The right to Hong Kong

The protest camps have been cleared. But Hong Kong’s Occupy movement has laid bare the struggle for space that rages across the city.

Lily Ho
23 February 2015
The first post-Occupy rallies in Hong Kong, February 2015. Demotix/David Smith. All rights reserved.

The first post-Occupy rallies in Hong Kong, February 2015. Demotix/David Smith. All rights reserved.In 2014 Hong Kong’s tycoon-driven domestic economy topped The Economist’s crony-capitalism index, outshining even Russia and China. Over the past few decades, Hong Kong’s wealth inequality has been widening. Its Gini coefficient, an index for wealth disparity, went up from 0.45 in 1981 to 0.54 in 2011, exceeding that of China and the US. The conclusion that wealth in Hong Kong’s gleaming society lies in the hands of 'the 1 percent' is inescapable.

And nowhere is this divide more apparent than in urban space – the scarcest and therefore the most contentious resource in Hong Kong. The average living space per person is roughly 12m squared, one of the smallest in the world. Such figures do not reflect that over 170,000 people live in subdivided flats, and that mainland Chinese appetite for high-end real estate has been driving up the cost for its residents even more.

Negotiating space

Negotiating conflicting interests for space is, like in any cosmopolitan city, a delicate balancing act, but even more so in land-scarce Hong Kong. Space is a luxury. The monetary opportunity cost of not using urban space for profit-driven infrastructure and development is high, but should be considered against the social value of space. Paul Zimmerman, a district councillor famous for unfolding a yellow umbrella in support of Occupy at the China National Day reception, is the founder of DesigningHongKong, a non-profit dedicated to improving urban planning and livability. Zimmerman focuses less on the political dynamics at senior levels, but instead takes a pragmatic approach by initiating urban planning campaigns. “I really miss piazzas, large open spaces where people can meet, sit, chat and interact socially rather than running hastily between places”, he tells me.

“The Hong Kong government has been too preoccupied first with the change in sovereignty and now constitutional reform”, says Zimmerman. The problem, in his view, is that “appointments to government advisory boards are not because of great relevant experience, but because of political views”. As a result, there is a growing sentiment that the ruling elite serves the interests of tycoons and the powers that be in Beijing rather than the average Hong Konger. It is against this backdrop that the Occupy Movement has been pushing for universal suffrage in 2017. They want the government to be first and foremost concerned with reducing wealth inequality and improving Hong Kong’s livability.

In Hong Kong, the definition of ‘public’ is already ambiguous. The government has allowed private development often on the condition that certain areas will be retained as ‘public space’ (Privately Owned Public Space, or ‘POPS’). This hybrid of public and private has in reality catered to commercial as opposed to public interests. In theory, POPS would allow public access, but even such a narrow interpretation of ‘public’ space is often not adhered to. The government has received numerous complaints of restricting access to such spaces. Contractual conditions of POPS are often breached when developers fence off public space and equip it with security guards to shoo away any undesirables.

Civil disobedience

Even space considered to be ‘public’ in a broader sense, such as public parks, are so heavily regulated that one is not even allowed to “sing to the annoyance of any other person”. Karen, an Occupy supporter and owner of a neighbourhood café, believes that, especially in a society where living space is so cramped, it is important to provide space for creative and political expression. “The only place for a public rally, where we could express ourselves on social issues is a platform organised and broadcasted by TV station RTHK, but which has lost its meaning as pro-government mobs disrupt events by playing loud Chinese patriotic songs.” The Occupy sit-in, albeit labeled an ‘illegal activity’, was a remarkably orderly congregation. “Having complete control over public space, the protesters showed what Hong Kong’s people really need, and value in public space”, she says. And the protesters did exactly that which is not allowed in legal public space. They held public lectures, political speeches, rolled out mobile libraries and works of creative art flourished. But the end of Occupy meant a return to strict control – the colourful post-its on the Hong Kong “Lennon Wall” have been replaced with signs prohibiting posting anything on the wall.

But to take Hong Kong’s Occupy as the outburst of an otherwise silenced population is overestimating the control of the ruling elite, whilst underestimating the civil resistance of Hong Kongers. Numerous organisations manage to push boundaries on a case-by-case basis, often successfully challenging development plans on grounds of environmental protection or heritage conservation. A milestone was the Harbour Protection Ordinance, which laid out boundaries for the further development and reclamation of Victoria Harbour. The not-for-profit Society for the Protection of the Harbour (SPH) continues to challenge the government’s public planning in respect of harbour-side development.

Several organizations have also sought recourse in the courts, through a judicial review of public policy-makers. Even if such high-profile cases were not successful in the courtroom, they managed to raise public awareness for their cause.  Rob Precht, lawyer and founder of JusticeLabs, a public interest NGO, has noticed a rise in public interest litigation in Hong Kong, but says that lawyers are still restrained by onerous Law Society restrictions on professional indemnity insurance, not allowing lawyers to advise members of the public through charitable organisations. In addition, the White Paper published in 2014 stated that the HK judiciary should be patriotic and loyal to China. Speeches at the Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year showed that even members of the judiciary were diametrically opposed on the issue of ‘patriotism’. Hong Kongers still have a lot of faith in the legal system, but any encroachment on their independence may in the future close another avenue for challenging public policy.

Interesting times lie ahead for Hong Kong. Its Occupy movement has laid bare socio-political issues that it will need to address. The protest sites have been cleared, and public support for disruptive radical action may have waned, but a great number of Hong Kongers feel frustrated that the government’s efforts to address growing wealth inequality have been insufficient. Space is a luxury, and its scarcity has exacerbated the wealth gap; it is the age-old dynamic where those who have power over land control the economy and the people. In turn, civil society in HK has been on the rise during the past decade, and many organisations are increasingly visible in pushing the boundaries and challenging urban policy. 

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