognised as a test-run for Taiwan’s eventual reunification with the Mainland, China’s leaders have a lot riding on Hong Kong’s success. Yet Beijing’s business-friendly obsession with economic development could be sowing the seeds of the city’s downfall as a role model. If Beijing remains unwilling to end collusion between political elites and big business, public mistrust and festering radicalism will increase, threatening to derail the grand experiment of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ as a route to stability and prosperity. The growing malaise in Hong Kong society should be a wake-up call for China’s leaders, telling them that sound long-term strategies to boost welfare provision, increase social inclusion and broaden economic opportunity are urgently required. Only through forcing the hands of its Hong Kong yes-men, demanding that they listen to the people and adequately address many inequities in the city’s political, economic and social structures, can Beijing secure the ‘harmonious society’ it so dearly desires.

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