Acute Economic Inequality Underlies “Occupy Central” Protests in Hong Kong

Assistant professor Eli Friedman from Cornell University says working-class and union participation has increased in subsequent occupations

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

AP reported that riot police in Hong Kong arrested scores of demonstrators protesting the National People’s Congress ruling that there would be no civic nomination for chief executive elections in 2017. Rather, all candidates must first be approved by a nomination committee that is mostly selected by Beijing.

For the last month, there has been ongoing protest in Hong Kong under the banner Occupy Central. Let’s have a look.

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BENNY TAI, COFOUNDER, OCCUPY CENTRAL HK: Disproportionate force is used to—the violence used to—as against our own people, who are just demonstrating in wanting democratic rights for themselves.

The second demand is that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress should withdraw the decision on the electoral reform, which has blocked the road to genuine universal suffrage.

I am very proud of Hong Kong people that have that strong determination in wanting democracy, even to that extent that they do not fear tear gas and still able to adhere to the nonviolent principle.

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PERIES: Now joining us from Providence, Rhode Island, to discuss the developments in Hong Kong is Eli Friedman. Eli Friedman is assistant professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University.

Thank you for joining us, Eli.

Eli, what’s the character of Occupy Central, particularly the class nature of the protesters?

ELI FRIEDMAN, ASST. PROF. INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LABOR, CORNELL UNIV.: At this point it’s very diverse. I think it tends to be associated with more middle-class people, with students. And this has certainly been an important section of the protesters. But what we’ve seen over the past couple of days is that there’s been a diversity of occupations that have emerged around the city. So Occupy Central was originally named because they were going to occupy the Central Business District. But in fact there’s occupations which have taken place both, in Central, in Causeway Bay, which is a major shopping area, but also in the more working-class area called Mong Kok, which is in Kowloon, across the harbor from Hong Kong Island. And that particular occupation, of course, is drawing people from around the neighborhood. So in addition to the students, which have received a lot of coverage in the media, there are more working-class people joining. And there’s also been some involvement of unions, which I think is a very interesting development.

PERIES: And what kind of numbers are showing up to these protests?

FRIEDMAN: You know, it’s very difficult to say, because you see widely varying estimates. On July 1, which has been a day, a typical day of protest in Hong Kong for many years (July 1 marks the day that Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule), there were many tens of thousands [incompr.] probably more than 100,000 protesters. In subsequent occupations it’s varied a lot, but certainly many tens of thousands are protesting at any given time around the city.

PERIES: And so, Eli, Beijing must have known about the potential for this kind of reaction by way of protest of their decision. How are they reacting now?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. In fact, Occupy Central has been making this threat for a long time now that if Beijing’s ruling on the elections did not meet their standards for what they deem to be real elections, that they were going to engage in mass civil disobedience in the central business district. So this is not at all a surprise to Beijing.

They’re putting Beijing in a very difficult spot. If they crack down too hard, then this is likely to engender, I think, more sympathy from the general public, and certainly more sympathy overseas. And so they don’t want that to happen. On the other hand, if they don’t control the protests, then Hong Kong will continue to be sort of ungovernable. And so this is obviously a major problem for Beijing.

The central government has indicated that they’re not going to back down, that they’re not going to change the decision on the elections in Hong Kong. So it’s unclear what going to happen at this point. But in the meantime, things are certainly deadlocked.

PERIES: So I have seen several reports in AP and in Wall Street Journal interviewing some of the Occupy Central organizers. And they’re certainly making a demand that Beijing reverse their decision. Do you think that’s unlikely?

FRIEDMAN: I mean, they’ve been pretty explicit in Beijing that they’re not going to change their minds. But it’s impossible to tell. I think as these protests persist, as they begin to exact real economic damages in the city, and as they clearly are already having major political consequences for the city, that they may change. And there’s a precedent for this. In 2003, Beijing tried to push through an anti-subversion law in Hong Kong. Once again on July 1 there was massive protest. Hundreds of thousands of people came out. And because of this public mobilization, Beijing actually backed down and they shelved this anti-subversion law. So a lot of people, I think, are pessimistic, and they say well, the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t back down. Well, in fact, if you look at the historical precedent, they have. And so nobody knows how these protests are going to turn out, but it’s certainly a possibility.

PERIES: What’s the nature of the comparison, let’s say, between the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Central? What are some of the economic issues that they’re organizing around?

FRIEDMAN: Well, the obvious similarity, of course, is the tactic, which is occupying public space. I think, in terms of the tactical differences, one thing that’s interesting is Occupy Central—or at this point I think it should be called Occupy Hong Kong, ’cause there’s occupations in so many parts of the city—they’re actually occupying major thoroughfares; they’re causing much more disruption to the functioning of this city than Occupy Wall Street or any of the other Occupy [snip] in the U.S. ever managed. So that’s an important difference.

Another difference, I think, is their attitude towards electoral democracy. And what we saw in Occupy Wall Street is cynicism about the system of electoral democracy here in the U.S., this belief that both political parties are controlled by corporate interests, that most people don’t have any meaningful voice politics, and therefore the system of elections is not really going to be able to resolve that. In Hong Kong it’s actually quite different because they are using a sort of similar tactic, but what they’re trying to do is to win the right to have the kinds of elections that people in Occupy Wall Street are already—don’t really believe in anymore. So that is a major difference.

But a similarity underlying both of these is that, I think, both in the United States and in Hong Kong, and in many other countries around the world, most notably in mainland China, there’s this development where it seems like only very wealthy people can have a voice in politics. And so I think that as inequality has grown more stark in Hong Kong, people feel that more and more acutely. And given that they have economic pressures and they can’t address those because the political system is so tightly controlled by economic elites, I think that’s leading to a real sense of frustration.

PERIES: Right. Let’s get specific here in terms of the economic inequalities. We’re talking about a large number of young people that are unemployed. What are some of the other issues?

FRIEDMAN: Well, first, just in terms of wealth inequality, Hong Kong is perhaps the most unequal developed economy anywhere in the world, and certainly it’s even more unequal than is the case in the United States. So this is a major problem. And, yeah, for young people, they face many problems that people in the West are familiar with, which is a bleak job market. Unemployment is not as severe as it is in some places, say, in Southern Europe, but it is a concern. Even if you are lucky enough to get a job, people in Hong Kong work insane hours, some of the longest hours anywhere in the world. And the cost of living is astronomical. Hong Kong has some of the most expensive real estate, in terms of cost per square foot, anywhere in the world. I saw a recent report which said the only place that was more expensive is Monaco. So Hong Kong is significantly more expensive. Real estate is significantly more expensive there than it would be in, say, New York. So the idea of being able to buy a house, or even to pay rent on decent accommodations, is increasingly difficult. Costs for education and all these things have really gone up quite a lot. And part of the reason that the government hasn’t been able to do anything to address this is that some of the wealthiest and therefore most politically connected people in the city are real estate developers. And, of course, the situation is working out just fine for them, but it’s not for most people.

PERIES: And I understand that some of the business community is also participating in organizing and supporting the demonstrators.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. You know, it’s been an interesting dynamic. Initially, before things got really dramatic over the past few days, you had a number of business organizations, including the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, come out in opposition to it, very explicitly in opposition to Occupy Central. Some other major accounting firms and banks were sort of threatening and saying, you know, this is going to hurt Hong Kong’s economy and cause disorder, and basically people should just deal with less democracy.

But that’s at the organizational level. And I think if you go out and you sort of look at who’s in the crowd, in addition to students and workers there are a lot of people from sectors that you might not suspect, including from the financial sector. And I recently saw a group that was just started of people who work in finance, who are in support of greater democracy for Hong Kong. So, again, thinking about this comparison to Occupy Wall Street, one of the things that they’ve been able to do in Hong Kong really effectively is to build a broader sort of cross-class alliance to push for expanded democracy.

PERIES: Eli, thanks so much for joining us today.

FRIEDMAN: Thanks very much for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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