In Cantonese, spoken widely in Hong Kong, the double-entendre expression ‘Delay No More’—which the pro-democracy movement adopted as a slogan against the pro-Beijing establishment a few years ago—is more than a call to action. It’s a homonym for a profane Cantonese invective that suggests a complex (and very carnal) relationship with one’s mother. Pro-democracy activists in the erstwhile British colony who have long campaigned on the ‘one man, one vote’ platform to elect the chief executive of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) were in effect telling Beijing’s hand-picked leaders in Hong Kong to sod off.
Despite such colourful appeal, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement never quite acquired mass resonance in the way that the student-led movement of the past fortnight did. In a city of seven million, with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes (about $35,000), the ‘system’—privileging fat-cat moneybags—successfully convinced everyone that it was working just fine.
Even those at the other end of the income spectrum—who live in cages in run-down tenements because they cannot afford the sky-high rentals—were not stirred to launch protests. The annual march on July 1 (anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland) had become somewhat ritualistic; even the well-attended June 4 candle-light vigils at Victoria Park, commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, amounted only to a symbolic standing up to the overlords in Beijing.
So, the striking thing about last fortnight’s student-led Occupy Central protests (which spread to many other geographical districts) was that they actually brought such large numbers on to the streets, and for so long. It was a deep-seated symptom of a crisis in Hong Kong that goes beyond concepts of democracy and economics, to the very soul of the Cantonese people’s identity.
That identity, of an overwhelmingly Chinese people with very distinctive linguistic (and other cultural) markers, has been tested in recent years, with the economic rise of mainland China relative to Hong Kong and a tendency among increasingly assertive Communist Party leaders in Beijing to send out a message about who runs the show in the SAR.
With the steady rise of the Chinese currency, the Renminbi, particularly relative to the Hong Kong Dollar (which is pegged to the US dollar), the currency tide turned against Hong Kong and its people. A stronger Renminbi (vis-a-vis the HKD) meant that more of China’s 1.3 billion people could afford to hop across to Hong Kong, whose allure as a world city remains undimmed despite the rise of China’s gleaming megapolises in the last two decades.
Even as Hong Kong’s uber-rich property developers and retailers profited from the mainland Chinese ‘invasion’, tension was steadily building up. The tourists brought wads of Renminbi, but conducted themselves ‘indecorously’ and competed for Hong Kong’s services, setting off resentment.
That widespread resentment provided the tinder for the pro-democracy protests. Chinese leaders have effectively walked away from the spirit of the ‘promise’ of universal suffrage to the people of Hong Kong. The ‘one man, one vote’ principle counts for little if voters can choose only from among Beijing’s hand-picked nominees. And, as the protests reveal, an increasingly restive youthful population isn’t ready to trade away its soul in the way that an earlier generation did.
Mao Zedong once airily dismissed Hong Kong as a “pimple on China’s backside”. As the events of last fortnight showed, that pimple is likely to remain a pain in China’s butt even as this round of protests have petered out.
Venky Vembu is deputy editor, Outlook Traveller, and has served as a foreign correspondent in Hong Kong for eight years; E-mail your columnist: venky [AT] outlookindia [DOT] com