They say Hong Kong is experiencing rather tough times now. So I tried to understand why.
Political structure of Hong Kong
As the lease of Hong Kong territory by Britain expired in 1997, Hong Kong was returned to China under “one country, two systems” condition and the Basic law as the foundation of their relations. HK has its own flag, yet the anthem is of People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong is represented at Olympic games separately from China, however, at the award ceremony the anthem of China is played and the flag of HK is demonstrated.
According to the “one country, two systems” arrangement, China exercises the supreme power over HK Special Administrative Region directly through the central government and indirectly by delegating power to HK government to have its autonomy over the region – most of the state matters except for foreign policy and defence. Hong Kong has its own currency – HK dollar, and the monetary policy is conducted by HK Monetary Authority, which kind of central bank de facto. However, money printing is delegated to the 3 largest banks in HK, that’s what explains the diversity of banknotes.
The legislative power is represented by Legislation Council, similar to Parliament in European countries in terms of its functions. Every 4 years Hongkongers over 18 years old have 2 votes to elect 70 members of Legislative Council, one vote for geographical constituency (35 member representing 5 districts in HK) and the second is for 35 members for functional constituency. Voters that can vote in functional constituency can be of 3 types: small circle of corporate votes (ex. banks, huge corporations) and individual votes (ex. teachers, doctors), which all together select 30 candidates. And finally people who do not belong to any of the constituency can vote for 5 superseats, or district counselors.
Executive power is exercised by the Government and Chief Executive, who is the head of the Government. Here is where the fun part starts. According to the Basic Law, Chief executive is nominated by supposedly largely representative election committee of 1,200 from four largest sectors of the community. The problem here is that those sectors are largely controlled by pro-Beijing structures. Therefore, it turns out that pro-democracy candidates are screen out by the pro-China committee. Furthermore, the elected pro-Beijing Chief Executive appoints members into the government. Thus, people in HK have no voice in the election of Chief Executive and Government. They are not happy with that.
Within the negotiations between HK, Britain and China during 1990s, the promise of China to introduce the universal suffrage – democratic election of Legislative Council and Chief Executive by 2017 – was the crucial for the deal to happen, though it is not likely now with the democratic movement to be rather strong in HK. Moreover, according to the Basic law, candidates for LegCo and government have to be “patriotic”, which is loyal to China. To be nominated as candidates, running for the position, they have to sign the mandate of their loyalty to China and the probable statements for HK independence are subject to administrative actions (imprisonment of up to 2 years).
The strive for universal suffrage and self-determination of HK lies in the foundation of Occupy Central movement, which was started by several scholars as a massive civil protest, uniting mostly students and young people in the streets in the Central. As the police started using tear gas to suppress the protests, students were getting more radical in their approaches, initiating the next wave of the protests led already by students – Umbrella Movement (people were using umbrellas to cover from tear gas). They were asking for the introduction of universal suffrage and current pro-Beijing Executive to step down. The protests lasted for 79 days and did not achieve any of its aims.
Overall HK voters can be divided in 2 large camps – Pro-establishment (pro-China) and Opposition (pro-Democracy). The support of Pro-China parties is estimated to be around 40% , leaving about 60% for democratic parties. However, due to the fact that the democratic sector is too fragmented and pro-China camp has few, but hugely concentrated party machines, Democratic parties are getting only around 40% of seats versus 60% of pro-China legislators.
Pro-democracy movement is divided into 2 camps competing with each other – mainstream democrats (which seek for determination of HK as part of China in a democratic way) and radical localists (seeking Hong Kong independence and blaming mainstream democrats for betraying the democratic movement).
This September elections into Legislation Council were the most crucial elections since 1997 in HK-China relations. It was extremely interesting to follow the election campaigns and news – with democrats attempts to centralize their efforts – figuring out the candidates with the highest potential; and withdrawals on the last days of elections of 5-6 candidates, asking people to give their votes for those more likely to win democrats. Or pro-establishment candidates travelling around the elderly houses and providing transport for old people to get to the pooling stations.
In the end, out of 70 LegCo members 30 were taken by the opposition (with 8 radicals and 22 main stream democrats) and 40 pro-Beijing members. The interesting phenomena is that HK people elected young people into the legislations, with 23 y.o. leader of Umbrella Movement being among of them, while the “middle road” candidates were left far behind. Hong Kong is not the only example of vivid radicalization of the society, coming from young generation mainly.
The most important implication of the result is that the opposition has gained the veto power in the parliament. This means that if pro-China government would decide to introduce some policy, it should receive the 2/3 of LegCo votes. Moreover, if it even decides to change the procedure of voting – it should get the majority of LegCo votes in both functional and geographic sector, which is now dominated by the opposition. Thus, the opposition now is able to stop any legislation from being passed.
However, what the result also means is that China, being aware of the ability of opposition to scrutinize any policy suggestions, the universal suffrage reform is not likely to be discussed during this 4 year term, making the situation more complicated.
Attitude towards Mainland China
Hongkongers are not happy with the status quo. According to the words of one of the locals, the huge capital being poured into HK economy from China, drives the property up high, making it not affordable for an average HK person to buy an apartment. The disparity in the society is rather vivid. 3 out of 7 million HK people live in public housing. There are people living in the underground pathways and remote poorly equipped apartments in the suburbs.
During my 3-week stay in Hong Kong, I met many local students in the university, I talked to locals in the streets and listened to the professors during classes – none of them was happy about HK being part of China and Chinese people living in HK as such, in some cases to a very radical extreme. People are fearing China imposing their policies and culture, tightening their freedoms. Yet, people do not find the independence of Hong Kong to be possible in the nearest future.
Many tourists from China come to Hong Kong for shopping, they arrive by train here and can be easily spotted by huge luggage in shopping centers, which they fill up with luxury items and go back to China. First I thought that those people with huge luggages in the shopping malls are some travelers, who are doing the last-minutes purchases before travelling. However, later I saw a woman to open a huge travel luggage full of other branded shopping bags and headed towards the next store. “Chinese!” – I thought.
Hongkongers say that Chinese do not always respect the rules that they have – often cut lines, drop litter in public spaces and etc. They laugh about Chineese madness about expensive Louis Vuitton bags, which costs much but actually has not that much of a value, as bags are made from artificial material. However, the bag has LV design encrypted all over the bag, so that anyone around could see the brand. Chineese, being a rather masculine society with a huge power distance trait and rather hierarchical social structure, boost their social status via luxury clothes and bags.
Interestingly, Hongkongers highlight that they do not understand Chinese, as Mandarin (Mainland China) and Cantonese (Hong Kong) are completely different languages. Yet, it is obligatory in Hong Kong in secondary school to study Mandarin and during the job interviews, Hongkongers are tested for the knowledge of Mandarine. After some talk, they do admit that they understand Mandarin, though are not very fluent speakers. I treat it as the reaction of self-defence from imposition of Chinese culture – from time to time the government has those random proposals of introducing the policy of teaching more subjects at schools in Mandarin or that people have to cry when listening to the national anthem. Though, the society is fast to react against such proposals.
From Hong Kong to Belarus
This is where the political activism in Hong Kong comes from, I guess. When you constantly have to monitor the government, which you did not choose, but makes the policies, which are applied to you directly. The situation in sort of similar in Belarus as well. Or at least I do not believe that the government and parliament are working to represent my interests, neither I believe and it was people of Belarus who chose them. Yet, what strikes me is the complete indifference towards politics, or even worse – ignorance…
Some photos of Hong Kong further and more about the reflection on current Belarusian situation later.