“The failure of the government to address the concerns of Hong Kong’s youth, as well as the relative sclerosis of its economic and political systems, may very well lead to further and more radical movements. Unless major changes occur in Hong Kong’s economy, superficial and piecemeal policies such as distributing ‘sweeteners’ to the poor and middle class or increasing land supply will not be enough to alleviate their grievances. A more comprehensive policy that aims to arrest the city’s inequality and reverse its extreme concentration of wealth (…) is more urgent than ever. This would need a strong action by the government.” When Anthea H.Y. Cheung and the author of this article wrote these words in a book published in 2018, the mass protests that have shaken Hong Kong since June 2019 had not yet erupted. How did it get that far?
Beneath the protests that erupted in June last year to oppose the introduction of an extradition bill, there is a bedrock of economic and social conditions that nurtured the development of this movement. The robust economic growth that Hong Kong generally experienced since its return to China in 1997 did not benefit its youngest generations much, which created a climate of discontent propitious to civil disturbances. In addition to this unfavourable economic and social situation, their demands for more democracy were not answered as expected, thereby creating an unstable situation since at least 2014. The protests born during the extradition bill controversy in 2019 have crystallized these two interrelated factors.
Hong Kong’s Millennials in 2020: the Problem of Inequality
From 1997 to 2018, Hong Kong’s per capita GDP increased by about 70 per cent in real terms. But this growth sharply increased inequality, as the city’s Gini coefficient jumped from 0.525 in 2001 to 0.539 in 2009 – making it one of the most unequal cities in the world. In 2018, Hong Kong had 1.377 million people out of 7.4 million living in poverty.
More worrying, still, during the same period, other economic indicators fell, indicating that not everyone benefited from Hong Kong’s economic growth. It is common knowledge that housing in the city is unaffordable: the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey highlighted that the ratio of housing prices to annual household income soared from 12.6 years in 2011 to 21 years in 2018! This is outrageously high, as housing is considered unaffordable once it hits a score of 5.1 years. Singapore, for example, scored “only” 4.6 years in 2018. In addition, many Hong Kongers have not been able to find affordable alternatives in the public sector, as the average wait time for a public rental housing flat reached 5.5 years – the highest in 18 years.
For Millennials, which refers to those people born from 1981 to 1996 (give or take a few years on each end), most of its members do not even qualify for the list of general applicants for public rental housing. Thus, they have to wait an average of 30 years to be allocated a public rental flat in Hong Kong’s urban areas. Still, they continue to queue on the waiting list, which demonstrates once again the seriousness of the situation. Millennials are further affected in the job market, as they suffer from lower job prospects and social promotion than their elders with similar levels of education: in 2000, 11 percent of university graduates took clerical jobs after graduation, but this figure jumped to 18 percent in 2015. During this period, Hong Kong’s per capita GDP grew faster than the median salary for fresh graduates, which is another sign of deterioration in their economic prospects.
The Hong Kong Government has certainly been aware of this crisis in the making, but has done little to remedy it. During her 2017 victorious campaign for Chief Executive, Carrie Lam stated: “I have been with the government for so many years. How come I did not sort of fully realize the depth of that sort of sentiments, which could be damaging to Hong Kong? […] If our young people, if our young professionals are losing hope about the future, then where is Hong Kong’s future?”
In retrospect, it is interesting that a career civil servant who was Chief Secretary for Administration (2012-2017) and, in this capacity, Chairwoman of the Commission on Poverty; Secretary for Development (2007-2012); Director of the Social Welfare Department; Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands; etc., could be so blind towards the situation at hand. But Lam’s comment rather reflects the difficulty of reforming a system that had generated growth for decades than just pure ignorance. And while the situation may look similar to those occurring in many cities worldwide, where the younger generations see a deterioration of their economic fortunes, the situation in Hong Kong has been aggravated by the speed and magnitude of such a decline, as the housing and inequality indicators showed.
Thus, many young Hong Kongers feel powerless. In this sense, their fight for democracy is also a fight for more social justice. This was evident during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, when they first directly linked their demands for democracy to those for more political rights and equality. Three months after the end of the Movement, an exhibition to commemorate it, organized by the students at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (which was occupied and put under siege in November 2019), presented artefacts related to the hardships Millennials faced. These artefacts were simple, but their message was clear: the caption under a simple brick stated, ‘In Hong Kong, you need at least four million [Hong Kong dollars] to buy a decent flat.’
The Demands for Democracy and the “High Degree of Autonomy”
Thus, economic hardship and the fight for democracy are intrinsically linked. But the demand for democracy has its own dynamics. A march is organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China on the anniversary of the handover (1 July) on every year since 1997. But in 2003, it took on greater importance when an estimated 500,000 people took to the streets to oppose the introduction of a national security bill. The government proposed the bill to fulfill its obligations imposed by Article 23 of the Basic Law (dubbed Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution”), but many Hong Kongers perceived it as a threat to their civil liberties. Even though the bill was withdrawn, the push for democracy has been on the public agenda ever since. The protest was also an indication that Hong Kongers were keen to preserve the “high degree of autonomy” that the same Basic Law granted to them.
Thus, from 2004 onwards, the fight for the democracy centered on the implementation of Article 45 of the Basic Law concerning the election of the Chief Executive. It stipulates that “the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”. This article raised multiple controversies regarding the timeline for its introduction and the definition of the “broadly nominating committee”. The different interpretations of it by China and the pro-democracy movement diverged and hardened over time, which led to the Umbrella Movement.
At about the same time, in 2010, a decision by then-Chief Executive Donald Tsang inadvertently led to the greater politicization of some members of the Millennials. His proposal to introduce moral and national education to Hong Kong’s schools to strengthen the people’s Chinese identity was perceived by some students and their parents as too subservient to the Communist Party. One outcome was the creation of Scholarism, which began as an apolitical movement by secondary school students to oppose the implementation of the proposal and led (among others) by Joshua Wong, who later became one of the symbols of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. Scholarism became a pro-democracy party in 2016 and changed its name to Demosisto.
In recent years, it has become difficult to differentiate between the protection of the civil liberties and the push for democracy, while both are fueled by the economic hardships presented earlier. In September 2014, students took the lead in opposing the democratic package that China put forward that, if accepted, would have allowed Hong Kongers to democratically elect their Chief Executive from a slate of two to three candidates approved by Beijing. Thus, the students upstaged their elders in the pro-democracy camp in kicking off the Occupy movement. While the movement failed by the end of that year, the politicization of the Millennials continued and the protests that began in June 2019 inherited the grievances left unresolved by Occupy, while adding others.
Started, at first, to oppose the introduction of the extradition bill, the protests attracted as many as two million people, which represented over a quarter of Hong Kong’s population. The original opposition to the bill stemmed from a desire to maintain the separation between Hong Kong’s legal system, which was inherited from the British Common Law, and China’s. But the movement quickly transformed into a demand for greater democracy, which showed that the issues left unresolved at the end of Occupy found an opening to be reintroduced.
From this brief historical perspective, it is not surprising to find that Millennials (and even the post-Millennials) has been the main engine behind the 2014 and the 2019 movements. Not only has this generation been politicized since at least 2011, many of its members also believe that their prospects of upward mobility are limited, while the propositions made by their government to ease their hardship have failed to appeal to them: at the apex of the protest came in November 2019, Lam announced from Beijing 16 new measures to facilitate the integration of Hong Kong with South China under the Greater Bay Area project. If these were supposedly Beijing’s attempt to pacify Millennials, they failed.
Thus, Lam was right to claim that a whole generation of individuals has lost hope in the future. But her actions, since she became Chief Executive in 2017, have done little to fix the situation. Introducing old solutions in the form of ‘sweeteners’ to resolve preexisting and new problems will not be sufficient to solve the crisis. This prodigality, which amounts to extra spending of about €1.16 billion a year, would have been the right solution for another time, but it is not enough to satisfy the current demands of the protesters. It is then difficult to predict how the movement will end. On one hand, the government has taken a relatively mild attitude, letting the movement to develop. On the other hand, however, under the pressure from Beijing, it also arrested over 7,000 protesters, and the nomination of a new police chief has reinforced the trend. The recent replacement of Wang Zhimin by Luo Huining as the Director of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong and Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Macao is also a sign of it. However, the attitude of China shows that it has difficulties to fully grasp the situation; in this condition, although urgent actions are needed, both the Hong Kong and the Chinese governments are hesitating on the line they should adopt.