Since weekly protests began in Hong Kong in early June, opposition to the government’s controversial extradition bill has gradually turned into a popular movement.
Despite chief executive Carrie Lam’s announcement on September 5 that the Hong Kong government would formally withdraw the bill, protests have continued. The fact that the police used water cannons and drew their pistols hasn’t deterred people from protesting. And violence has erupted again in recent weeks with some protesters throwing rocks and petrol bombs. On September 22, in the 16th straight weekend of protests, activists desecrated a Chinese flag.
The popular movement is still pressuring the government to meet its remaining four demands: to set up an independent inquiry into the brutality of police action, to retract its description of protests of June 12 as a riot, to release all arrested activists, and to implement genuine democratic reform.
The origins of the protests are inseparable from the controversial extradition bill itself. But why did this single spark turn into a popular movement for political reform?
Since June 9, we’ve conducted five surveys, targeting participants at the sites of protest and demonstration. We’re not funded by any government agency and the research is independent of any potential undue political intervention. With the help of volunteers, we’ve now surveyed over 4,000 protesters.
While we’re only at the early stages of analysing our results, and still plan to do further surveys, the responses we got from a survey of 1,068 people protesting on July 1 are helping us to shed light on what’s motivating the protesters.
When we asked the respondents whether they agreed with the statement “I am angry due to the absence of universal suffrage in Hong Kong”, 93% strongly agreed or agreed. For the statement “I am angry due to Beijing’s intervention in Hong Kong affairs”, 88% strongly agreed or agreed. As expected, grievance against Beijing’s intervention in Hong Kong’s affairs is a major trait among participants. It’s likely that the influence of the localist movement, which grew out of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella protests, and which demonstrated strong anti-China sentiment with xenophobic rhetoric towards mainland Chinese, played a crucial role in motivating political participation.
We’ve also been asking protesters to what extent they agree with the statement “I am a Hong Konger” on a scale of zero to ten. For those who responded on July 1, the average score was 9.75 and 88% chose ten. But when people were asked to what extent they agreed with the statement “I am a Chinese”, the mean score was as low as 2.78 and 41% of the valid responses were zero.
Almost all the protesters who took part in our survey highly identified with Hong Kong and rejected an identification with China. The overwhelming majority don’t think relations between mainland China and Hong Kong are a zero-sum game – where one’s loss is balanced by the other’s gain.
What was unexpected was that just under half of our respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “The interests of mainland China and the interests of Hong Kong are always incompatible”. Despite the strong local identity shown in the ongoing movement, the majority still think it’s possible for mainland China and Hong Kong to have shared interests.
Anger at inequality
While the ongoing protests are a clash between liberal values and authoritarianism and between the Hong Kong people and Beijing, they can’t be adequately understood without looking at the capitalist configuration of Hong Kong society.
Similar to other advanced capitalist societies, Hong Kong’s economy has been becoming more unequal in recent decades. In 2016, Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient – a key index of inequality where zero represents full equality and one is maximum inequality – was as high as 0.539, making it one of the most unequal places in the developed world. The price of housing in Hong Kong is still notoriously high. Without support from their parents, it’s very difficult for young university graduates to become homeowners.
In our July 1 survey, we asked protesters about their view on class inequality and found 92% agreed or strongly agreed that: “The wealth gap in Hong Kong is at an unreasonable level.” Another 84% agreed or strongly agreed that “I am angry about class inequality that exists in Hong Kong”. Such findings would have been unimaginable ten years ago when Hong Kong’s capitalism was enjoying widespread support.
Although Hong Kong’s economy has been growing relatively steadily since the Asian financial crisis and the SARS epidemic in 2003, unless you have the financial capacity to be a meaningful player in the housing or stock market, it’s almost impossible to share the fruits of prosperity. We’re finding that such a spontaneous popular movement reflects how unjust people feel life in Hong Kong has become. It’s another signal that world capitalism is in crisis since the inequality caused by the current capitalist model has contributed to more large-scale social unrest.
Such a strong sense of discontent about Hong Kong’s economy, however, has not given rise to concrete demands related to economic or welfare policies among the protesters. This is understandable because the Beijing factor has dominated Hong Kong’s political agenda for decades. The historical weakness of the democratic leftist camp in Hong Kong, both within the legislative council and wider civil society, means that class is not a salient identity for most people in Hong Kong. Class grievances have therefore been channelled towards issues directly related to civil liberties and political rights.
In recent weeks, the government has been playing the economic card, hoping that concerns about an economic downturn can convince the public to stop supporting the demonstrations. But such a tactic hasn’t diminished the number of protesters on the streets. This implies that many protesters don’t feel that economic growth under Hong Kong’s current capitalist system will really benefit them. They now demand democratic reform, which isn’t merely a way to address the root cause of their grievances, but to change the structure of Hong Kong society more broadly.
So the present state of crisis isn’t just a manifestation of identity politics between Beijing and Hong Kong but also a matter of social justice. The unrest in Hong Kong reminds us just why capitalism is important when understanding social unrest in the contemporary world.