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by Tom Grundy
Why are Hong Kong’s streets full of citizens marching for more democracy? This is why. Hong Kong can be described as a system of corporatism with democractic undertones – leaving out mere people.
Up to 400,000 of pro-democracy marchers protested last Sunday, as Chinese premier Hu Jintao inaugurated millionaire ex-property consultant Leung Chun-ying into office. They demanded full democracy and, in a show of solidarity with Chinese activists, condemned the recent crackdown on dissent in the mainland. Braving the intense heat, many nostalgic demonstrators even wielded British colonial flags.
Is Hong Kong heaven – for corporations? Yes. Milton Friedman has long believed Hong Kong to be the model success story of laissez-faire economics. In the eyes of the WTO, the ex-colony’s status as the world's freest economy is an ideal for the rest of the world to aspire to.
But in reality, the ‘capital of capitalism’ is anything but non-interventionist. The city today should stand as a warning to American libertarians and corporate defenders the world over. It stands as a true dystopian representation of ‘corporations as people’, as envisaged by American Republican candidate Mitt Romney and as enabled by rulings such as ‘Citizen’s United’.
Inequity in Hong Kong is immense. Although the territory has seen a huge growth in the number of millionaire residents, the local census Gini Coefficient shows inequality to be at its highest level for 30 years. As it celebrates 15 years of Chinese rule, the United Nations Development Programme states that the wealthiest 10 percent of the populace control more than a third of the city’s income, whilst the bottom 10 percent share only 2 percent. A meager minimum hourly wage of US $3.50 was only introduced last May and, with little corporate regulation or competition controls, a small handful of wealthy tycoons and their conglomerates reigns freely. This has resulted in Hong Kong having the worst inequality of all developed countries -- a fact that alone should make it a poster-child for the failures of ‘free trade’. Income disparity is only set to worsen, as the aging population and low birth rate give rise to an ever-shrinking workforce.
Meanwhile, the red-hot housing market, teeming with mainland speculative buyers, has become the chief cause of misery for many, as a tight oligopoly of property magnates are allowed to run riot. An estimated 5,000 people live in squalid, 15-square-foot ‘cage homes’ – tiny shoebox dwellings subdivided with wire mesh, often shared amongst a dozen other occupants. Not only does Kowloon boast one of the world’s highest population densities, but the rental market is also amongst the world’s most expensive -- with the poorest actually paying more per square foot than those in lavish apartments.
Signs of inequity and the effects of an inadequate welfare system are also visible on street level, with elderly folk rummaging through bins for recyclable items to sell an all too common sight.
But far from being the non-interfering entity Friedman admires, the inevitable poverty gap has forced the state to intervene massively in key sectors. 48.8 percent of the population resides in rental or subsidized-sale public housing and there remains a years-long waiting list. The average income of the bottom 10 percent stands at US $267 per month and, with no proper retirement protection system, few can afford private education or health care. All of these are therefore provided by the state along with sweeteners such as personal US $700 bail-outs to all residents this year, subsidized electricity bills and free public housing rent for 2 months.
Where Hong Kong certainly does fulfill corporatist fantasies is in the political arena. Full universal suffrage has long been postponed, in favor of a small circle of business groups agreeing upon new leaders -- with Beijing’s blessing. This practice gives CEOs and other special interest groups a level of voting power which is equivalent to that of tens of thousands of actual residents. In some 'functional constituencies,’ all eligible voters are legal entities rather than actual people! Corporations really are people in Hong Kong.
Would-be human voters in Hong Kong were deemed too ‘immature’ for full democracy during both the 2007 and 2012 Chief Executive elections. The acceptance of a standard of ‘One Person, One Vote’, as guaranteed by Article 45 the mini-Constitution, has now been deferred again to 2020.
Hong Kong’s previous leader, Donald Tsang, openly admitted before stepping down that laissez-faire economics had proven to be flawed. "I used to believe that different social stratums could enjoy the fruits of economic development as a result of the trickle-down effect. However, there were discrepancies between the theory and reality," he told lawmakers. Let the city act as a warning that the ‘invisible hand’ does not create social justice and those pushing for ‘small government’ will end up relying on the government to pick up the pieces and fill in the gaps.
An Uncertain Future
It is left to an already-disliked Leung to address income disparity, tackle the housing crisis and stem growing anger and mistrust of the Central Government, which is at a post-’97 high.
As for democracy, the city could so readily be a testing ground for greater freedoms across China – a democratic showcase which would prove to the state’s top brass that they have little to fear. When the Special Administrative Region’s five decades of autonomy finally expire in 2047, it is hoped that the mainland will bear a greater political resemblance to Hong Kong than vice-versa. It is only the tireless vigilance and value placed upon democratic freedoms by Hong Kongers which will prevent it from being the other way around.
:: photo courtesy of Leung Ching Yau Alex via Creative Commons license ::
Tom Grundy is an independent British journalist and activist who has been based in Hong Kong for seven years.