Is this the most consequential moment in Hong Kong’s 17 year history as part of China?

What started as a protest against interference by Beijing in the quest for Hong Kongers to choose their own regional leader has exploded into much more as protests popped up around the region, far from the original target of the Central Government Complex. As the protests spread, so does the police response with riot police using tear gas to try and clear crowds around the city. This was unprecedented for Hong Kong. Photos emerged of Hong Kongers using umbrellas to try and shield themselves from the teargas. The term “Umbrella Revolution” was born.

There are many motivations behind the protests, from frustration with the local and national governments to a sincere desire to maintain the freedoms that make Hong Kong unique within China. But a lot of it has to do with economics.

As a more prosperous region than the Mainland in 1997, Hong Kong put controls in place to limit immigration from mainland China and preserve space and opportunity for native Hong Kongers. Yet mainland elites used loopholes and government connections to gain residency while others moved in search of better opportunity even though they are often not welcomed by locals. Far from the scenic harbor views, there remains a severe shortage of affordable housing for lower and middle class Hong Kongers despite constant promises that more would be created. Likewise, economic opportunities often go to well-connected mainlanders or Hong Kong proxies, creating stark economic inequality throughout the population. By 2013, the Hong Kong government estimated that 20% of the region’s population lived below the poverty level. Hong Kong’s Gini co-efficient, which measures income inequality, came in at 0.537 in 2011; the United Nations considers any measurement more than 0.4 to be an indicator of possible social unrest.

Looking at the social and economic landscape, it would appear that these protests were inevitable. But China’s own bumbling on the universal suffrage issue as its new President, Xi Jinping, dealt with internal divisions within the Chinese Communist Party also contributed. If Hong Kong needed a sign that their local political culture and freedoms were eroding, they got it throughout the summer as Beijing first forcibly cleared student protests in July and then denied the notion of universal suffrage through electoral manipulations in early September. Over the last three weeks it has become clear that Beijing has no intention of backing down, but neither do the organizers of Occupy Central. As tensions increased, so did the likelihood that people would be forced to take sides.

But a lot has happened since China gained control over Hong Kong from the British in 1997. The protests come at a time when arguably Hong Kong’s leverage against mainland China is at its lowest since the official start of One Country-Two Systems rule. Where Hong Kong represented 18% of China’s GDP at the handover in 1997, it now represents a mere 3%. Economically, this means that China is no longer as dependent on Hong Kong as it once was, but given the delicate political façade Beijing must always maintain, Hong Kong can still cause problems for the Communist regime. Although the government officially stopped reporting it in 2000 when it surpassed 0.41, analysts estimate the mainland’s own Gini coefficient is at 0.55, representing a “severe gap” between the rich and the poor with the same risk for social unrest that Hong Kong has.

The biggest consequence of all this may be the unraveling of the One Country-Two System regime. The system was a compromise between Beijing and the departing British colonists but is only in place for a period of 50 years; by 2047 when the system is set to end, it was hoped that either Beijing or Hong Kong would change enough to allow peaceful integration with the other. However a look at the protests overtaking the city, it seems clear that this will likely never happen without major conflict.

Melissa Chan, a former correspondent for Al Jazeera English who caused a stir when the government failed to renew her press credentials in 2012, put the general sentiment quite concisely on Twitter:

“Covered my first Hong Kong protest in the summer of 2000 as an intern for CNN. It’s 2014. One country, two systems – has failed.”

Whether future generations in Hong Kong will mark 9/28 with the same fervor they do Tiananmen’s 6/4 anniversary remains to be seen. But the scene on the streets suggests change is in the air.

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