Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently in Hong Kong. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN.
The late Chinese Communist leader, Deng Xiaoping, promised comrades and patriots that even after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, “horses will still run, stocks will still sizzle and dancers will still dance” in the free-wheeling territory.
While the horses are still running at the appropriately named Happy Valley racecourse on Hong Kong Island, there is no dancing in the streets after 14 weeks of protests that have ignited violence.
It won’t be much longer before the local economy, which was slumping even before the protests, could be wheeled into intensive care. The tourism and retail sectors have taken a hit and long-time expatriates who have worked here for decades have told me they are now considering relocating to safer havens such as Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Indeed over the weekend, at least two subway stations were closed and lines partially shut when protesters swarmed various locations in the city. While a planned airport protest never happened due to a heavy police presence, the Airport Express line was running at reduced intervals. Although numbers were significantly lower than in past weekends, protesters marched on the US consulate Sunday to push for Congress to adopt the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill that would allow the US to change its consideration of Hong Kong’s status, depending on how Beijing handles its autonomy.
Hong Kong needs to be saved, and, while the glide path out of the crisis is uncertain, there are immediate steps – beyond the withdrawal of the extradition bill – that can be taken to cool down the protesters to the point that they will leave the streets. As the city’s South China Morning Post wrote last week in an editorial, withdrawal of the extradition bill “is only (the) first step on road to reconciliation in Hong Kong.”
That sentiment was echoed several weeks ago by American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong President Tara Joseph, who said that a “clear majority” of her members feel the Hong Kong government “needs to address the underlying causes of the protests and not simply to paper over the cracks of social instability with a short-term law-and-order fix.”
First, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has been criticized for a poor response to the protests, needs to step down as soon as possible. At this dark hour in Hong Kong’s life cycle under the “one country, two systems” principle, the city needs a skilled administrator who knows how to listen to citizens, come up with solutions to deep-seated problems, and yet is able to defend Hong Kong’s interests in political matters in Beijing. Again to quote Deng, “New problems must be solved by new means.”
Second, while most of the remaining demands by the protesters – especially universal suffrage – will never be approved by Beijing, Hong Kong’s administration needs to apply more creative mojo to cool down a city that has been ranked as one of the most expensive places to live on the planet. First and foremost, the protesters are demanding broad democratic reforms, but expensive housing and a widening wealth gap certainly don’t help with public discontent.
As even the Chinese communist mouthpiece, China Daily, said last week, perhaps in a hint to Lam and her circle, the per capita residential space in Hong Kong is just 172 square feet – and for the territory’s poorest residents just 50 square feet, the same as that of prisoners, according to the Kwai Chung Subdivided Flat Residents Alliance – while in Shanghai it is more than double that. On top of that, apartments can cost 21 times the average yearly wage, which places house-buying out of reach of the majority of Hong Kong people.
“The lack of affordable housing in Hong Kong is among the most severe in the world,” the South China Morning Post notes. Hong Kong has ranked as the world’s least affordable housing market for nine consecutive years in the Demographia International Housing Affordability Study, as the paper notes.
Authorities in Hong Kong have long known that the lack of affordable housing has been a source of mass discontent, but little has been done to address the issue. Its own Housing Authority said that at the end of June 2019, almost 150,000 people were on a waiting list for a subsidized flat, with an average wait time of about five and a half years. While the government, partially in response to the protests, announced a $2.4 billion economic stimulus package in August, it is too little, too late.
Hong Kong would do well to tear a page out of the Singapore public housing model, where in response to chronic housing conditions during the colonial era, the government provided subsidized low-cost housing units on a 99-year lease basis to qualified buyers. People can even use government-organized savings for their down-payments. Today more than 80% of Singaporeans live in such housing.
But addressing public discontent to restore calm in Hong Kong is not solely the responsibility of government.
The private sector, which has traditionally had a very cozy relationship with government and even holds seats in the Legislative Council, also has a responsibility to contribute to Hong Kong’s economic well-being – and that includes behaving in a manner which supports people’s rights to peaceful protest and political expression. The crackdown on staff by companies such as international airline Cathay Pacific, which has sacked pilots and other staff for alleged association with the protest movement, is nothing short of disgraceful.
Even though the iconic airline has come under intense pressure by Beijing to toe the line, Hong Kong’s status as an international business center has long been underpinned by the legal freedoms enjoyed there – in contrast to the way things work in mainland China – and a business cracking down on employees seems to violate that ethos. I have come to know Cathay Pacific well enough over the years to recognize that the hardline approach is a punch in the gut to staff morale – you can see it on the faces of those on the frontlines.
Even the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said that people’s rights to peacefully protest and political expression are “a core component of those ingredients for success” for Hong Kong as a first-rate center for international trade.
Whether in Egypt or Ukraine, recent protest movements around the world have been fueled by an underlying sense of hopelessness. Having covered both revolutions, I can say that the sentiments echoed by young people here on the streets of Hong Kong are eerily similar. The stewards of Hong Kong’s future should listen to their concerns and come up with meaningful and rapidly implementable measures to address them.
Deng – who once sung the virtues of getting rich – well understood that most of his compatriots would tolerate a lack of freedoms in return for being able to bask in the wealth effect of a free economy.
At the moment, the young faces of Hong Kong’s protests seem to indicate they have neither.