Below is a piece adapted from an article I wrote for foreign audiences. There is a deeper analysis of HK after Handover over at National Geographic.
Two defining features of present-day Hong Kong are destined to dampen this Sunday’s celebrations as the city marks 15 years since its handover to China. Despite coming tops as the world’s freest economy with the rule of law and civil liberties relatively preserved under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ agreement, the ex-British colony is plagued with political turmoil and is now home to one of the widest poverty gaps in the developed world.
Today, Chinese premier Hu Jin Tao will visit the city to help lead the Special Administrative Region’s ‘Establishment Day’ festivities. On the surface, it appears the SAR’s 7 million citizens have much to celebrate. At a time of deep cuts and austerity in Europe and the US, booming Hong Kong is enjoying such a surplus that – in the past year alone – the government offered personal US$700 bail-outs to all residents, subsidised electricity bills and allowed families in public housing free rent for 2 months. However, these handouts have done little to heal more fundamental problems and discontent brewing beneath the Tiger Economy’s glittering skyline.
Mind the gap
Although the territory has seen a huge growth in the number of millionaire residents, the local census Gini Coefficient, published last week, showed inequality to be at its highest level for 30 years. The UNDP states that the wealthiest 10 percent of the populace control more than a third of the city’s income, whilst the bottom 10 percent share only 2 percent. A minimum wage was only introduced last May and, with little corporate regulation or competition controls, a small handful of rich tycoons and their conglomerates reign freely. It has resulted in Hong Kong having the worse inequality amongst all OECD members, a fact that should make it a poster-boy for the failures of laissez-faire capitalism. Yet income disparity is only set to worsen as the aging population and low birth rate give rise to an ever-shrinking workforce.
Meanwhile, the red hot housing market, buoyed by mainland speculative buyers, has become the chief cause of misery for many. An estimated 5000 people live in 15sq foot squalid ‘cage homes’ – tiny shoebox dwellings subdivided with wire mesh and often shared between over a dozen other occupants. Not only does Kowloon boast one of the world’s highest population densities, but the rental market is also amongst the world’s most expensive with the poorest actually paying more per square foot than those in lavish apartments. Signs of inequity and the effects of an inadequate welfare system are also visible on street level, with elderly folk rummaging through bins for recyclable items to sell an all too common sight.
The capacity for ordinary people to effect change has been hampered by Beijing’s repeated postponement of universal suffrage since Handover. Would-be voters were deemed too ‘immature’ for full democracy during both the 2007 and 2012 Chief Executive elections. ‘One Person, One Vote’, as guaranteed by Article 45 the mini-constitution, has now been deferred again to 2020. A record turn-out is thus predicted for Sunday’s annual pro-democracy rally, which coincides with new leader, Leung Chun-ying’s, ascension to office.
Leung replaces scandal-ridden Donald Tsang and narrowly beat fellow pro-Beijing candidate Henry Tang to the top spot. However, public perception of ‘CY’ has nosedived in recent days, even before he has taken office, as it emerged he permitted unapproved extensions to his home on Victoria Peak. The issue is contentious as the public have faced a years-long crackdown on illegal residential structures and it mirrors the precise scandal which saw former front-runner Tang fall from favour after he, similarly, was found to have an ‘illegal basement’. Polls released this week show Leung’s approval rating slipping to a new low of 51.3 percent.
All of this comes in a year which has seen suspicion of the mainland at a post-‘97 high. Netizens have been in uproar over the ‘locust invasion’ of mainland tourists and streams of pregnant women checking into hospitals in the hope of gaining residency rights for their child. The turnout for June’s Tiananmen Square massacre remembrance vigil was a record 180,000 with another protest occurring weeks later as the dubious ‘suicide’ of ex-Tiananmen activist Li Wangyang hit the headlines. And the media itself made the front pages this month with 87 percent of journalists claiming press freedom had been eroded under the outgoing administration and a third admitting to ‘self-censorship’.
Fears that Beijing’s doubling-down on dissent ahead of its own leadership transition this Autumn have left Hongkongers nervous about their own cherished liberty. The SAR did not see tanks roll over the border 15 years ago, instead it has seen an incremental wearing down of certain freedoms. China has continued to exert its influence though its ‘Liaison Office’, pro-establishment political parties, newspapers and areas such as immigration, where it has repeatedly disallowed campaigners and activists access to the autonomous city.
The attempted implementation of Article 23 – a state security law – saw half a million people hit the streets in outrage back in 2003. Leung was rumoured to have wanted a crackdown on the protesters and now hopes to reintroduce the anti-subversion legislation regardless of it part-causing the downfall of the Chief Executive of the time, Tung Chee Hwa.
All rights preserved?
If Leung survives as Hong Kong’s new leader, he will be faced with several ticking time bombs. He must address income disparity, tackle the housing crisis and stem growing anger and mistrust of the Central Government. The question remaining is whether he will heed the will of the people and put the territory back on the path to full democracy.
Should he fail to do this, it will be a lost opportunity. The city could so readily be a testing ground for greater freedoms across China – a democratic showcase which would prove to the state’s top brass that they have little to fear.
As a member of the pro-Beijing camp, it is unlikely that Leung would stomach such a confrontation. Nevertheless, he may need to tread carefully, as the local and national establishment have learnt the hard way that he can only be successful upon earning the general consent of the disenfranchised masses.
Unease over the immediate future of Hong Kong is justified but, when the SAR’s five decades of autonomy finally expire in 2047, it is hoped that the mainland will bear a greater political resemblance to Hong Kong than vice-versa. It is only the tireless vigilance and value placed upon democratic freedoms by Hongkongers which will prevent it from being the other way around.
Update: Video of Chinese President Hu Jintao Friday afternoon inspecting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Garrison at Shek Kong barracks…