Written by Niv Horesh.
Complaints about the supposed political apathy of today’s students are not uncommon among middle-aged professors. Historian Mark Lilla diagnosed that apathy as a problem affecting not just American students, but even Chinese students born after 1989.
For Lilla, trying to get across the heady political mood of the Cold War era in the classroom now makes him feel like a “poet singing of the Lost Atlantis”.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy student protests have seemingly defied that commonly heard generational lament. Far from apathy, Hong Kong’s students have shown an admirable determination to confront the former colony’s baby-boomer elite, as well as the idealism to spurn conciliatory moves by figures like Benny Tai, a leader of the protests.
Naturally, some have suggested that the students’ idealism is reminiscent of the hope that infused the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. If anything, Hong Kong students are even more indomitable; Hong Kong’s free press means they are less naïve about the Chinese government’s capacity and willingness to reform itself than the Beijing students were back in 1989.
This sentiment was shared by many who contributed to the coverage of the recent events in the West: the free press in Hong Kong was held up as the true game-changer, exposing a regime that fends off dissent on the mainland by flaunting GDP growth figures and censoring the news.
But Occupy Central is not just a burst of rage about the obscure provisions of universal suffrage under the CCP’s watch, a local Chinese story off-shooting from 1989. It is at its heart much more part of the anti-globalisation movement worldwide – as the movement’s name implies.
It’s not just China that has radically changed since 1989. Today’s insatiable 24/7 media cycle may have loved to wedge Occupy Central into a comparison with the Tiananmen events of 1989, but given the staggering income inequality which has always characterised Hong Kong society, and the enormous clout a handful of tycoons wield there (with Beijing’s blessing, of course), it’s surprising just how little the Western media made the link between Occupy Central and Occupy Wall Street.
Both initially began as protest movements against growing inequality, albeit on opposite sides of the planet, and anyone passing by the tent city set up by the original Occupy Central movement activists under the HSBC headquarters back in 2011 would have been struck by the similarity to the economic protest movements in the West.
There is a distinctly global dimension to what has been unfolding in Hong Kong’s financial district. Hong Kong’s recovery from the 2008 financial crisis has also meant realty prices there have skyrocketed to the extent most locally-born 20-year-olds can scarcely imagine owning homes any time in the near future. In that sense, Hong Kong is not much different to Sydney, London, or New York. And as in many other global hubs, Hong Kong’s middle class has become desperately squeezed, with real wages stubbornly stagnant for the last two decades.
Meanwhile Hong Kong’s recent prosperity has been towed along in the slipstream of mainland efforts to dodge the 2008 global economic downturn, most obviously a massive stimulus package. Beijing has also allowed if not encouraged an upsurge of mainland tourism into the former colony, to such an extent that some Hong Kong businesses have complained of a strain on public resources.
This much-overlooked economic dependency on the mainland means Hong Kong’s tycoons have much to fear from the Occupy Central movement. What’s at stake for them goes well beyond the issue of universal suffrage. As a measure of their worry, Beijing has also demonstrated – through the establishment of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone – that it is prepared to prime Shanghai as an alternative finance hub should the situation in Hong Kong spin out of control.
This is why framing the Hong Kong protests as a story of “democracy vs Beijing” is misleading. Nor do Cold War narratives of liberal democracy vs communism really make sense; instead, globalisation is the real matter at hand. It is affecting everyone, and warping old ideological and political divisions.
China has been by far the single largest beneficiary of post-1989 globalisation, and has been through one of the most radical transitions of any major world power, but it’s also struggling with inequality. The difference between the mainland and Hong Kong in that respect is that most mainland youths are better off than their parents were at their age, and stand a better chance than ever of receiving tertiary education.
They therefore remain optimistic about the future. By delivering better standard of living in absolute terms and a return on tertiary education, the CCP has so far avoided a repeat of Tiananmen 1989 even as inequality in the PRC has widened so much in relative terms.
So far, Occupy movements around the world have failed to converge into anything resembling a truly effective transnational network. Beyond the machinations of a few odd hardcores and anarchists, there seems to have been no substantive organisational co-ordination between, say, the British student riots of 2010 and the anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece and Spain.
Still, Hong Kong’s protesters have certainly and quite admirably pulled off a “local feat”. They may have not massively teamed up with Occupy clusters elsewhere, but they have drawn the attention of media around the world – and they have almost overnight shaken off Hong Kong’s image as a politically apathetic and buttoned-up city, one happy to cosy up to big business and in love with laissez-faire government and low corporate tax.
Occupy Central 2014 may not ultimately be remembered as Hong Kong’s largest or most significant protest against Beijing, and nor is it; even more people took to the streets in 2003 to protest a new “anti-subversion” law imposed from the mainland (Basic Law Article 23).
There are now signs of serious division within the Occupy Central ranks, and of mainstream Hong Kong turning its back on the movement for good after the traffic disruption it caused; Beijing may have won its stare-down with the protesters for the time being. But the prospect of serious social upheaval in China as a result of globalisation and growing inequality is not going away.
And at the very least, the spectacular exploits of Hong Kong’s animated youth movement should remind baby-boomers that today’s students can still kick up an admirable storm when a lofty cause demands it.