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David G. Mclntyre - Black Star for Asiaweek.
Roots of Discontent
Authorities' hidebound attitudes are fueling activism

Hong Kong

A rise in political radicalism is rattling tycoons and the government. Will it damage the territory's business competitiveness?
• Icon: Is veteran protester "Long Hair" joining the establishment?
• Activist vs. Tycoons

"The business of Hong Kong is business; people come here to meet in a marketplace." That's how a local analyst described the territory in the 1970s. Since then, the economic boom has reinforced the notion that Hong Kong is a place to make money — and that only a "stable" social and political environment can ensure a favorable atmosphere for that. Those who disagree are treated as abnormal and a threat to economic stability, even if their negative views of the establishment are widely shared. Hong Kong may enjoy distinctive economic achievements, but we have a low sensitivity toward politics and little motivation to participate in it.

Three years after the handover to China, street protests have become more frequent. Local pressure groups would gather people to air their dissatisfaction over government policies or other unfair arrangements. Those marching in the streets include not only grassroots groups, but also lawyers, doctors, teachers and social workers.

Why are there so many protests these days? Because there is simply no other way to pressure the authorities toward change. Government officials may appear to be open and transparent, but what they actually do to meet public demands is very questionable. Unfortunately, not even protests necessarily lead to fundamental change. Demonstrations over civil-service reform, welfare budget cuts, language-proficiency tests for teachers, medical reform or even reinterpretation of the Basic Law can arouse debate within the community. But our government often remains passive or simply ignores public opinion.

Indeed, government and business leaders are reluctant to open their hearts and minds to change. They remain rooted in the 1970s view that Hong Kong must be kept "stable" to serve the interests of local and foreign investors, even at the expense of the public. They believe everything should be calculated in terms of costs and benefits. Of course, the big corporations and monopolies enjoy substantial sway over government policies, and government must cater to their needs. Often, tycoons or pro-government businessmen would voice nonsensical theories (such as sinister "conspiracies" among protesting students) in defending the administration and plugging the need for "stability."

Worse, bureaucrats and businessmen will try every means to attack those who may threaten their authority or challenge the status quo. Secretary for Security Regina Ip describes as "troublemakers" those students who demand amendment of the Public Order Ordinance, which places limitations on the right of assembly. And students who want thorough investigations into whether the government has interfered with academic freedom have been labeled "Red Guards" by pro-Beijing media. Rather than heed or address critical opinions, officials often prefer to discredit them.

Ordinary citizens, not to mention students, can do very little to bring about a fairer distribution of resources and wealth. But confrontation through protest does not necessarily lead to violence or even much disruption. It can be a good means to unify and empower the public, while strengthening its motivation toward change. Unfortunately, our government does not have the decisiveness and commitment needed to initiate democratization and cultivate a more sincere and responsible attitude toward popular opinion. Instead, officials will use all means to stimulate economic recovery as soon as possible, so as to minimize the chance of political reform. They will continue to treat Hong Kong as a marketplace — and seek to marginalize dissenters as troublemakers.

Chang is student union president at the University of Hong Kong

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