A Long List of Hong Kong Grievances Faces Carrie Lam's Review

Eric Lam
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A Long List of Hong Kong Grievances Faces Carrie Lam's Review

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced Wednesday that she’d undertake a review of the root causes of citizens’ discontent as part of her efforts to satisfy angry protesters, in addition to withdrawing the extradition bill that helped spark the movement in June.

It’s a long list.

While protesters have five demands ranging from amnesty for those arrested to direct leadership elections, pro-democracy and pro-establishment forces have cited a wide range of issues fueling public discontent. Several are rooted in the financial and political system set up before the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.

Here’s a look at some underlying causes that a review might find:

Economic Disparity

Many of Hong Kong’s societal pressures can be traced back to living space. In short, there’s not much of it. Hong Kong is consistently ranked the world’s most expensive real estate market owing to persistent low interest rates and a lack of adequate supply in both the private market and in public housing. What land and property is available is controlled by the city’s business tycoons and their families, exacerbating the related issue of wealth and income inequality for the majority of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents. The result is a pressure-cooker situation that governments, both before and after the city’s handover, have left largely unchecked.

Unresponsive Politics

Calls for universal suffrage are a holdover from the 2014 Occupy movement, which ended without resolving its defining issue -- Beijing’s requirement that it vets chief executive candidates before a public vote. The extradition bill exemplifies many of the issues residents have with the city’s government and appointed chief executive, who pushed the legislation forward despite widespread public opposition. While lawmakers on the city’s Legislative Council are elected, the body doesn’t have the power to propose legislation. Instead, a system guaranteeing seats to industry and commercial sectors cements establishment control. The government compelled the courts to remove several pro-democracy members in recent years for various violations.

Mainland Divide

A significant cultural gap remains between the city and mainland, including that most people in Hong Kong speak English and Cantonese, rather than Mandarin Chinese. China introduced the “one country, two systems” principle during the 1997 handover, promising 50 years of significant autonomy for the financial hub. The question of what will happen to Hong Kong after 2047 -- and whether its semi-autonomy will survive until then -- percolates under the surface of most interactions between Hong Kong and China. The list of complaints by the public includes everything from parallel traders, who cross the border, buy up Hong Kong goods and resell them on the mainland, and even the behavior of crowds of mainland visitors, which some locals see as impolite.

Distrust of Authority

Lam is now the most unpopular leader in Hong Kong’s history, a track record unlikely to see substantial improvement as many view the chief executive position as beholden to Beijing. Hong Kong’s police also have come under scrutiny for their aggressive actions as the protests escalated, including the use of tear gas in a subway station and, more recently, officers firing off live rounds. Public confidence in the police took a hit after a July attack on protesters by those with suspected ties to triad gangs in the Yuen Long train station, with police criticized for failing to prevent the beatings. Lam hasn’t agreed to set up an independent inquiry into police conduct, and the existing Independent Police Complaints Council is viewed skeptically.

Discontented Youth

The demographic hit hardest by the combination of these issues is, arguably, Hong Kong’s youth. Many are unable to move out of their parents’ homes because of the city’s unaffordable housing market, and most are destined to get jobs that will never pay them enough to be able to buy a home. What brings young protesters together “is a shared sense that there is no future for them in Hong Kong,” according to Ho-Fung Hung, a professor in political economy and a China expert at Johns Hopkins University. With a perception that they have nothing to lose, the start of the school year is unlikely to divert their attention.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric Lam in Hong Kong at elam87@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Karen Leigh, Jodi Schneider

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