Hiding Hong Kong's inconvenient poor

A yawning wealth gap underpins support for anti-government protests in the Chinese territory
Hiding Hong Kong's inconvenient poor

Face of defiance: A masked anti-government protester marches through Hong Kong. (Photo by Luke Hunt/ucanews)

Luke Hunt
Hong Kong
October 16, 2019
Organizers of protests in Hong Kong have known for months that the state of the local economy had bolstered their ranks, substantially raising the numbers at street demonstrations to a peak of perhaps two million or more.

But it’s an issue the hardcore protesters — now infamous for their black shirts and matching masks — would prefer to leave quietly on the sidelines. The spark for this round of protests was the extradition bill.

Carrie Lam, a prominent Catholic and Hong Kong’s chief executive, buckled and abandoned the bill under intense pressure from across the spectrum, particularly the business community where self-interest and fear of a law that would enable Beijing to extradite and prosecute their own were paramount.

As an autonomous Chinese territory, Hong Kong has been ruled by a succession of tycoons and politicians keen to ingratiate themselves with the leadership in Beijing for profit and influence ever since the handover from Britain in 1997.

They made money, lots of it, but it was their policies that cost ordinary Hong Kongers dearly.

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The great irony is that a dramatic increase in poverty has lent massive support to a protest movement now refocused on democracy and independence, spoiling ties with Beijing and threatening the standing of the monied elites.

The hidden poor

“Poor” is a dirty word in freewheeling Hong Kong, yet one in five people are poor, substantially more than 22 years ago when London passed the baton to Beijing, and they are not hard to find.

Amid the towers, in the hidden corners of the subways and overpasses of the central business district and the more sordid precinct of Wanchai, the homeless can be found sleeping rough under newspapers and rotting cardboard.

The notorious cage homes — or coffin cubicles — now house about 200,000 people, compared with 50,000 a decade ago. People at the extreme end of poverty here have been credited with abetting protesters whose core emerged from plush university campuses.

Hong Kong only began collecting figures on poor people a decade ago and it blames an ageing population for the rise in impoverished rates, an indictment of government policies and a lack of forward thinking by business-minded administrators.

Poverty is at a record high with 1.35 million people living below the line. Further, you are not considered poor if you can afford US$2 a day for food, a ludicrous thought given Hong Kong is among the expensive cities on earth.

For those above the poverty line, the rule of thumb is that rents have doubled while wages have halved since the British left, yet over the same period Hong Kong’s fiscal reserves have soared to US$448.5 billion from US$92 billion.

The bottom line is that a lot of people are angry in a densely populated city of 7.4 million people.

China is special?

It’s not just the hip pocket. Far more galling is Hong Kong’s enforced cultural assimilation with China, widely seen as a lowering of the territory’s standards, despite an agreement with Britain that promised democracy and 50 years of autonomy under the Basic Law.

From language, education and medicine to the courts, policing and promised political reforms, Hong Kongers have been told to accept compromise and make way for increasing numbers of mainlanders whose expectations are different.

That begs the question: Why should they? Too often — and it’s a mantra espoused by China’s leader for life Xi Jinping — the response is: “It’s China” or “China is special”.

China is not special. It simply has a world-beating population of 1.386 billion people and an alluring market for businessmen. But on a per capita GDP basis, according to the United Nations, China ranks 75th in the world, one place below Kazakhstan.

If Hong Kong was a country, statistically it would displace Australia at 10th spot in the personal wealth stakes and outrank Denmark, Singapore and Sweden.

On paper the former British colony looks rich but among the poor it’s semantics and among the protesters it’s about quality of life, not the quantity which gives Beijing its clout.

That goes to the heart of arguments laid down by Joshua Wong, the poster boy of the pro-democracy movement, who recently completed a stint in prison for civil disobedience and has labelled Hong Kong as the “new Berlin” in another Cold War.

“Beijing shouldn’t have it both ways, reaping all the economic benefits of Hong Kong’s standing in the world while eradicating our sociopolitical identity,” Wong recently told a congressional commission in the United States where legislation is being drawn up in support Hong Kong’s civil rights.

His point is that China is communist but Hong Kong is Western.

Stingy attitudes

A headache for protesters, who prefer to remain leaderless in public, is that they don’t want the poor to sully that sociopolitical cause.

Insiders say protests over the state of the economy threatened to divert public attention away from the ideals they are struggling for; democracy, the Basic Law and, for many, independence.

Lam is well aware of this. She would prefer the political debate to focus on the money, a tangible issue that her government can work with as opposed to demands for universal suffrage, anathema in browbeating Beijing.

But it’s tricky. Her circles are not known for their generosity.

Two months ago, Lam's administration unveiled a US$2.4 billion package to bolster spending power in an economy which has suffered badly from Beijing’s interference and subsequent protests, plus China’s trade war with the United States.

But the package was too little too late and simply reflected the stingy attitudes in government and business which have gifted the anti-government movement such fantastic numbers that the world is sitting up and taking notice of a Hong Kong on the march.

Hong Kong’s yawning wealth gap is a sociopolitical cause that needs to be reckoned with, one that plays into the hands of protesters well aware that the seeds of revolution often sprout under economic hardship.

Whether they would like to confront that publicly is another matter. But as a source of support in the months and perhaps years ahead, the poor — a creation of Hong Kong’s ruling elites — are a marginalized group that anti-government protesters will relish.

Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.

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