Is Hong Kong’s unrest driven by ‘economic’ or ‘political’ discontent in the city? Here’s a good discussion of the arguments.
To the CCP, of course, everything is political. Beijing’s preferred analysis is that the unrest is due to evil foreign forces and an insufficiently patriotic education system. But Mainland officials allow that material inequality plays a role and the government should pay attention to ‘livelihood’ issues. The recent Budget, with a huge boost for the police plus handouts to ordinary citizens, reflects this.
To the local business-bureaucracy establishment, it is comforting to blame factors like low incomes and housing. The government can in theory alleviate these problems without overly disrupting the overall cronyistic system. And tycoons are nervous that if Beijing sees the local power structure as part of the problem, it will further centralize control and sideline them from it.
Many international observers also assume livelihood issues must be a key factor. After all, Hong Kong’s economic distortions, and things like housing unaffordability, are in a league of their own in the developed world. How could this not push the populace to protest?
To pan-dems, it is insulting to suggest that Hong Kong people just want money when the fight is for freedom, rights and universal suffrage (and, they could add, the backbone of the movement is largely middle-class).
Economic policy and politics largely overlap anyway. The real question is whether the Hong Kong public can be bought off with better material conditions, or will only structural reform resolve the reasons for the anger?
For an answer, we can trace the development of Hong Kong’s broad-based discontent over the last couple of decades.
After 1997, Beijing installed local administrations that hugely favoured tycoon interests, hence housing prices and rents, low health-care funding, poor welfare, white-elephant infrastructure projects and an unmanageable influx of Mainland ‘tourists’. This made people increasingly angry, and bolstered support for the pro-dem camp and for democracy.
Beijing interpreted this rising opposition as a challenge to the CCP’s right to rule, and so stepped up the Mainlandization that diminishes rule of law, freedoms and local identity. This goes back to Article 23 in 2003, but gathered pace with National Education and the 2014 political non-reform. All these proposed measures provoked a popular backlash based on values. We are now in a cycle of repression and resistance: the Umbrella Movement, disqualification of pan-dem politicians, the extradition bill, the 2019 Uprising, and now a semi-police-state type of clampdown, with intimidation, the arrest of Jimmy Lai, mass arrests, and the coming chop for RTHK.
To put it simply: what started as the Hong Kong public’s discontent with a crony-serving local government has now become an open conflict between Hong Kong and the CCP. If Beijing had ordered its appointed mediocrities to fix housing and welfare 15 or 20 years ago, things might have been different. But it’s too late now.