Fear of losing the Hong Kong way of life is driving the street protests

Stephen Vines says lack of democracy alone doesn't explain people's anger

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 12:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 July, 2014, 1:42am

What really propelled the anger that lay behind this week's massive July 1 demonstration and is manifested in so many other ways?

There is intense frustration, and also revulsion, over the hypocrisy of Hong Kong's ruling elite. But this is dwarfed by a bitter feeling of having been cheated and threatened by the removal of the fundamental underpinnings that make this place special.

When the concept of "one country, two systems" was under discussion in the early 1980s, many critics argued that a one-party state would never allow Hong Kong to have any real degree of autonomy. However, there is an optimistic spirit in this city and a majority chose to believe that somehow the "two systems" part of the equation would indeed flourish.

When the State Council in Beijing recently went out of its way to put in writing a firm warning that Hong Kong's autonomy was entirely subject to the dictates of the leaders in Zhongnanhai, the apologists still sought to put a positive spin on this.

However, when the warning was coupled with a direct attack on the independence of the judiciary, most people clearly understood that if Hong Kong's rule of law was to be undermined, it would deal a crushing blow to lingering hopes for preserving a much valued way of life.

Losing what Hong Kong already has tends to worry people a great deal more than failing to get what they want in future.

This explains why it was not just the determination to achieve democracy that managed to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to march through the streets and to participate in numerous other anti-government rallies. It needed something more to provoke this sense of anger.

Now despair over the future is compounded by the almost shameless hypocrisy of Hong Kong's elite. People are not stupid. They note, for example, that while government leaders are pushing for a programme of national education in local schools, they are sending their own children overseas to be educated. Apparently, only common people need patriotism classes.

Then there are the tycoons who line up to make declarations of patriotism while increasingly funnelling their funds into overseas destinations and, adding insult to injury, warning that if people don't shut up, they will send even more money overseas.

And it doesn't stop there. The ranks of the angry are swelled by the brazen way in which the government treats ordinary people while cosseting the already privileged; thus, for example, massive rubbish dumps are planned for construction adjacent to the homes of ordinary folk while the residences of the elite are never disturbed.

Hong Kong's fine people have had enough; more and more of them have decided to join the protest movements even though they are told that their voices don't count because they lack "realism".

The middle ground between the government's supporters and their opponents is being rapidly eroded as even so-called "moderates" in the democratic camp realise that the people's anger makes tepid compromise an unrealistic option.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's real rulers seem determined to have a take-no-hostages fight to punish those who refuse to obey. As Bertolt Brecht famously said with bitter sarcasm, "The people have lost the confidence of the government, the government has decided to dissolve the people and to appoint another one."

As sarcasm struggles to gain acceptance in Hong Kong, I hope the government will not take this seriously. Then again, maybe sarcasm is official policy, as we are told that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is doing a fine job.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur