Monday, January 18, 2016

Ignoring the signs from Hong Kong

Pankaj Sharma
13 January 2016

The city’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is bound to face political turmoil next year.

I met a few important “umbrella revolutionaries” during my visit to Hong Kong this week.  With elections for the post of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive slated for later this year, these “revolutionaries” are busy intensifying their movement. These young men and women have worked out a plan to repeat a series of sit-in street protests in coming months on the lines of their famous 2014 movement. The leaders of the umbrella brigade are demanding the withdrawal of Beijing’s decision to pre-screen the candidates for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive elections.

Most of the protesters I had met were students. They have been using umbrellas to protect themselves from police pepper spray. Umbrellas have now become a symbol of the movement. Protest leaders say that their campaign is not a revolution but a civil-disobedience movement.

Student leaders such as Alex Chow, Joshua Wong and Lester Shum believe that people must have the right to directly elect their representative without any interference from Beijing. But, China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong from the British in 1997, wants to screen candidates before they stand for office. Beijing insists that candidates for the Chief Executive position must be vetted by an electoral committee of tycoons, oligarchs, and pro-Beijing figures.

Umbrella protesters also want the current Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, to resign, which he has flatly refused to do. There is a strong feeling in Hong Kong that Leung gives priority to China’s interests over Hong Kong’s. He was indirectly elected by 689 voted out of 1200 voters.

Even after becoming a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong still has an independent judiciary, common law, freedom of information and movement, and a reasonably free press. But a well-traveled young generation of Hong Kongers are not satisfied with semi-autonomy and want more freedom. They have always enjoyed Western-style freedoms and the desire for political enfranchisement that comes with it.

I have met several elderly people also who are actively opposed to the ideas of the umbrella brigade. They are not in favour of antagonising China and the memories of the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising in Beijing still haunts them. They argue that, by doing all this, the students are only inviting Beijing to withdraw the freedoms that Hong Kong does have. The older generation is also more concerned about economic stability. It’s already hard enough to make a living in the hyper-expensive city. 

There is an ugly face of Hong Kong too, which is no less dominating. There are far more homeless people in Hong Kong these days as housing has become unaffordable. Skyrocketing rents and squalid conditions in shoebox apartments have pushed more people onto the streets as the number of homeless in the city hit an all-time high in 2015. The figure almost tripled over the past decade. Hong’s Kong’s lack of affordable housing has fueled the “McSleeper” trend, where the homeless sleep at McDonald’s outlets. Most of the homeless are male, aged between 45 and 64.

I have seen a sizable number of homeless people live in makeshift cardboard shacks under bridges and in parks in West Kowloon. A recent survey says that the number of “McRefugees”–a term coined for homeless people staying overnight at 24-hour fast food restaurants such as McDonalds–had quadrupled in the past two years.  

The average age of street sleepers in Hong Kong has fallen rapidly from 54 to 50 now. Moreover, one-fifth of the homeless are under 40. One-third of them are able-bodied working poor or unemployed people. Even though these  findings have been conveyed to Hong Kong’s legislative councilors, government schemes are not translating into action on the ground. Therefore, the son of a Government House guard, 61-years-”young” Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying’s whose ancestral origin is Shandong in China, is bound to face political turmoil in his career next year.

The steep rise in cost of living in Hong Kong is taking a serious turn. It is becoming extremely difficult for the common man to cope with the situation given their current income. The average price of even necessary food items are now so high that even middle-class Hong Kongers find themselves unable to afford these products. Apart from the democratic freedoms, the rise in prices is going to be one of the most important election issues in Hong Kong next year.

There was a time when people used to say that you can leave Hong Kong, but Hong Kong will never leave you. I feel, those times are coming to an end soon. Everything will depend on whether Chinese president Xi Jinping manages a successful political choreography to keep the basic flavor of Hong Kong’s free spirit intact or succumbs to the pressure of the Communist Party of China, which has powerful members such as Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli. China will face irreparable losses if it ignores  Hong Kong’s pain.

No comments: