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A growth economy is cracking

The Economic Roots of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Globalization and the Rise of China
The Hong Kong demonstrations in 2014 may have been as much about a lack of economic opportunities as a lack of democratic rights.


It was huge and unprecedented in recent times when tens of thousands of young people, armed with yellow umbrellas, settled in tents in the middle of Hong Kong's traffic hubs four years ago. The 28. September 2014, the Umbrella Movement was formally launched when it found a one-year-old movement Occupy Central with Love and Peace with dissatisfied high school and college students. 

When the movement was at its peak, around 100 000 mainly blocked young people's main traffic years in the always busy city. At the end of December 2014, there were still a few steady camps left in front of the government building. Remaining stickers and graffiti on the anonymous concrete walls and roadways reminded that for a period the traffic had been shut down and the anti-authoritarian impulses among a generation that had otherwise been subjected to both promises and demands for progress. 

Since the 90 years, the skepticism of capitalism has increased, with its promise that anyone who wants to become something big has the opportunity.

A large area in front of the government building, meanwhile, had been barred by mobile metal fences and the message "As directed by the Legislative Council Commission, the designated demonstration area and the Legislative Council Square are closed temporarily". The order had been restored. 


Just as the Umbrella Movement had a long history, no one has yet seen the full extent of the social unrest it catalyzed. IN The Economic Roots of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong sociologist Louis Augustin-Jean and historian Anthea HY Cheung argue that the protests in 2014 originated in the increasing inequality of the million-town, which especially affects the younger generations. 

They present the data with caution, reservations and care, and in several places they emphasize that the Umbrella Movement cannot be read as a criticism of the Hong Kong economic system as such. Nevertheless, they document that dissatisfaction has been increasing since the inception of the 1990s – especially among young people – and the same is true of skepticism about capitalism's promises that anyone who wants to achieve something great and work hard for it has the opportunity to reach their target. 

The young people who were left in the tents at the end of November 2014 radiated the kind of inflexibility that comes from the lack of alternative. In fact, in the literal sense, they had no place to go if they packed up. According to Augustin-Jean and Cheung, young people can sign up as number 70 001 in the queue if they want access to social housing in Hong Kong, and the private real estate market is now financially out of reach for the vast majority of city residents whose real wages have fallen over the past decades, while money has been concentrated on ever fewer hands. 

Growth without growth

Hong Kong's economy has never stopped growing, but growth is getting less and less for the better. One of the country's biggest sources of revenue, tourism, has begun to be primarily a nuisance, and only to a small extent, an income generator. Each year, a number of tourists enter the city state, corresponding to eight times the population. Tourism created more than 100 000 new jobs in Hong Kong between 2002 and 2012, but primarily for unskilled or low-skilled, and not jobs like the well-educated young Hong Kongers who grabbed or can get the umbrellas.

Real wages have fallen in recent decades, while money has been concentrated on ever fewer hands. 

The Hong Kong dollar is locked to the US dollar and has therefore fallen in value, not least compared to the mainland Chinese currency, where almost half of Hong Kong's tourists come from. Their purchasing power has therefore increased accordingly, and it is using those in Hong Kong to buy luxury products imported into the country. For the same reason, tourism does not significantly benefit the local economy. By contrast, it creates a dynamic where, for example, the number of cosmetic stores has increased by 1500 percent from 2004 to 2013, while the number of grocery stores has decreased by 30 percent. 

This development benefits a small economically – and politically powerful – elite. The authors' point, therefore, is that the umbrella movement's demand for democratic rights cannot be separated from the question of the decor of the economy. Indeed, it has never been only Beijing's resistance that made Hong Kong unsuccessful in democratic governance. 

Global Political Economy

The local economic elite has been, and is, sitting firmly on the political power, and does not intend to relinquish it. The elite may well figure out – argues the two economists – that if the population gets to say more, they will start demanding economic redistribution and public social benefits. It will destroy Hong Kong as a playground for the big capital. 

Until the start of the 1990, Hong Kong had such an advantageous position in the global political economy that most people had reason to believe in the narrative of social mobility and equal opportunities in the free market. But nothing is what it was – especially mainland China is not what it was. While Hong Kong once formed the connection between the mainland and the world, the city is now just one of many Chinese metropolises that are prevalent globally in everything from financial speculation to shipping. 

For the most part, around 100 blocked 000's protested main arteries in the ever-busy Hong Kong.

What role Hong Kong should play in the future is an open question. And some suggest that the city's young residents have no intention of leaving it up to the economic and political elite to decide the case. Several of the central figures of the Umbrella Movement still play important roles in Hong Kong's political opposition, both in the open arenas and in the political underpinnings, which are concentrated, among other things, on small, independent bookshops with study circles in subversive literature. 

The Economic Roots of the Umbrella Movement provides no answer as to what the future may bring, but in turn solid prerequisites for understanding why a sudden stir came in one of the world's most successful metropolitan cities.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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