Democracy Isn’t Enough – Hong Kong Needs a Living Wage

Also published at Hong Kong Free Press.

Once again, Hong Kong finds itself making global headlines for all the wrong reasons. First, five booksellers have been abducted in Hong Kong and Thailand and taken to China, where they remain detained. And now the same streets of Mong Kok that hosted thousands of occupying protesters in 2014 have seen a night of rioting after police officers moved in to shut down a street food market. Instead of dying down, the same popular resentment that fed the uprising two years ago – against a state tied intimately to local elites and to a quasi-colonial regime in Beijing – has only intensified. But the standard prescription given by the international media and local activist circles alike, that free and fair elections are all that’s needed to rid our territory of its ills, fails to identify the root cause of local grievances: a steady economic decline brought forth by an ultra-conservative economic agenda that we desperately need to understand and demand changes to.

As I argued at the time, the demonstrators of 2014 didn’t simply decide overnight that they wanted democracy and that, all of a sudden, they’d spontaneously had enough of the Hong Kong government failing to deliver on its promise of universal suffrage in 2017. Being repeatedly denied the right to vote doesn’t sufficiently explain why Hong Kongers turned out in numbers to occupy four different sites for a full three months in a society that admittedly knows and cares little about political ideology of any sort. What had reached a tipping point by 2014, on the other hand, was inequality and its inevitable crunch on the once untouchable middle classes, who had witnessed their wages steadily falling, while aspiring homeowners saw their ambitions wiped out by a burgeoning real estate bubble – all in the absence of any real social security net. Student leader Joshua Wong himself alluded to the movement’s economic grievances in an interview with the New York Times:

Our bleak economic situation contributes to our frustrations. Job prospects are depressing; rents and real estate are beyond most young people’s means. The city’s wealth gap is cavernous. My generation could be the first in Hong Kong to be worse off than our parents.

Both the protests of 2014 and the riots of last week share a common origin: they are an inevitable popular reaction to the results of extreme economic austerity stretching back decades that have consistently earned Hong Kong the dubious accolade of the “world’s freest economy” according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. These policies have fostered such an extreme concentration of wealth that even the free-market Economist has ranked us top of its crony capitalism index by some distance. The minimum wage, despite having been raised last year, is still only a meagre HK$32.50. Washington, D.C., where the cost of living is similar to that of Hong Kong, has a minimum wage of US$10.50 (HK$81.60) – two and a half times higher. Meanwhile, collective bargaining, unemployment benefits and even a state pension – rightly regarded as basic entitlements in industrialized countries elsewhere – are nonexistent.

But in an era when movements to defend and protect these welfare provisions have spread across Europe and as far as Quebec, Canada, where is our collective outrage as Hong Kongers? At a time when we have turned out in numbers to rightfully demand our right to vote, why have none of us stepped forward to demand economic democracy – where we lag even further behind the rest of the developed world?

Where our social movements need to go next is to shift away from their single-minded focus on attaining the vote and to move on to tackling these underlying issues directly. This isn’t to say that the movement for suffrage should be abandoned by any means, but given the countless obstacles they face – from Beijing’s stubborn refusal to budge to the dangers of American cooptation – activists need to ask themselves whether continuing to pursue the vote at all costs is really the best way of addressing the social justice issues that will no doubt persist with or without democracy. We need a strategy to lobby the current administration into investing its consistent budget surpluses in a comprehensive welfare state in line with those of other industrialized countries, as well as making the minimum wage a living wage, imposing rent controls and expanding public housing. No official, directly elected or not, is likely to introduce these policies without considerable pressure from outside, and only an organized civil society will be capable of forcing these issues onto the agenda.

Activists could do well to look for inspiration from the various anti-austerity movements in Europe and elsewhere that have sought to prevent cuts to the same public services that we have never enjoyed in the first place. In particular, Spain’s Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH) emerged from the 15-M demonstrations of 2011 to specifically address the eviction of homeowners who had defaulted on their mortgages, many of them having lost their jobs due to the country’s economic crisis. Likewise, the Fight for $15 movement in the United States has united low-wage workers in their pursuit of a livable minimum wage of $15 per hour, which the cities of Seattle and San Francisco have already adopted.

But Hong Kong’s activists still have plenty of homework to do to properly prepare themselves for the progressive movement that the territory so desperately needs. Part of this preparation involves learning a few basic truths about the limits of electoral democracy – including the unfortunate fact that money all too often counts much more than votes. Crucially, activists also have to recognize and publicize the role of free-market fundamentalism in creating the precarious, low-pay and long-hours working conditions that characterize Hong Kong today. The simple fact that our social security provisions lag so far behind the rest of the industrialized world could prove vital to drumming up public support for reform – if only people knew.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Hong Kong cannot afford to remain an uninformed, insular society if we are to ever resolve the slowly escalating social tensions that have flared up once again. It really is time to take a look around and to learn a few lessons from fellow activists fighting the same battles elsewhere, whether we realize it or not, from Brazil to Bulgaria to Spain and the United States. These same animosities will only continue to spill onto Hong Kong’s streets every now and then as the majority of our population bears the growing burden of a crony minority eating an increasing slice of the pie with the blessing of both Beijing and Admiralty. We need to open our eyes, watch and learn.

On Occupy Central’s ties with the NED

A follow-up piece to “Occupy Central: Hong Kong’s fight against neoliberalism“. Also published on CounterPunch.

Numerous alternative media outlets, including WikiLeaks, have pointed out the connections between Occupy Central and the United States government through an organization called the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). I am not surprised at this, nor do I welcome it, given the United States’ questionable record (to put it nicely) at bringing “democracy” to countries where it has intervened in the past. It is most likely in Hong Kongers’ best interests that the US withdraw its monetary support for Occupy Central, as unlikely as this is to happen.

The same outlets, however, have been openly hostile towards Occupy Central for these reasons alone. Tony Cartalucci recently claimed that the protests “masquerade as a “pro-democracy” movement seeking “universal suffrage” and “full democracy,” but are really backed by “a deep and insidious network of foreign financial, political, and media support”. This assessment doesn’t do Hong Kong justice for two reasons: firstly, it portrays Hong Kongers’ grievances at the status quo as fictional and illegitimate, when they are in fact real, and it treats the protesters as pawns, when many in fact are taking to the streets of their own accord. Secondly, by treating the US as the sole independent actor in the movement and focusing entirely on analyzing and criticizing its actions in other countries, it only strengthens a United States-centred worldview that the mainstream media likewise seeks to disseminate.

None of the support provided by the NED for Occupy Central changes the reality of the economic situation facing middle- and working-class Hong Kongers today, brought about by the most extreme form of capitalism that the world has ever seen – to the extent that the extreme-right-wing Heritage Foundation dubs it “the world’s freest economy” year after year. It is poor journalism to even attempt to analyze the roots of discontent in Hong Kong while paying no attention to the structural factors involved, and yet the alternative media, like the mainstream media, have been guilty of doing so. Foreign writers who claim the movement is orchestrated purely by Americans are naive to believe Hong Kongers can simply be co-opted by an external force to demonstrate. This type of thinking is unfortunately symptomatic of a neocolonial conviction that somehow only “Westerners” are capable of thinking for themselves and acting of their own accord. Hong Kongers, like the Ukrainians, Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans and Venezuelans, are merely being manipulated by the “West”. Of course they are. After all, only those protesting against regimes in the “West” or backed by the “West” are legitimate – the rest are mere agents for “regime change”!

I will admit that I am not at all optimistic about the prospects of Occupy Central bringing genuine social change to Hong Kong. These prospects are only diminished by the involvement of the United States, with its own neoliberal and far-less-than-democratic agenda. They are further diminished by the absence of any radical groups calling explicitly for a more equitable distribution of income and wealth and end to the state’s collusion with established local and Chinese elites. But what is evident is that the status quo leaves no room for Hong Kongers to decide on how their territory is run, and that attaining the vote provides the opportunity, though far from a guarantee, for genuine socioeconomic reform, by deposing the established political and economic elite from their position of power. Who we will replace them with must be ours to choose, and that is precisely why the United States, as with China, must step back and allow Hong Kongers to decide their own fate.

Occupy Central: Hong Kong’s fight against neoliberalism

Also published at CounterPunch, ZNet and

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.