This Time It’s Different

I am slightly ashamed to admit that when I came to work in Hong Kong in my twenties I was not that into the people. At the time I was fond of saying that if you took the Taiwanese – all nice manners and cultured – and put them in Hong Kong it would be the best city in the world.

The other evening I met a German man who had travelled here from Dusseldorf solely to experience the protests. Political agitator, you may think. But he came because he was amazed at the behaviour of the protestors: their passive and peaceful approach to fomenting change. He spent a week talking to them and was leaving even more impressed.

In the past few years my experiences of HK, and the Cantonese Hong Kongers, have changed. I listen more. I smile more. I interact more. I have come to appreciate the people here as playful, mostly polite, and straightforward. Much of this has to do with my own approach. (My German friend said, baldly, “you’ve aged”). But some of it also has to do with HK’s post handover trials: abandonment by the British and subsequent soul searching, the Asia crisis, and SARS which prompted China to realise that HK was valuable to them, inspired the Closer Economic Partnership Aagreement and spurred Hong Kong to new levels of prosperity. SARS also precipitated an unprecedented campaign for the service industry to be more welcoming and, well, to actually offer some service.

Those efforts bore fruit. Hong Kong has become more “civilised”, the chorus of hawking that used to greet the dawn is more sporadic and less wide-spread, and people are more courteous in public places – albeit without the niceties of over worked manners.

But this prosperity and civility has come with tensions. As Hong Kongers have become more urbane and generally better off, so China has created more wealthy citizens, eager to experience the world and buy new toys. Of obvious fascination is Hong Kong: Chinese and yet…different. Hong Kong has become a glass and water theme park in which the rich and fortunate mainlander can escape the suffocating grey of the mainland.

The advent of trophy seekers from north of the border has been positive for HK’s economy. Tourism and retails sales have boomed and house prices have soared, decoupling from the stock market which, by comparison, has been stagnant since the financial crisis.

But despite the benefits to Hong Kong of slipstreaming China’s economy, the gaps between the city’s own people have widened. The divide between rich and poor has deepened. The prospects for HK’s youth have darkened as they struggle to compete with competition from the mainland. For the ten thousand or so university graduates produced by the territory this year, China is expected to produce around 7 million. Mandarin is mostly more desirable for multinationals using Hong Kong as a China springboard.

So as much as the Umbrella Movement is about democracy (and the students are at pains to stress it is not about politics), it is also, beneath that, about a desire for a better future. London’s rioting youth could tell them that democracy is not a panacea; the outlook for twenty-somethings in many countries is equally troubled. But at the very least, the students want a fairer system, and greater accountability for HK’s leaders. Despite the short term disruption this is causing, the majority should welcome that. If nothing else, they should be proud that their protesters are reminding the world how change can be achieved with dignity.