Hong Kong politics: Protesting against the change

Hong Kong is famous as one of the major financial centres of the world. But behind the curtain, there is an enormous amount of political uncertainties. Hong Kong is silently becoming a usual city of China – the residents are more than concerned. 

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A city in China, which is not Chinese
Hong Kong went through several changes during the last decades. After the city with the expansive skyline became a British colony during the first Opium War 1843 and transformed into one of the financial centers of the world, it was handed over to the Chinese government in 1997. A contract made sure that for at least 50 years, so minimum until 2047, Hong Kong got the status of being a special administrative region. The privilege of having a free market economy and other inner autonomies from China was maintained with this. Since a couple of years these privileges seem to shrink steadily, the alignment to China takes shape more and more and so does the fear of the Hong Kong citizens. Rights like democracy and the freedom of speech or press they always experienced might become history soon and Hong Kong might become just another normal city of China.

Every year on July 1st, the day of the handover of Hong Kong to China, people gather to protest against the Chinese and their own government. The number of protesters is steadily increasing. The organizers counted half a million people, whilst officials speak of 100.000. At 90 % humidity and 35 degrees Celsius. Whatever is the right number of people – the people are definitely more than concerned. The “One country – two systems” policy seems to turn into a “One country – one system” policy. But what is it, that makes the citizens of the so-called “pearl of the orient” so afraid? What do the residents of Hong Kong want to achieve?

To understand that, we met Emily Chan Kin Yin (25) and Kenneth Leung Yiu Hung (26), two political active Hong Kongers who live there since their birth and deeply perceive the change in Hong Kong. Emily Chan Kin Yin is working as a merchandise-coordinator and writes for a dissident online blog, Kenneth Leung Yiu Hung is project manager at HK broadband, the second biggest internet provider in Hong Kong.

Foto: (c) Niklas Melcher

Foto: (c) Niklas Melcher

Fake democracy
Even though Hong Kong officially is a democracy, the citizens and the their government don’t really have a good relationship. The reason is that practically it’s a sham democracy. In simplified terms Hong Kong citizens are allowed to vote, but who they can vote for is decided by the Chinese government. A new request for change of this system for the elections in 2017 has been declined by Beijing recently. So there is not much space left for political self-development. For the residents it is hard to trust a government, they did not vote themselves. And being navigating from China in the background.

“There’s no party, which represents what we want”, says Emily Chin Kin Yin and goes on: “There are these political movements, but they are just too infamous. It’s the typical Hong Kong way: We are upset about the situation but when it is about making an real effort, we step back”. It seems to make her incensed. “Hong Kongers wouldn’t give up their entire life for this simple reason. First it’s about money and security and then the political system”.

Individual problems first – then the society’s
Since there is no proper social and welfare system in Hong Kong, the people are concerned about their own well-being and individual problems in the first place. Since there is no redistribution of income like in other welfare states, the people have to take care of their provision themselves. For problems concerning the whole society there is almost no time triggered by 60 hours per week-jobs. The social hedging we enjoy in Europe is a nothing more than a imagination to the two activists. “We work hard and have few securities. If we lose our Job, the government would give us very little money for a very short time. And the older you get, the harder it is to keep track on the job market.”

They see this as the root for the little active participation and intention for change of major parts of the hard-working society. There are protests, not even too few, but if it comes to proper political activity during election periods there is much space to improve. “If we want to change something and it goes wrong and we, for example, lose our Job or similar things, our problem is way bigger than it was before. Most people in Hong Kong are not brave enough for this”, Chan explains. Leung adds: “Many people don’t notice what is happening, as they haven’t been infected. Yet. Until they will notice it, it is already to late.”

The majority of the population does not want to get in trouble and keeps out of politics. Leung criticizes that sorely. He tells, that in Hong Kong everything is about money first. As long as the people would have a satisfying amount of money, they would not care about other things.

The last hero
Jimmy Lai has enough money. He is one of the exceptions in the special administrative region. Of course not due to the money – Hong Kong is the multimillionaire capital of the world after a recently published study by New World Wealth. The reason is that the entrepreneur and publisher of the China-critical newspaper apple daily is one of the few activists who could really make a difference – because he can afford it.

“He is a hero for us and many of us put a lot of hope in him”, says Chan. Nonetheless the allegations of him bribing politicians and even being investigated by the CIA for this, the founder of the fashion label Giordano is one of the bright spots in the political system of the SAR.

“He is the one who stands out. In his media he reports daily about the bad things our and the Chinese government do. Without him these information probably wouldn’t reach us. Somebody like him is rare here”, reports Leung but has to recognize: “Maybe one day he will have a random accident and die. You never know about the Chinese government.”

Some years ago the dependency and the restricted democracy in Hong Kong has not been a problem. The people have been satisfied with the decisions of the government. But since they do not listen to the urges of the residents anymore, they become more desperate day by day. “We are dissatisfied by what happens here, we don’t know what to do. We have never been in this situation. We never had to fight for something, because we all used to be fine before.”

Leung points out that he is not really afraid of the future. He says he is prepared if the Chinese influence in Hong Kong is getting into extremes. But there would not be anything the people could change about it, it would just be a sad fact, he has to tolerate.

The fight requires sacrifices”
Lately the protest in Hong Kong became more massive though, the population of “Asia’s world city” became more upset and intolerant of the government’s actions. The number of protesters increases annually and whilst in the last years protests have been peaceful, there happened to be the first riots in July 2014. “If you don’t see another chance to change something, maybe violence is acceptable sometimes”, Chan has to admit. “The fight requires sacrifices.”

Even if Hong Kongers in principle are seen as calm people, they tend to become more aggressive recently. The partially brutal video recordings from the Ukraine, which get shared via social networks and spread with incredible speed, also motivate the protesters more and more to use harsher methods. It is certainly not unlikely that we receive similar pictures from the SAR in the next years.

The online chance and the question of identity
Leung, the project manager at an internet provider, sees the chances online: “Hong Kong people change. In the past we needed a leader. But today we see that a leader can’t help us anymore. The internet is our only chance to raise our voice – together.”

Facebook, which is, in contrast to China, not banned, plays the biggest role here. Trough the social network people get invited to events, videos of other protests got shared to inspire and political like-minded people can find each other.

The internet in Hong Kong is not yet censored, blocked or manipulated. If the Chinese government decides to go this step it would mean serious setbacks for dissident activists. On the other hand this action could provoke incredible anger, which is probably the reason Beijing did not use this path yet.

But there are other paths they already started to go. Chan even calls this “brainwash”. From kindergarten on the children get infiltrated to love the PR China, sing songs about it and to replace their own Chinese, Cantonese, with the totally different mainland Chinese, Mandarin.

The two activists are afraid to lose their identity, if they get forced to get used to the Chinese culture. A Hong Kong University study of 2012 shows that more than 40 % of the population sees themselves as “Hong Kong citizens”, while just about 17 % would calm themselves “Chinese citizens” and 35 % mean to have a “mixed identity of both”.

The question of identity is an essential one for the harbour city. Having an own language, own cultural customs and an own system distinguishes the Hong Kong identity a lot from a Chinese identity sometimes. Through the forced alignment to China these differences get lost increasingly. Therefore being scared of a final loss of identity is very common for the residents.

Based on data of the Hong Kong University

Based on data of the Hong Kong University

Economic dependence
If you ask Chan and Leung, if they have dreams for Hong Kong they both seem a bit clueless. “The economy has to stay stable and through this the jobs, too. If this is not working we don’t have any chances anymore”, Leung says. “It is hard to make our feeling understandable for a European. We need a smart government, the gap between rich and poor has to be minimized and everybody should be able to afford a home.”

Asking if Hong Kong would be totally independent in their dreams, they are both pretty certain and Chan responds: “We can not do without China. Originally we are Chinese in some ways. We just don’t want the Chinese influence to become too strong. We are financially dependent on China, but not as significantly as it is shown sometimes”.

Hong Kong is home to one of the most liberal market economies in the world. Yet, the economy is bound to the peoples republic of China. The reasons are the countless production facilities and factories of companies from the special administrative region, but also the factor that Hong Kong is the biggest investor in China. Almost half of the foreign investments in Chinas metropolic regions like Shanghai or Beijing are financed by Hong Kong companies. Whereas mainland China basically is responsible for the production, the “fragrant harbour” almost solely is responsible for the economic service.

China is dependent from Hong Kong as the bridge in contact with the economical giants of the world, the SAR is dependent from the production possibilities of china. In brief: The economical relationship between the mainland and the special administrative region is interdependent. Both partners would have enormous economical loss if they would not exist.

Foto: (c) Niklas Melcher

Foto: (c) Niklas Melcher

A child, you should not disturb and uncertain role models
Leung tells me a metaphor of a child to make us understand why Chinas influence is not needed. One would not disturb a child playing a game, if the child masters it well, he tells. The child is representing Hong Kong in this case. China would interrupt, interfere and try to influence the kid, even though the kid did not have any problem playing on its own. “We don’t get the point of China. Sometimes they even destroy their own advantage.” Anyhow he has to admit, that he does not entirely know how to improve the situation.

The main problem for the Hong Kong residents is, that they do not have a proper role model for the actual circumstances. In the global history of humankind there has not been a similar situation, which makes it difficult for the people to formulate a certain goal. “For Ukrainians it is easier. They look around them and see what they want in West- and Middle-Europe. The have a clear goal. We cannot do with, nor without China, that is why we do not really know what we want at the end.”

Most people here know that they do not want to get under direction of China and that the recent developments are not in their favor. But to find an example how a desirable future looks like is difficult. Leung clarifies in an intensive tone: “Actually we just want it to stay as it is. We have been good in the last years, nobody complained. But now we see, what the Chinese government has in mind with our city, and we certainly do not want that.”

The dream is not change, but that everything stays as it is
This is probably the biggest difference between protests in the SAR and countries like the Ukraine. Whereas somewhere else people fight for change, the citizens here basically fight for everything to stay as it is. “We do not want to change, but we are being changed. Hong Kong is good as it is, it is good enough for us”, notes Leung clearly melancholic and in an almost shaky voice.

We ask both of them if they have hope, that their home stays as it is. Their mood turns bad. They tell us, that they are afraid of Hong Kong becoming just another one of the countless cities of China – a lot of people but no own face. The identity problem.

Chan thinks, that Hong Kong should just stay a special administrative region like it is. “At the moment we Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers are still the majority but the number of Mandarin-speaking immigrants from China is immense. At the point where there are more Chinese than Hong Kong citizens here, the Chinese government reached their goal. Then we are nothing special anymore, just another city of China.”

They speak about the scary power of China. That the Chinese government would never lose – history would confirm that. And so the hope would decline. Chinese would always push trough their wills and rarely adapt. “Do you see the Chinese in the US and the UK? Did they assimilate? No. They founded China Town and live their own culture!”, determines the project manager Leung slightly angry. Just Chinese people would be like this, there would not be an India Town or similar things. Chan adds: “They immigrate but never integrate. And that’s what they are going to do with Hong Kong.”

Dwindling hope and the fear of destruction
It shows a pretty hopeless situation if even the young, reflected an political active citizens do not really believe in what they stand for anymore. Time is short, jobs are insecure – and nothing is left to stand out and fight back. “It needs time until we understand, that we have to help one another and find a common goals to make a difference. We just don’t have time.”, realizes Leung.

We already sit together for over one hour and one can clearly see the desperation in their eyes. They are dedicated citizens, educated, experienced and reflected. They have big plans in their lives. But to look in to the future with joy is difficult for them. They see how their home changed slowly but noticeably during the last years and they are not pleased anymore with the place they spend their whole life at. But they have family, friends and jobs in Hong Kong. Fleeing and giving up against China is not an option. Even though they do not know how to go on. Who has a solution? Who takes care, that their home is going to stay as it used to be? “Can you understand, that we are sad?”, Emily Chan Kin Yin is asking.

The city with the enormous skyline is in a dilemma. Whilst the Chinese government carries out their alignment plans quietly and unnoticed, the people of the harbor city can not do too much but to watch it happen. The fear of individual trouble is too big to take the risk of a possibly escalating conflict. The changes are undesired but all the protests seem to get knocked down by the dependence from the peoples republic. On the one hand the Cantonese metropolis needs the good contacts towards China, on the other hand most of the citizens see the increasing influence as destructive.

The compromise they used to live with and which satisfied the majority does not seem possible for too long anymore. The perspectives for the citizens are unclear, the goal is hard to formulate and it needs time until the China-critical people, which are the majority, find a common target. Time, they do not have. Time, in which China can make Hong Kong another Chinese city without troubles. Time, in which citizens, who were born here, like Emily Chan Kin Yin and Kenneth Leung Yiu Hung, see how their home slowly but inexorably loses it’s face.

“At the moment we are fine. If you ask me, what I search for, I don’t know it. But I know what I do not search for and that is the influence of the Chinese government”, explains Chan. Leung continues: “I ask myself if the Hong Kong government – our government – destroys or serves Hong Kong?” He breathes in deeply and says: “If you change something that is okay. Make it better or make it worse, that is all okay. But they destroy it, they don’t change it. That’s a difference.”

Time Lapse: 430,000 people take part in Hong Kong July 1 protest, 2013 from The House News on Vimeo.

Niklas Melcher ist Student der Kommunikationswissenschaften. Als Liebhaber Ostasiens, Fußballenthusiast und Nachtschwärmer schreibt er regelmäßig für mokant.at. Kontakt: niklas.melcher[at]mokant.at

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