There was poetic symmetry in the decision by thousands of protesters from the Occupy Hong Kong group to take to the streets this week in their demand for universal suffrage.
After all, for many ordinary citizens in China’s Special Administrative Region (SAR), the city has indeed been occupied. Not by angry demonstrators, but by wealthy mainland tourists and businessmen who have forced up property prices and are changing the very soul of the former British colony.
Whatever the numbers of the demonstrators – the organisers claim 510,000 while Hong Kong police reported 92,000 – the protest was the biggest in the SAR for a decade. It comes in the wake of an informal referendum on increased political autonomy that drew 800,000 votes. That signals frustration on a mass level – and on multiple fronts.
At issue is not simply the question of whether Hong Kong will be denied the universal suffrage promised to it in 2017 by the Special Autonomous Region’s (SAR) mini-constitution, the Basic Law, but frustration over the slow creep of change that has transformed the city since the 1997 handover from Britain to Beijing.
So far, Hong Kong police have arrested 511 protesters. But that is unlikely to stop the movement – officially known as Occupy Central with Peace and Love. The arrests might actually serve to radicalise the movement further – for the simple reason that so much is at stake.
In many ways reunification with China has changed Hong Kong in ways that align with the worst that was predicted when British rule ended 17 years ago to the day of Tuesday’s march.
Those changes are not merely reflected in Beijing’s consolidation of political power in the former colony, but in deteriorating living conditions for many Hong Kong citizens.
Andrew Leung, an independent China analyst, writing for Al Jazeera, summed up the mood perefectly.
“Closer economic integration has resulted in . . . a tsunami of mainland China visitors, some with legal Hong Kong family ties, swamping the city’s limited infrastructure, bidding up property prices and causing shortages of necessities such as baby milk powder, maternity wards and school places,” he said.
“Social tensions caused by rising economic inequalities, unaffordable private property prices and perceived powers of vested business interests [are adding to a growing] anti-establishment mindset [in Hong Kong].”
When Leung speaks of “establishment”, think of the pro-Beijing political and business cliques. Both are taking their toll on Hong Kong, where about two million people, or 30 per cent of the population, live in public rental housing, according to the Hong Kong Housing Authority.
About 1.3 million, or nearly 20 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line, a government report released last year revealed.
Many of those believe the reason for their plight is that mainland Chinese investors are behind a dizzying surge in house prices, which have risen 160.3 per cent in the past 10 years, according to the Global Property Guide.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong appears farther from the universal suffrage promised to it by the Basic Law than it has been since the handover. Amid a countrywide crackdown on dissent in Mainland China, Hong Kong’s chief executive continues to be appointed by committee. And that committee is basically comprised of Beijing loyalists.
Few in Hong Kong believe this will change in 2017.
The latest one, Leung Chun-ying, was chosen in 2012 by a 1,200-member committee composed largely of pro-Beijing organisations and business groups. This does not necessarily make the position an impregnable sinecure. In 2005, the then chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was forced to step down due to massive street protests. But, arguably, there is more at stake in this movement – not only for Hong Kong, but also for Beijing.
In other words, Leung is unlikely to lose his job in the immediate future. The Chinese Communist Party said as much by publishing a white paper on its relationship with the territory, which highlighted its “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the SAR. In fact, many protesters dressed in white in opposition to the paper.
In Hong Kong, where wealthy mainlanders are pricing ordinary Hong Kong people out of their place of birth, anti-mainlander sentiment is a growing threat to stability.
China has become increasingly assertive about its perceived territorial rights, notably building off-shore oil rigs in disputed South China Sea waters claimed by Vietnam, and pushing for closer economic relations with Taiwan that are widely regarded by many there as annexation by stealth.
The Occupy movement is unlikely to budge Beijing’s position. But the mounting frustration and anger in Hong Kong is symptomatic of regional unease about Beijing’s ambitions and its financial influence.
In this sense, Hong Kong is not alone, and that, perhaps, offers more hope for change than anything else.