Smell the revolution

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 November, 2010, 12:00am

Too often, we tell ourselves we're different, that Hong Kong people will never behave in the radical way we see elsewhere. We are convinced that the kind of street violence we saw recently in France over pension reforms just won't happen here. It's not in our nature. We do things peacefully, even when 500,000 angry citizens take to the streets to express disgust at government policies, as happened in 2003. That's what we tell ourselves.

But how can we be so sure? How smart is it to measure tomorrow's public mood with today's yardstick? Surely, everything has a breaking point.

We saw a glimpse of tomorrow's public mood last January when young people from the so-called post-1980s generation rose up in anger against what they saw as a rigged system that favours the privileged class at their expense. Their siege of the Legislative Council, clashes with riot police and jeering outside Government House didn't quite qualify as the kind of violent behaviour we've seen elsewhere. But the heavy presence of jittery police suggested the authorities feared a breaking point.

I wrote here sometime back of a revolution now under way in Hong Kong. Not the rock-throwing, car-burning kind, but fury expressed peacefully.

Some readers took issue with my categorisation of snow-balling societal discontent as a revolution. But how else would you describe the current rebellious mood against the old order? Isn't it a revolution when the people, after staying silent for so long, suddenly rise up to say they will no longer tolerate the excesses of tycoons, the wealthy class and the business sector?

When we reassure ourselves we're different, that we don't smash windows, hurl rocks and burn cars, we're talking about yesterday's Hong Kong people, not today's and tomorrow's. Yesterday's people just wanted a roof over their heads, a job and enough money to raise their families. If they got it, they were happy. There was no talk of correcting societal inequality, curbing the power of the tycoons, bridging the wealth gap, fair wages and standard working hours. They didn't think they had the power or the right to force such change.

Today's elite and business class are still living in that world of yesterday. They like it there because they believe that's the way it should be - business first and people second. They are so blinded by that belief they didn't see the rest of us carried by a seismic shift into tomorrow.

Today's people believe they have every right to correct societal inequality, curb the power of the tycoons, bridge the wealth gap, demand fair wages and work reasonable hours. For now, they're demanding all these things peacefully. But the fuse has been lit. It's just burning slowly.

No one knows if it is burning towards a ticking bomb that is buried somewhere in tomorrow. Do you want to take that chance? Do the tycoons, the business class?

Was Cafe de Coral playing with fire with its stingy pay rise for staff and removing their paid lunch hour before backing down? Was catering sector legislator Tommy Cheung Yu-yan making the fuse burn faster by backing Cafe de Coral's initial stinginess? Are the property tycoons toying with the ticking bomb with their unscrupulous practices?

Maybe it's the smell of the burning fuse. Or maybe it's the sound of a faint ticking somewhere that has scared Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. But something spooked him enough for him to deliver a blunt message to the business community last week. He quoted Bob Dylan in telling them times are changing. He told them the people are fed up with the greed and excesses of the business class. He told them the people will no longer tolerate the inequalities forced on them for so long. He told them to change with the times. He, in essence, told business leaders to wake up and smell the revolution. Are they smart enough to do that before the bomb goes off? If Cafe de Coral's initial tactics were anything to go by, they're not.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster