The origin of the Hong Kong problem and the way for a win-win solution

This article, if published before the August 18 peaceful march, would doubtlessly be criticized by people from all sides. And in fact, even today, I do not expect it to draw no criticism. Nonetheless, I hope that the people who read this post would think calmly over my reasoning. After all, the protest movement that has been on going for a few months, with the people of Hong Kong shedding sweat and even blood on the streets, should bear fruits that are conducive to both sides. This should be the best result that can be hoped for.

How it all started?

Hong Kong’s decline can be traced back to its losing the status as one of the four little dragons of Asia.

This anti-ELAB movement has a very specific target, the amendment bill. However, it draws momentum not just from the bill; it is in fact a full scale eruption of the feelings of loss and anguish that the people of the city have been building up for years, after the setback of the Occupy-Central movement.

Only those who witnessed first hand Hong Kong’s economic takeoff in the 1980s can make sense of the origin of the anxiety and the sense of loss of Hongkongers. The four little dragons was a legend of East Asia. From the perspective of China back when it just implemented the Reform and Opening-up policy, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore are the symbol of wealth and modernization, the economic models that China could learn from. However, since the 1990s, capitals around the globe moved to China and the 500 biggest multinationals started doing business directly in the country, the four little dragons gradually lost their glory, and it was Hong Kong that suffered the worst in this process. The reason was simple: Hong Kong’s prosperity was the result of China closing its door to the outside world during Mao era. At that time, China needed Hong Kong to be its bridge to the rest of the globe, to serve as a transit port of re-exportation and even as a gateway to information of the outside world. After China’s official accession to the WTO in 2001, the only key irreplaceable function that Hong Kong still managed to keep has been its financial service. Most of the younger generations of the residents of the city were born around the turn of the millennium. Given that 2001 was only four years away from 1997, the 1997 handover has been by-and-large deemed as the starting point of Hong Kong’s decline.

Objectively speaking, it wasn’t just Hong Kong that lost the glory of being one the four little dragons. All four of them experienced boom between 1980s and 1990s, and they each had troubles of their own, the things in common were economic slowdown and low employment; the political problems they face, though, were different between one another. Taiwan is facing the pressure of red infiltration from mainland China, and the demand for unification with the other side of the Taiwan Strait; as for Hong Kong, young people are facing issues like high unemployment rate, limited room for upward mobility, staggering housing price. All this eventually fueled the anger toward Beijing (mainland China). In South Korea, the issues they have are all about the economy, the younger generations, seeing no channel to vent their frustrations, are taking it all out they become anti-government.

Youth unemployment, a global phenomenon

That the room for speech is squeezed and the freedom of the press gradually stripped are the results of Beijing and the city’s tycoons joining hands in running media (see my book in Chinese about Chinese media’s global expansion for an in-depth look); that Hong Kong’s rule of law is being eroded is the result of accomplices between Beijing and the city’s pro-establishment camp. The one issue that has been troubling Hong Kong even before the handover is the high property price. At the moment, housing price in Hong Kong is the second highest in world. It is very difficult to live in Hong Kong. The middle class, working hard all their lives are still struggling to have a flat of their own. As many as 200,000 people are reportedly living in ‘cage homes’ or other tiny space dwelling.

Look around the world, a lot of governments lost the hearts of the younger generations because of high unemployment rate and the clogging of the upward mobility channel. Nowhere is this issue stirring up more frustrations than in the developing countries. However, the difference in the political systems of those countries means that each country has its own set of precise reasons of losing of younger generations, and thus the protest directions of the young in each of the countries have been different.

Among the MENA countries, the young started the Arab Spring. The movement ended up making many of those countries worse off than before the revolution, as the book by Robert Worth pointed out.

Among the developed countries in Europe and the America, the young reject capitalism and turn to embrace socialism. However, the protests in European countries differ significantly from those in the America. In Europe, where high welfare is already in place under democratic socialist government, the protesters do not have a clear direction, they are just rambling about anything. Typical of this is the protest movement in France. In the face of the movement that has been going on for quite a long while, French president Macron, in his 2019 New Year’s speech, reminded the French to be mindful of the reality, “we cannot ask for lesser workload and more income at the same time; nor can we ask the government to reduce tax and at the same time increase government spending; we cannot ask for cleaner air without changing our habits.”

In the US, the country that was used to be regarded as an exception to Socialism, nearly half of those in the younger generations agree to socialist beliefs. The student loans and grim employment prospect render them staunch supporters of the Democrats. At the moment, the 20 persons who seek presidential nomination are counting on the support from the millennial socialists to help them enter the White House.

The hardship facing youth in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland factors

No one knows better about the origins of the Hong Kong issues than the people of Hong Kong themselves. During the antiELAB protests this year, Duowei interviewed quite a few members of the pro-establishment. They have a clear understanding of the grudge of younger Hongkongers. It was almost a unanimous view among them that the unpopular ELAB itself was not enough to explain the scale of the movement, the deeper themes are anti-China and anti-government of the SAR

Vice president of the Hong Kong Association of Young Commentators, Chen Zhihao summed up the sentiments in two points. First, the steady and incessant stream influx of people from the Chinese mainland taking up residency in Hong Kong, around a 100 each day. From the perspective of the people in Hong Kong, these newcomers are there compete with them for resources, and no doubt have an impact on their lives, making the housing problem worse. Second, the people in Hong Kong can not agree to the ideology and values of mainland China, viewing those as relatively backward, uncivilized and ugly. In addition, many interviewees raised the same old problem, the housing price is so high that, many in the city are struggling to have a tiny flat of them own. Watching the many videos about sub-devided flats, “coffin flats” and cage homes on the internet and one would feel despair. Regardless of the political outlook for Hong Kong, this real property market would be a major cause of serious social problems.

Universal suffrage may not solve all problems, but it can alleviate the sentiments

Hong Kong during the British rule had seen good social governance. And the city, with its pool of all sorts of talents, is fully capable of implementing high degree of autonomy. All of the problems facing Hong Kong today, from high unemployment among the younger generations, the staggering housing prices to the inhumane living conditions, can be seen in the Chinese mainland as well. I once lived in Shenzhen for years, knowing too well that China based its land finance and real property development approach on the Hong Kong model, the “ant mole dwellers” in major cities like Beijing are facing issues similar to those living in cage homes and the like in Hong Kong. Beijing do not have a cure to the high housing price and high unemployment problems, it can not improve the living conditions of the “ant mole dwellers”, and it does not have to capability to resolve the age-old issues in Hong Kong, either.

To use heavy-handed measure to crush the protests in Hong Kong would only result in deeper-seated hatred and greater will to fight. For Beijing to address the Hong Kong problem at this point, an old Chinese saying is most suited, “Gai fang shou shi xu fang shou, de rao ren chu qie rao ren” (Let go when the time has come for one to let go, and make room for others when one can make room). Beijing should have allowed direct elections in Hong Kong long ago and yet it has been reluctant to do so all along. As a result, for anything that doesn’t go right in Hong Kong, people blame it on the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing as well as the rest of mainland China. Even in the view of long term national interest, the win-win solution is for universal suffrage and autonomy to be allowed in Hong Kong.

Can universal suffrage solve all the social problems in Hong Kong? No one can guarantee this. However, with it, the people of Hong Kong would enjoy greater autonomy and they get a say in the politics and the social policy. With this autonomy, they would no doubt understand that they themselves have to be responsible for their decisions. Although this kind of “Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong” would mean that the central government can not dictate every of the affairs in the city as it wishes, it is the best way to cut loss: China still has sovereignty over Hong Kong, but it would no longer be the seen as the root of all problems in the city, nor would it be denounced around the world.

Originally published in Chinese here