Thursday Review’s Michael Bush shares with us the experiences of his family while living in China. Bush explains that the culture shock is real, and powerful; but it’s still worth it to make the adjustment. Read Michael’s full Features Page article by clicking here.
By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
They call themselves Occupy Central, and their goal is to establish an “era of civil disobedience” in Hong Kong, the once British colonial outpost which reconnected with the People’s Republic of China in 1997.
Occupy Central intends to raise the stakes in a variety of non-violent ways—blocking busy intersections and thoroughfares, camping out in large numbers in financial districts, and protesting in ever-more-dramatic ways what the group sees as China’s ongoing and heavy-handed attempts to control Hong Kong’s politics and minimize the organic processes of democracy. Occupy Central’s ranks have grown larger in the past months, even as officials in Beijing warn that Hong Kong cannot be governed by what it views as “the chaos” of civil disobedience or the “lawlessness” of democracy.
At the heart of the issue has been Beijing’s steadfast insistence on controlling and managing nominations for key political posts, including that of the city’s next top leader. Despite what the protesters say was the long-held template for democracy, China has said it must screen and vet all candidates; no candidate’s name can be placed on the ballot without Beijing’s approval.
Many in Hong Kong are disappointed and frustrated by China’s decision to micromanage nominations, and pro-democracy advocates worry that by establishing a pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates, China is seeking to establish a precedent by which it can control the future of Hong Kong and eventually snuff out opposition and dissent.
This has led the Occupy Central movement—which includes various smaller groups aligned with its cause—into larger forms of protest and disruption. It plans to expand its efforts to include mass sit-ins and sit-downs in public spaces, marches, and blockades of roads and intersections.
Financial watchdogs and ratings organizations suggest that as the protests grow larger and more potent, the disruptions to Hong Kong’s otherwise robust economy could become substantial. Moody’s, a major ratings agency, said in September that continued political turmoil—especially over the electoral process—would discourage investment, undermine business confidence, and eventually lead to major problems for the semi-autonomous state. Moody’s said that “diminished confidence” would be Hong Kong’s worst economic enemy.
Though Occupy Central and its allies share a genetic lineage with the Occupy movements which sprang into existence in New York (Wall Street), London, Madrid, Seattle, and Oakland, it bears little resemblance in its stated end game: the creation of the sort of unimpeded, quasi-laissez faire economic and political democracy of precisely the brand and tone despised by its American and British counterparts. The common link is that Occupy Central and its brethren in other countries fear oligarchs and the politically powerful, and seek to empower street-level voices.
Hong Kong and China reunited in 1997, and the agreed-upon formula for coexistence was called “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would be allowed to maintain itself as a semi-autonomous zone of market independence and economic power. In fact, the top brass in Beijing were seemingly happy to see Hong Kong remain the engine of capitalism that it was before reunification.
There have been struggles, including contentious fights over the establishment of a minimum wage, a shrinking job market, and an island-wide problem with the extreme costs of rents, leases and mortgages. In fact, Hong Kong has the second most expensive real-estate in the world. Many Hong Kong workers—white-collar financial, technology sector, or blue-collar—pay dearly for even the smallest flats and apartment-style homes. At $22,500 per year, the median income in Hong Kong makes home ownership very difficult, and renting becomes a heavy burden for many middle class citizens.
Some in the larger protest movement consider these issues critically important, but perhaps secondary to issues of democracy.
Occupy Central is at the forefront of several pro-democracy groups seeking to put pressure on Beijing. Most protesters regard China’s insistence on screening candidates as tantamount to reneging on Beijing’s past promises to allow Hong Kong to maintain its political self-guidance and autonomy.
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, with more than seven million people packed into an area roughly 425 square miles. That’s 17,000 people per square mile. The former British protectorate and trading post manages this population density with a dazzling array of high rise buildings for business and residential purposes.
But because construction costs are high, and because rental rates and mortgage costs are among the highest in the world as compared to incomes, Hong Kong beats out its closest runners-up in “least affordability,” San Francisco and Vancouver. Home prices in Hong Kong climbed to nearly 15 times gross annual revenue during 2013, and prices may climb more this year. Analysts worry that much of the demand is artificial, driven in part by speculators in mainland China who are engaged in a spending spree—buying up condos, houses and apartments.
The Occupy Central movement is paralleled by mass student movements, most of which have insisted that the Occupy forces may be moving too slowly. The students plan to raise the stakes of the tenor of the protests by staging sit-ins, classroom boycotts, mass marches, and other public demonstrations. Later this month student leaders plan to encourage tens of thousands of students to basically shut down schools as a way of triggering a cascade of political protest.
Sober political analysts and economic experts suggest that Beijing is unlikely to be moved by these demonstrations and mass actions. And though there is little chance China would risk the spectacle of another Tiananmen Square—Beijing may soon institute tougher measures to quell the disturbances, especially if it appears that the protest movements and acts of civil disobedience have the power to disrupt Hong Kong’s powerful economic engine.
Still, there is the more tempered view which says that despite the growth of the protests—and for better or for worse—Hong Kong’s healthy budget surplus may be substantial enough to offset any blowback from potential market disruptions. Economists estimate that Hong Kong’s massive surplus is equal to about 35% of its gross domestic product, which means the government can use at least part of that cash reserve to mitigate the damage from economic downturns.
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