HK activists should take on practical causes

By Hilton Yip Source:Global Times Published: 2014-9-22 18:33:01

Hong Kong democracy activists have been in the news quite a bit recently, regarding developments about the 2017 chief executive election.

When the central government issued a firm announcement on August 31, stating that candidates must be approved by an electoral committee, it was a big blow to some activists, especially the Occupy Central movement, who wanted open nominations.

But by directly opposing the central government and threatening disruption to Hong Kong society, the activists should not be surprised that they failed to achieve what they wanted.

However, while they may be misguided in their anger, one part of their criticism is sound: Hong Kong really has serious issues that need to be dealt with. These problems range from growing socioeconomic inequality to drops in living standards to rocky relations with the mainland.

With the increase in these problems has come a growing anti-mainland sentiment that seems to blame all of Hong Kong's issues on the mainland. Going hand in hand with this is the feeling among some locals that full democracy will cure Hong Kong's problems.

The burgeoning pro-democracy movement, especially the Occupy Central campaign, has latched on to this mindset, focusing all their energy on fighting for "full democracy."

After the central government's decision that allows for full suffrage, Occupy Central threatened to go ahead with occupying Hong Kong's business district, possibly on October 1, while some university and high school students started a week-long boycott of classes Monday.

The problem is that all of this benefits nobody, whether it be the activists, the public, or relations with the mainland, and will accomplish nothing good for Hong Kong.

Despite Hong Kong's high per-capita GDP, 20 percent of Hongkongers, roughly 1.3 million, lived in poverty as of 2012, according to a government report in September 2013.

For some, their situation is so dire that they live in illegal rooftop homes, "coffin homes," or even rent cage homes, bunk beds surrounded by mesh wire in crowded rooms in low-income housing estates.

Hong Kong is a top international financial center, which Shanghai aspires to be. Hundreds of major companies have their headquarters and regional offices there.

Its stock exchange is the third largest in Asia. Meanwhile, tourism has ballooned as Hong Kong saw over 54 million visitors in 2013, of whom 75 percent were from the mainland.

Nonetheless, this has come at the cost of fostering other industries and sectors, including technology, culture, and sports.

Although there has been some recent progress with tech start-ups, factors like high rents and low investment by both private investors and the government still hold the sector back.

Consequently, young Hongkongers are facing a growing reality in which there are limited decent jobs, especially for university graduates. Not unless everyone decides to be a banker or a shop clerk.

A report by a Guangzhou-based research firm showed that Hong Kong is in danger of becoming a second-tier mainland city by 2022 as more mainland cities overtake its GDP.

Already Beijing and Shanghai have higher GDPs, and Hong Kong's share of China's GDP has decreased significantly from 15.6 percent in 1997 to 2.9 percent in 2013.

Besides domestic mainland rivals, Hong Kong faces challenges from places like Singapore, which has managed to diversify its tourism sector, while creating a tech industry and growing its finance industry as a rival to Hong Kong.

But the striking thing is these problems have come from a culture that has been fixated on money and property. 

The 2000s was a good decade for Hongkongers, flush from growing property prices and rising mainland business including IPO listings and tourism. And of course, the fixation with property resulted in wealthy tycoons consolidating their influence and power, while limiting the desire of Hongkongers to change.

Even long before, Hongkongers have had a very materialistic outlook and favored the pursuit of money over anything else. There was little political culture, especially among Hongkongers of my father's and uncles' generation, for whom political developments like legislative representation and a popularly elected chief executive were unknown concepts.

This is where the democracy activists can make a difference. They've put all of their energy into fighting the central government, but they should shift their focus to the root of Hong Kong's problems, which cannot be blamed on the central government or mainland tourists.

Their desire to push for changes in society makes them different from previous generations. Their ability to bring people together over issues, as they have done in marches over the past year, cannot be ignored. And that's why their passion and energy could be spent in a better way.

The author is a copy editor with the Global Times.

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