It’s 10 a.m. in Hong Kong, 6 hours later than Madrid. When I woke up this morning, the occupation was still there. I can almost see it clearly from my window. It’s the one in the district of Mong Kok (on the mainland, Kowloon), because there are two more occupations active on the “island”, which is Hong Kong proper. One is in Admiralty, near the government offices. Another is in Cause Way Bay, one of the congested commercial districts. The barricades cutting traffic there are still standing. They are simple barricades, made of fences and some street furniture. Some of them have been erected by police themselves about 500 meters from the zones where people use to gather. I also see the dozens of buses that have been stranded in the area since Sunday. By now they have become walls of democracy, on which people have attached all kinds of messages. The banners and signs on Nathan Road Avenue and the people sitting on the driveway for the last five days are a unique scene in the city. This is one of the busiest arteries. They are unbearable unless the masses of people and the urban ant nest generate an addictive curiosity in you, as is my case. The pollution there is usually around level 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, these days it’s down to 4 or 5. I can finally walk or cycle without having to fight with heavy traffic. The streets are ours, for now, and me, I also feel part of local issues, no matter that I’m an immigrant.
How did it all start? According to the official accounts of the tabloids, we are now on day 5 of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’, because the tear gas canisters that were launched last Sunday supposedly mark the official beginning. Actually, college students had declared a “boycott” of classes on Monday September 22 when they began to manifest in Admiralty. On Friday the 26th, middle school students joined in. On Saturday there were the first police charges that included the use of pepperspray. Hence the use of umbrellas as protection, which were subsequently elevated to symbol of the protests. That first melee conflict triggered a wave of solidarity which filled the streets on Sunday. The police charges and the use of tear gas exacerbated the protest and since then occupations have been consolidated day and night in the three aforementioned areas.
Almost no-one expected police violence of this type, let alone against students aged 15 to 25 for the most part. Only some remember a similar confrontation with the South-Korean trade-unionists who attended the 2005 anti-globalization protests. But earlier this year, at a pro-democracy rally on July 1, attended by an estimated half a million people, there had hardly been any friction with authorities. The only complaints I remember were due to us having to wait for hours without leaving the site because the police had cordoned off the protest and occasionally opened aisles for vehicles and pedestrian traffic that was unrelated to the protest. On June 4 there was another pro-democracy rally, coinciding with the annual wake in commemoration of those who died on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Furthermore, the pro-democracy protests have a long history in Hong Kong, but this time to understand recent events it’s important to highlight the organization of Occupy Central (OC) which has had a strong presence in the media and on the political agenda for over a year now. They threatened to paralyze the financial center (Central district) if full universal suffrage “in accordance with international standards” was not guaranteed. This past summer they called a successful electronic referendum, which kept their hopes alive to influence government policy on the subject, the so-called “political reform”. But these hopes vanished when the central government in Beijing declared in August that the only universal suffrage will be the choice between 2 or 3 candidates selected by a special committee of 1,200 members, who have so far always been veered towards the interests of Beijing. OC leaders had all but conceded defeat even though they declared their steadfast intention to carry out a sit-in protest. While their plans were being overtaken by the students, OC declared the night from Saturday to Sunday to be the start of their actions and joined its voice to the call for a mobilization that was already underway and being led by the younger generation. Still it should be noted that one of the most prominent student organizations, Scholarism, is also part of the coalition that forms OC.
What are the demands of the “Umbrella Revolution”? The most obvious is the right to direct universal suffrage. The transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997 was performed in accordance with a mini-constitution, or Basic Law, in which a special status was guaranteed to the region together with numerous freedoms and powers that do not exist in other parts of China. But in the political organization of the region there are many holes left to be filled. One of them is the promise to move towards universal suffrage. As the central government has the power of veto in the election of the president of Hong Kong, it has decided that it also has the authority to interpret the Basic Law in accordance with their own interests and therefore seeks to impose its model of universal suffrage among candidates sympathetic to Beijing. This masquerade is the eye of the current storm. But it is also a symptom of more profound grievances. Since the Basic Law is valid for 50 years, many people suspect that the central government is preparing the ground for a general convergence of the Hong Kong regime with the rest of China. In other words, every time more freedoms, rights and democratic institutions could be suppressed. And some recent policies seem to point in this direction, like the attacks on press freedom, academic freedom, and the manipulation of the history curriculum in schools for example.
On the other hand, as we are observing a large and complex social movement, we have to wonder how many underlying motives are actually playing their part in this. This is a tricky question because it requires us to take into account the entire discourse (and in my case I only have access to what is pronounced in- or translated into English) and understand the overall context. According to everything I read in the streets, in the press and on social networks, I think people want to bring about a Western-style liberal democracy to serve as a containing wall against the authoritarianism of mainland China. Hardly anyone speaks about changing the dominant capitalist economic system and even less its logistic, commercial and financial base that has been giving such good returns to this global city ever since its deindustrialization. It is a paradoxical situation because under colonial rule the city did not enjoy full democracy either. But the brutal repression in Tiananmen reinforced the overwhelming opposition to capitalist authoritarianism by the Communist Party and helped forge the unique ‘identity’ of Hong Kong which embraces colonial legacies such as ‘the rule of law’ and administrative efficiency. Corruption, censorship and repression in mainland China are considered some of the ills which Hong Kong seems to be able to keep at bay.
Finally, it is no coincidence that it’s mostly young people out on the streets. Not only do they have more resources and opportunities to do so, but they will also live more years of their existence under the post-2047 regime than other generations. And they are not only concerned about their freedoms, but also about their welfare. Although the unemployment rate is around 3%, the prospects do not look very promising, because over a third of society is living below the official poverty line. It’s an extreme neoliberal regime based on “workfare” where there are lots of jobs available, but many are so poorly paid and have so few rights that you need to be very optimistic and do a lot of somersaults in order to stay afloat. Getting into college is a privilege for less than a quarter of those who aspire to go to university, and the tuition fees are not cheap (about 4,000 euros per year in the eight publicly funded universities). The housing prices are the second most expensive in the world, behind New York, and waiting lists for access to social housing are saturated for decades, which makes for numerous cases of overcrowding and substandard housing. Some of the principal grievances are concerned with property speculation by foreign capital, especially from China, which invests in local real estate as if it were a casino, causing prices to rise through the roof. Money laundering of proceeds from corruption, among other sources of illegal income, like is also happening in nearby Macau, often in collusion with the big banks, has repeatedly proven to be at the root of this fast-paced economic activity. In the absence of unemployment benefits or public pensions the system forces anyone to indebt themselves or to invest. In fact, the uncontrollable private pension funds that every employed worker needs to subscribe to, have been nurtured by legislation that is increasingly questioned. And if that were not enough, the city-state of Hong Kong enjoys an extraordinary financial surplus even though its successive governments continue to recommen austerity and prudence, together with cuts in social benefits. We might add that the city hosts many of the greatest fortunes of the world, which makes the gap and the social polarization even more unbearable, even though everyday life seems oddly sunk in motley peaceful coexistence. There are also 300,000 domestic workers (mostly Indonesians and Filipinos) subject to draconian conditions of exploitation, abuse and legal hindrance.
Under the carpet of luxury, consumerism, waste and growth without limits, there is a divided society that struggles for dignity and self-determination of their future. In line with a rich experience of struggle and previous actions, including two surprising victories (in 2003 when people opposed the “national security” legislation, and in 2012 when students and the entire education sector, managed to paralyze a plan to implement the “patriotic education”) we can say that there’s a long road ahead. Not only on the streets but also in the institutions, despite the oppressive model that currently prevails.
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