The View

Let’s look to history for clues in understanding the social mood behind Mong Kok riots

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 2:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 2:38pm

One-third of the 37 individuals who appeared before the court last week in connection with the rioting in Mong Kok are not employed. If we exclude students then about 41 per cent of them are jobless. This is a very high proportion in a city where the unemployment rate is unusually low.

In fact, the proportion of young individuals who are not in the labour force for no compelling reason has risen dramatically, from about 0.6 per cent in 1996 to 4 per cent in 2011. It is also notable that 17 of the 37 work in low-paying jobs. It seems most of the unemployed and low-pay workers involved in the riot are from the lower socioeconomic group of society.

When we look at the age composition, 19 were born after 1990 (12 excluding students). This is the generation that grew up when Hong Kong’s divorce rate and single parent households were rapidly escalating – phenomena that are concentrated in the lower socioeconomic group.

This is the generation that grew up when Hong Kong’s divorce rate and single parent households were rapidly escalating

Karl Marx coined an interesting term, the “lumpenproletariat”, to describe the class of outcast, degenerate and submerged elements that make up a section of the population of industrial centres.

Marx saw them as a counter-revolutionary force because they usually depended on the bourgeoisie for their day-to-day existence. He argued Louis Bonaparte of France in 1848 was able to place himself above the proletariat and bourgeoisie by using the lumpenproletariat as a power base for a populist dictatorship.

Contemporary sociologists have included all the marginalised elements of society characterised by Marx under this label. The term is now used to refer to those they regard as victims of modern society, who exist outside the wage-labor system, such as beggars or people who make their living through disreputable means, but depend on the formal economy for their day-to-day existence. Many social scientists believe the largest proportion of this underclass is supported (some argue even created) by the social welfare state through income and in-kind transfers.

Marx also asserted that the real danger to the state did not come from the poor, but from déclassé intellectuals, those educated middle-class men and women who were barred from advancement. People such as artists without studios or theatres, teachers without classrooms, lawyers without clients, and so on.

They descend economically and as they mingle with the underclass, become a bridge between the worlds of the elite and the oppressed. To Marx, they are the dynamite that triggers revolt. Lenin was a lawyer and Mao was a librarian after all.

Most of the students charged with rioting appear to be attending universities. In the past they would have joined the ranks of Hong Kong’s elite, but today some complain of low mobility.

I often hear observers and government officials worry that an oversupply of university graduates might negatively impact mobility. I have often argued that Hong Kong produces too few university graduates and that is why the rate of return to higher education is so high. Hong Kong is moving into a high value-added service economy. The demand for skills and talent is enormous. Unfortunately our working population is growing very slowly.

Another consequence of having too few skilled workers and talent in the labour market is there are too many unskilled workers, which holds down their wages and makes them feel doubly impoverished because they live in an expensive city.

But one development in higher education is worrying, which is the oversupply of research postgraduates compared to the number of well-paying jobs in Hong Kong and Asian universities, often in the humanities and social studies. Many I know live in sub-divided housing units in Mongkok. There, armed with their knowledge of revolutionary writers like Marx and the nihilist postmodernists, they meet the lumpenproletariat.

When I was a post-graduate student in the 1970s, toiling in an isolated basement office, struggling to finish my thesis, I and some fellow students hijacked Andre Gunder Frank’s term “lumpen bourgeoisie” to describe our predicament and fate.

We were members of the bourgeois class in the Marxian sense, but like the lumpenproletariat were at the bottom of the pyramid and faced uncertain futures. As students living on scholarships and receiving stipends to pay for services and goods, we were outside the wage-labour system but depended on the support of the formal economy for our daily living. As educated middle-class men and women, we could become déclassé intellectuals if barred from professional and career advancement; some more ambitious and romantic ones might be keen to organise a revolt.

Are we in Hong Kong exacerbating our deep contradictions, rather than resolving them?

Richard Wong Yue-chim is Philip Wong Kennedy Wong Professor in Political Economy at the University of Hong Kong