Classes apart in treatment
The Hong Kong government may well be able to achieve something that the local clandestine Communist Party never managed, despite sporadic attempts to stir up the masses. The party's attempts to stoke class warfare were largely ignored by the hard-working people of Hong Kong. But now a combination of unequal treatment and lack of opportunity for the less well-off is succeeding in putting class warfare back on the agenda.
It's not hard to see why: last week, for example, we discovered that if you are very rich, sit on the Executive Council and have influence in all the right places, there is no penalty for providing false personal information to the Legislative Council because you can blame underlings for the error. At least that was the shameful explanation proffered by Lau Wong-fat, who suffered nothing worse than a bit of finger-wagging for failing to disclose multiple property holdings in a false declaration to the Legislative Council.
On the other hand, Ng Yuk-fai, a senior citizen trying to make a buck in Tai Hang selling egg waffles, attracted dozens of enforcement officers who marched him off to court and confiscated his equipment.
Now he's being investigated for fraud.
It is hard to think of a more vivid contrast in the treatment of two men who happen to be of the same vintage but are separated by a wide ocean of cash and influence.
Were this an isolated case, it could be shrugged off, but as night follows day there is news of other hapless hawkers and stall owners being harassed for minor infringements while property tycoons, heavily fortified by bands of lawyers, succeed in running rings around planning laws.
Then there is the shameful treatment of public sector doctors, working ridiculously long hours in hospitals largely populated by the poor. The doctors are therefore deemed to be useful work fodder by a government that has enough cash to bribe every Hong Kong citizen with a HK$6,000 handout but seems unable to pay these people a decent wage or to recruit enough doctors to do the job properly.
What gets people out in the streets is not poverty itself, nor even discrepancies in wealth, because Hongkongers understand the ways of the world. The lingering spirit of personal initiative to transform lives still flourishes here.
However, people rightly will not tolerate injustice, a sense that not only is the playing field tilted but that the powerful arm of the law can be mobilised to keep it that way.
There are two kinds of responses to situations of this kind. The first is a response that breeds cynicism and sullen resentment but little open resistance. The second is a response that gets people out on the streets and keeps them there in growing numbers.
The history of protest in Hong Kong is quite remarkable because the very biggest protests have rarely been over what Americans call pocketbook issues. Instead, mass demonstrations have been reserved for acts of solidarity with the democracy movement on the mainland and, a couple of decades earlier, about fears of danger from the Daya Bay nuclear plant; recent events might show these fears to have been prescient.
Recently, we have seen citizens mobilised over heritage issues and in support of social causes. Even on May Day, the International Workers' Day when workers elsewhere are out on the streets demanding better pay, these demands get rather lost in a confusion of other causes in Hong Kong.
Class hatred of the kind that once propelled communist parties to power seems alien in this city. On the contrary, ordinary people are known for their admiration of tycoons and give them affectionate titles such as 'Superman'. But this admiration is fast dwindling as the sense grows that they have got rich not by fair competition but by collusion.
The Hong Kong government seems oblivious to this and gives the impression that far from standing on the sidelines, its senior officers, who slip seamlessly from public service to servicing tycoons, are devoted to ensuring that nothing changes. Even in the year 2011, they are still solemnly declaring that those outside the charmed circle of influence have neither the intelligence nor the will to govern themselves and will happily settle for a system of small-circle elections.
Logic dictates that this cannot go on. Indeed, it is remarkable that not only are the most rotten aspects of the old colonial system still in place, but they have been reinforced in the new era.
Last week Bob Dylan made a historic debut on the mainland and had to agree not to sing anything about 'the times they are a-changing'. But while an old rock star could be tamed, it's not so clear that is the case for the people in Hong Kong.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur