Occupy Central: Hong Kong’s fight against neoliberalism

Also published at CounterPunch, ZNet and GlobalResearch.ca.

As protesters flood the streets of Hong Kong demanding free elections in 2017, the international media puts on its usual spin, characterizing the struggle as one between an authoritarian state and citizens who want to be free. The left, meanwhile, has remained notably silent on the issue. It’s not immediately clear if that goes down to an inability to understand the situation, to an unwillingness to stand for supposedly liberal values, or to a reluctance to criticize China. As stories on Occupy Central flood the front pages of the mainstream news media, both the BBC and CNN have published handy “explainers” that confuse more than they explain, making no real effort to dig into the economic roots of discontent. The “Beeb” went as far as to ask whether “Hong Kong’s future as a financial centre” was “threatened” – giving us some insight into where the global establishment’s priorities lie.

But regardless of what the BBC wants the world to believe, Occupy Central isn’t so much a fight for democracy as a fight for social justice. It’s true that Hong Kongers are angry over Beijing’s interference in domestic affairs, whether these be immigration from China, encroachments on the freedom of the press, or the nationalistic-propagandistic “moral and national education” program. These issues, while serious, pale in comparison to the increasingly difficult realities of everyday life in Hong Kong. As City University of Hong Kong professor Toby Carroll points out, one in five Hong Kongers live below the poverty line, while inequality has risen to levels among the highest in the world. Wages haven’t increased in line with inflation – meaning they’ve fallen in real terms. The minimum wage, only introduced in 2010, is set at HK$28 (US$3.60) an hour – less than half of that even in the United States. There are no collective bargaining rights, no unemployment benefits and no pension. The average workweek is 49 hours – in case you thought 40 was rough. Housing prices are among the highest in the world. Even the neoliberal Economist placed Hong Kong top of its crony capitalism index by some distance.

The list of people who have spoken out against Occupy Central is particularly revealing – oligarch Li Ka-shing, HSBC, the world’s four largest accounting firms, among others in business circles. The main issue with CY Leung’s administration isn’t the fact that it wasn’t democratically elected, but that it serves two main groups: Beijing on one hand, and local elites on the other – in other words, far from democratic in its representation. It’s not hard to see why big business and the oligarchs are terrified of Occupy Central: any movement towards real democracy would see them losing power and losing their grip over the territory. The status quo, on the other hand, serves them well.

Hong Kongers are not an ideological bunch. We’ve never had a vote – not under 17 years of Chinese colonial rule, nor under a century of British colonial rule before that – yet we were good colonial subjects and we stayed quiet because we were making a living just fine. But as the middle and working classes start to feel the crunch, the ruling class is starting to realize that it cannot simply let them eat cake. The battle for democracy isn’t a battle for the vote, but a battle for real democracy: for the right of the people to govern themselves. The vote is merely the starting point to a long process of reform that takes the power out of the hands of Hong Kong and Chinese elites and, for the first time, into those of ordinary people.

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16 thoughts on “Occupy Central: Hong Kong’s fight against neoliberalism

  1. Nice, but Hong Kong’s minimum wage is HK$30/hr (about US$3.85/hr). That’s still very lean compared to minimum wages in the West.

    Hong Kong’s public safety net is weak compared to that in Europe, but if it weren’t for its public housing, most of the city would be living six families to a flat like in the old days. If it weren’t for its affordable healthcare, its life expectancy wouldn’t be among the highest in the world today.

    I hope Hong Kong’s democracy movement isn’t funded by the usual suspects in the U.S. But I’ll still sympathize with its rank-and-file. If Hong Kong people aren’t going to exercise their right to protest peacefully, no matter how disruptive they become, then China would find it easier to take away this right.

    • True, but let’s face it, the safety net is a joke even compared to the US. I’ve lived in both countries as well as in continental Europe and the UK, and I can tell you that if you’re living in Hong Kong and you lose your job or you retire, you’re really on your own. Public housing and decent public health care is the least that the government owes its people.

      I’m pretty sure the US isn’t involved in this – they’re reluctant to get involved in what China considers its “domestic affairs”. After all, they’ve got enough on their hands already. Having said that, I’d be very annoyed if they were.

      • It doesn’t. I think protest movements are always bound to be manipulated by external powers for some reason or other, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are legitimate grievances that are bringing people onto the streets. I don’t live in Hong Kong anymore, but you’d definitely be seeing me out on the streets if I were because I am pretty sick of the way Hong Kong is run and has been run since colonial times – and the US hasn’t paid me a cent.

        By contrast, have a look at this: http://hongwrong.com/fake-anti-democracy-rally/

      • I hear you. I’d only worry that the protestors would just end up in another bad system–possibly worse. If you’re against neoliberalism then you don’t want some U.S. puppet as your leader. The U.S. has supported and/or installed too many right-wing dictators to mention. I’m not saying they’re going to do that in this instance, but they’re not exactly known for caring about the rights or conditions of foreign workers. They’re known for exploiting them and their countries as much as possible. I doubt China will cave though. The U.S. is just hoping the unrest will spread to China and destabilize them. You never know though. I just hope for the best for the people who just want a voice.

      • I definitely wouldn’t want some US puppet, no. Who knows what’ll come out of this. There’s every chance (and I wouldn’t be surprised) we’ll end up in another bad system, so this is very much a roll of the dice. Regardless, things have reached a tipping point and something needs to change. Let’s just hope it’s not for the worse.

      • Again, doesn’t change my opinion at all. Why don’t we start paying some attention to the realities on the ground instead of focusing on bashing the US all the time? Of course the US is up to no good – they’re never up to any good. But, again, the US SUPPORTING a movement doesn’t mean it ORCHESTRATED it. US support alone is not enough to bring the masses on to the streets. What, do you think they handed cash to each and every one of them?

      • No, I think they mobilized leaders to create a massive movement, which is obviously people with legitimate grievances. Occupy Wall Street was slightly different. That one started out as a grassroots movement and then got co-opted. This one was manufactured from the get go. I also realize all the problems and inequality so many face in Hong Kong. I also realize that the U.S. backers of these mass protests could care less about the people participating. So I’m not saying they’re being manipulated to act against their free-will, but rather that those backing the movement are taking advantage of that fire within for freedom. Hopefully this thing plays out better than Occupy Wall Street, but I doubt it.

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