HK crisis: Lessons from the past

September 19, 2019 18:52
Hong Kong’s current unrest is an outcome of long-standing social and political grievances, especially among the younger generation. Photo: Reuters

Social unrest is an end result of accumulated public grievances. And once the fire of public fury is ignited, it is not easy to stop it from spreading.

Intriguingly, it appears Beijing leaders were actually able to foresee an underlying Hong Kong problem as far back as 2005.

At that time, the then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao reminded former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen about the “deep-rooted conflicts” in the city.

The deep-rooted conflicts which Wen mentioned 14 years ago refer to a set of structural issues in  society that include disparity between the rich and the poor, skyrocketing property prices and scarcity of land, as well as the lack of opportunities for upward social mobility among young people.

Unfortunately, over the years the Hong Kong administration, under the various chief executives, has failed to fundamentally address the deep-rooted conflicts in society, which have now come to a head this summer in the wake of anti-extradition bill movement.

Take the housing issue as an example. During his term in office as chief executive, Tsang intentionally reduced land supply and slowed down the pace at which new homes were built in an attempt to rescue property prices.

However, one of the unintended consequences of the measures was that during the second half of Tsang’s second term of office, there were signs that housing shortage was beginning to rear its ugly head.

Later, after Leung Chun-ying took the top job in 2012, his transport and housing chief Anthony Cheung Bing-leung devised a long-term housing development strategy under which he planned to provide an average 47,000 new homes per year over the coming decade.

Yet throughout Leung’s term in office, the amount of housing supply was never able to meet the proposed target. As a result, property prices in the city simply skyrocketed.

Then came the incumbent Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who set up the Task Force on Land Supply shortly after she took office in July 2017 in an attempt to tackle the housing issue head-on.

Yet again, as we can see, property prices have remained high over the past two years.

And that automatically begs the question: why were two governments unable to resolve the same housing issue over a span of seven years despite their massive efforts? Was it a structural problem or was it just a matter of incompetence on the part of the administration?

Besides, let’s not forget the fact that while housing shortage is undoubtedly one of the causes of the deep-rooted conflicts in our society, it would be a totally wrong diagnosis if one blamed the ongoing social turmoil entirely on the housing issue.

Taking a look at the five demands put forward by protesters, among which the demand for genuine universal suffrage is at the core, one can easily tell that what we are dealing with here is a mass political movement arising mainly from the citizens’ distrust of the central authorities.

That being said, in order to truly get to the root of the social tensions, the government must thoroughly and comprehensively inspect and examine the deep-seated elements that could have triggered the ongoing violence and chaos.

In my opinion, perhaps the SAR administration can draw some insights into how to address public grievances from what the former British colonial authorities did in the aftermath of riots more than 50 years ago.

Following the city-wide riots in 1967, the then colonial administration carried out a high-level review of the state of affairs in Hong Kong, and then embarked on a series of sweeping reforms over policies that related primarily to labor issues and communication.

Particularly, in order facilitate communication between the government and the local public, the Chinese language was, for the first time in the city’s history, given official status, and a system of nine-year free and compulsory education was also introduced.

In other initiatives, as the colonial government was in a disadvantaged position in terms of public opinion, authorities set up a news section within the RTHK in order to gain the upper hand in swinging public opinion.

Meanwhile, they also began organizing more public activities for the local youth in an apparent effort to provide the young people with entertainment opportunities and channel their energy, as well as holding other events to try to foster a sense of belonging among the people of Hong Kong and to enhance social cohesion.

And the rest is history: all these reform initiatives carried out by the British succeeded in restoring social stability and set the city on a course toward massive economic takeoff starting from the 1970s.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ contributor