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Hong Kong Protesters Need to Weigh the Consequences to Their Future

Oct 07 , 2014

When Hong Kong reverted to China in 1997, western pundits predicted doom and gloom for the future of Hong Kong and they couldn't be more off target. The same gaggle of pundits and analysts are now attempting to make sense of Occupy Central movement taking place in Hong Kong and as usual their interpretations are suspect.

There are western observers that are quick to draw the analogy of Tiananmen in 1989 to Occupy Central in Hong Kong and attribute to both movements as a cry for democracy, demand for government reform, and even overthrow of the ruling elite. These are views reflecting their western bias and not grounded in reality.

There are similarities, of course. Students led both movements and both demanded democratic reform. However, the students at Tiananmen did not really understand the meaning of democracy. They wanted to replace the authoritarian government of Zhongnanhai with one to be run by the leaders of the movement. Idealistic yes, realistic no.

The students of Hong Kong also demand democratic reform. They are too young to competently compare the relative freedom they now enjoy to no voice on how they were governed when their parents lived under the British rule. They thought they saw an opportunity to rewrite the Basic Laws and make a grab for complete universal suffrage. They are being naïve.

Since the handover in 1997, Beijing has hewed to the line of “one country, two systems” and honored every term and condition as outlined in the Basic Law. The people of Hong Kong will be able to vote for their next chief executive in the 2017 election, just not the right to nominate the candidates who will run for the highest office. The voters will choose from among the candidates vetted by a nominating committee. It’s a limited form of democracy but that is the Basic Law.

The student leaders at Tiananmen overstepped the legitimacy of their complaints when they publicly insulted the Premier of China, which then escalated tragically to bloodshed. The western media unintentionally contributed to the incendiary circumstances. They followed Gorbachev on his State visit to Beijing and noticed the ragtag bunch congregating at Tiananmen. Their attention to the students reinvigorated a movement running out of gas, thus leading to devastating consequences.

The students of Hong Kong are demanding the immediate resignation of chief executive C.Y. Leung, an ultimatum impossible to be met. The Hong Kong police have shown professional restraint and keeping a delicate balance between maintaining order and minimizing violence. They have been doing their utmost to keep the disturbance civil and, unlike Occupy Wall Street in New York City, have not resorted to cracking heads with swinging batons.

If anything, there are now loud demands for law and order from ordinary citizens weary of the blockage by protestors and a desire to resume their daily lives. Such confrontations between civilians and students have potential tragic consequences. So do continue disruption of traffic and normal daily business activity.

Fortunately, the situation seems to be calming down. Office workers are being allowed to go back to work. Protesters and government representatives are having a conversation. Hopefully, this is the beginning of negotiations that will lead to a mutually acceptable resolution.

I have been a regular visitor to Hong Kong since 1978 and I believe there are genuine issues to consider that might lead to accommodations both sides can live with.

Until recently, people of Hong Kong have not been overly concerned about their freedom to vote and much more concerned over the freedom to make money. That was true under British rule and carried over after the handover. China’s own economic success, especially after Tiananmen and then after the handover, created enormous opportunities for the folks in Hong Kong that wanted to achieve financial success.

After China began their reform under Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation that “get rich is glorious,” Hong Kong business people became wealthy by moving their factories into China and transferring their management and business knowhow to the mainland. Then Hong Kong capitalists moved into Chinese cities and showed China how to make money in property development.

Entrepreneurs inside China were quick learners. As they became wealthy, they in turn invested in Hong Kong property, raised money via the Hong Kong stock exchange and used Hong Kong as their business conduit to the rest of the world. It has been a symbiotic relationship. Instead of the “preordained” gloom and doom, Hong Kong prospered like never before. As some wise observers have counseled the protesters, Hong Kong’s future rides on coattails of China’s future.

The young protesters need to think about the heavy cost if the symbiosis with the mainland is damaged or destroyed. If they think having a truly democratic form of government will be ample compensation for an estranged relationship with Beijing, they need to think again.

They need to ask themselves, “What form of democracy is likely to provide them with a future superior to riding on the coattails of China’s economy?” Certainly not the U.K., former masters of Hong Kong. Theirs is a deficit economy tittering on the brink of insolvency and desperate for China investments and renminbi based transactions to keep the country afloat.

What about the United States, the paragon of all democracies? Which part of this democracy would the Hong Kong protesters like to emulate? The grid-locked dysfunction of Washington as a model of good governance? The right to vote completely squashed by the politics of money where deeper the pockets, louder the voices behind the checkbook? May be they would like to help pay the mounting national debt, currently close to $60,000 per person?

I respectfully suggest to the young people of Hong Kong that they value the qualities of Hong Kong that make the city special. Rather than tearing it down, they need to work with the government on improving the conditions for all the people. And, there are some significant issues that need the urgent attention of the SAR government headed by CY Leung.

The most obvious has been the tension created by the flood of mainland visitors to Hong Kong. Their lack of civil behavior such as spitting or urinating in public places are visible irritants and generators of ill will. Even worse when the visitors game the system in order to give birth in Hong Kong and then clean the store shelves of baby formula when they go home leaving the local consumers to deal with shortages.

How to deal with the tourists from China, obviously a two-edged issue, is a matter the SAR government needs to take up with Beijing. The solution has to somehow discourage the abusers that take advantage of Hong Kong but encourage those genuinely interested in Hong Kong as an interesting place to visit.

The internal issues are perhaps more serious but well within the purview of the SAR government. One is to continue to upgrade the quality of education so that young graduates would qualify for well paying jobs and embark on their own paths to well being. Give them hope of upwardly mobile careers and they are less likely to barricade the streets.

Second issue has been the lack of reasonable and affordable housing for the large pool of population that have not fully participated in the per capita income growth that Hong Kong has enjoyed. Given that Hong Kong has the world’s highest per capita of billionaires and most of them derive at least in part their wealth from real estate, it would seem that this is an easy matter to resolve by the public and private sector working together.

As is frequently the case, public unrest hints at other underlying causes. The student protest at Tiananmen began because of resentment of official corruption and favoritism that ballooned out of control. So it is pertinent to look at causes that lie beneath Occupy Central.

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