Ask anyone in Hong Kong why so many people have taken to the streets and the answer will often be the same: “for democracy,” “for universal suffrage,” or “to elect a fair government.” Equally, one could look at any of the slogans disseminated around the protests sites. Be it a sticker or a poster pasted on a wall, the message is likely to be something related to democracy and elections.
However, you just need to dig a bit deeper to find that concerns about the electoral law – while certainly the biggest issue at the moment – are only one part of the picture: there is much more that Hong Kong citizens are reproaching their administration about.
One of the main problems is the economy, and particularly property prices, which have skyrocketed out of the average citizens’ reach and are mentioned as a major issue by nearly everyone. “The government has no policy to protect the poor and the rich get richer because that’s what the government’s policies aim at,” one occupier told us.
Dissatisfaction comes as little surprise. In August, the Wall Street Journal reported data from the Centa-City index – a major indicator of Hong Kong’s property prices – as proving that the city has the second-most expensive real estate market in the world. In spite of the government’s measures, “the index has only continued to climb, rising from 94.02 in February 2012 [..] to 134.14 today,” wrote the Journal.
Hong Kong, it should be noted, is a very wealthy society, but also a most unequal one, where ‘cage people’ – those whose finances allow only for a bed in an often crumbling building – live next to millionaires dwelling in fancy, air-conditioned skyscrapers. As of 2013, about one fifth of the local population lived in poverty, a government report showed.
Protesters also deeply distrust the authorities’ attempts to modify the local education system, sensing the hand of the Communist Party behind efforts to introduce ‘patriotic’ courses. “The protest is not only about the voting, they also wanted to change the education,” a girl camping in Admiralty, right in the center of the city, complained scornfully. Another protester argued that the national education was a “form of indoctrination.”
The reform was scrapped in 2012 after large protests which in some ways were a prelude to the movement that is now engulfing the former British colony. Not only do their arguments still resound among today’s protesters, but it was then that Joshua Wong, the leader of a group called Scholarism, emerged for the first time as a challenger to the administration’s policies.
Media are receiving their share of criticism, too. Many stand accused of doing their best to convene a negative image of the Umbrella Movement, focusing on the potential damage to the economy and the traffic, while, according to the protesters, outlets supportive of the occupiers are facing pressure.
Indignation arose one week ago, on October 14, when the Apple Daily, an outlet openly in favor of the protests, was surrounded by unidentified people who tried to disrupt the paper’s operations. “It is a very bad signal. It is the first time that I see something like that in Hong Kong. I do not care which paper it is, but I want the freedom to have different points of view,” commented a middle aged man.
The official explanation is that triads – the notorious Hong Kongese criminal gangs – orchestrated the blockade, but that begs the question of why organized crime would do such a thing.
“I think they received money to do that,” a protester who asked to remain anonymous explained. “Big businesses benefit from the mainland. They benefit from the current system and do not want a fairer society. They are willing to provide money to the triads to do these things.” Similar, unconfirmed rumors of people being paid to antagonize the movement were heard more than once in the past weeks, particularly when an angry mob attacked protesters in Mongkok, a residential district, on October 3.
Finally, there is the creeping feeling of being besieged that one can sense everywhere in the occupied streets. “We have come out,” said a protester who told us his name is Bryan, “because most of the government’s policies are pro-China and protect their values.” Sitting in front of a row of tents he explained that the goal of the local administration is to get the local economy to rely more and more on the Chinese motherland through the influx of tourists and Chinese companies, so as to throttle the city’s autonomy.
Then, repeating the words a couple of times with a vague expression of satisfaction, he synthesized his argument in a phrase that could be the title of a book: “They are slowly cooking Hong Kong in a hot pot.”