TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong, China’s Freest City, Grapples With Political Reform

HONG KONG-CHINA-DEMOCRACY
Demonstrators rally against the Occupy Central movement to show their support to the Hong Kong government in Hong Kong on July 15, 2014. Hong Kong's government has unveiled its vision for electoral reform as public pressure for democracy grows and activists pledge to take over the city if their demands are not met Philippe Lopez—AFP/Getty Images

An official, 100-plus-page report to Beijing on Hong Kong's political development is unlikely to satisfy the city's increasingly frustrated democracy activists, but Hong Kongers are beginning to tire of confrontation

Two weeks ago, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers — perhaps even hundreds of thousands, depending on whose estimates you believe — marched for the right to nominate candidates for the city’s top job. Civil nomination, as it’s locally known, would make Hong Kong the only place on Chinese soil with such a free and open manner of choosing its leader.

On Tuesday, they were flatly told by their current leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (or “C.Y.,” in the Cantonese fashion for abbreviation), that future Chief Executives would not be elected that way. Instead, there would be incremental changes of the existing system, under which candidates are put forward by a nominating committee and then voted on by an electoral college (which presently consists of just 1,200 establishment types but could be expanded). This method of doing things, Leung said, represented “mainstream opinion” in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s democratic camp was livid. “We’re pretty disappointed — we’re pretty angry,” Johnson Yeung, an activist with the Civil Human Rights Front, which organizes the annual July 1 protest march, told TIME on Tuesday night. “The Chief Executive is telling lies about the majority of society. The majority of people support civil nomination.”

Leung was speaking on the release of the findings, which will be submitted to Beijing, of a five-month public consultation on the city’s constitutional development. The process was made up of town-hall meetings — between nervous officials and often fractious members of the public — and a review of written submissions from individuals and groups, of which nearly 125,000 were received. As a view-gathering exercise, it was undeniably thorough and when Leung says that it has “truthfully collected views of the people of Hong Kong,” he isn’t just politicking.

At the same time, reformists claim — also with some justification — that their voices deserve more prominence. Besides the support for civil nomination expressed on the July 1 march, they also point to an unofficial, civil-society-backed referendum in June in which nearly 800,000 people voted on their preferred methods of choosing their leader, with civil nomination being involved in each of those methods. Leung only indirectly referred to the march and the referendum in his report — referring to views other than those that have been officially gathered is a rookie political error when dealing with Beijing, and yet they remain glaring lacunae in the eyes of many.

The truth about what Hong Kong people want is, of course, more nuanced. There can be little doubt that Hong Kong’s well educated, sophisticated and forward-looking population would like as much say as possible in determining how the territory is governed. But at the same time, the number of those who have the appetite for a protracted political confrontation with Beijing must be very few. And confrontation it will be, for the simple fact that civil nomination is not permitted under Hong Kong’s miniconstitution, known as the Basic Law, which came into effect when Britain returned sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Say what you like about China, but it is a scrupulous observer of formal agreements.

Hong Kongers — sober, decent, pragmatic and hardworking — are mostly not the sort of people who gravitate to the barricades and the streets. Neither do they need to be made aware of the political realities of having China as a sovereign power, for the simple fact that postwar Hong Kong has only ever existed with China’s permission. In the 1960s, the local joke was that Mao Zedong could send the British packing with a mere phone call.

With that vast, brooding power lying just over the Kowloon hills, tiny Hong Kong’s style has always been to play China cleverly — to push where it can (in matters such as education and national-security legislation, where it has won important battles) and to back off where it cannot. When establishment figures talk of having, as Chief Executive, “a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong” it is coded speech, referring to somebody who is a master of that game and who is not like, say, Leung Kwok-hung (no relation to C.Y. Leung) — a radical legislator who hurls objects around the debating chamber and who once set fire to the Chinese flag. The election of somebody like Leung Kwok-hung to the position of Chief Executive would be the only excuse Beijing needs to employ repressive machinery far beyond anything Hong Kongers have imagined. The threat of the Occupy Central movement to bring Hong Kong’s financial district to a standstill if its demands for civil nomination are not met will also play beautifully into Beijing’s hands.

A compromise is being offered. Within the constitutional report’s prose are certain suggestions that, while subtle, would mark unprecedented concessions on China’s part, should the National People’s Congress approve them. Namely, C.Y. Leung calls for some amendments to the structure of the controversial nomination committee, which vets potential candidates for the Chief Executive election, that may render it a more democratic grouping.

“I see that as a concession. I see that as a position that allows for a democrat to get through to the election,” says David Zweig, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “General public nomination — it’s not going to happen. It can’t comply with the Basic Law.”

And that, in the end, is the peculiar agony of Hong Kong — to be a city of politically mature individuals that was simply handed back from one sovereign power to another, without any consultation, unable to determine its fate. Today, it is culturally, legally, historically and linguistically distinct from the rest of China, but it will never be able to parlay that into greater autonomy than what it presently enjoys. It will always be a subject territory.

It turns out that many Hong Kong people only want to get on with their busy metropolitan lives and are O.K. with that. They do not want to choose between democracy or death, and that political realism is itself an important milestone. In that sense, when C.Y. Leung said, “Today is a historical moment in the constitutional development of Hong Kong, we will be able to leave our differences behind in a rational and pragmatic way,” he was absolutely right.

With reporting by P. Nash Jenkins / Hong Kong

TIME China

How Transformers 4 Became the No. 1 Film in Chinese History

A 21-foot tall model of the Transformers character Optimus Prime is displayed on the red carpet before the world premiere of the film "Transformers: Age of Extinction" in Hong Kong
A model of the character Optimus Prime is displayed on the red carpet before the world premiere of Transformers: Age of Extinction in Hong Kong on June 19, 2014 Siu Chiu—Reuters

It's not as simple as a national appreciation for universally scorned movies

The latest film in Michael Bay’s Transformers series was largely set in China, had its premiere in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong and is now the highest-grossing film in the country’s history, having earned $222.74 million in ticket sales in less than two weeks.

It dethrones James Cameron’s Avatar, which made slightly less when it premiered in early 2010.

Given that critical reaction to Transformers: Age of Extinction has been almost conspiratorially negative across the board — Richard Roeper called it “relentless,” and not as a compliment; Peter Travers at Rolling Stone refused to give it even one star — much of the coverage of its success in China has been, well, pretty darn condescending: “Chinese people are dazzled by anything Hollywood, etc.”

The reality is more complex. If the bar of cinematic quality is indeed set lower in China, the tastes of its 1.3 billion people aren’t necessarily to blame. The Chinese Communist Party is exceedingly picky about the films screened in the country, especially in the case of foreign cinema; so if a movie does well, one can ultimately thank the government.

The long and the short of it: Bay made a movie set and filmed in China, starring Chinese actors, using Chinese resources and pushing Chinese products, and in exchange, the movie gets a timely premiere across the country’s 18,000-plus movie screens.

And timely is the operative word here. According to a diligently researched report from Quartz, Transformers: Age of Extinction is one of the few Western blockbusters to arrive in China contemporaneously with its premiere in the U.S. and elsewhere — thereby minimizing the market opportunity typically seized by bootleggers hawking pirated copies and so boosting box-office sales.

Some critics have scoffed at the outcome of the necessary negotiations, though, calling it at best clumsy — one overt product placement features a man in the middle of Texas withdrawing cash from a China Construction Bank ATM — and at worst just plain shameless — as car robots terrorize semiautonomous Hong Kong, one policeman insists on “[calling] the central government for help.” But as China’s box-office market is the largest outside of North America, and expected to usurp the U.S. as the biggest in the world by the end of the decade, Mr. Bay, we can assume, is laughing all the way to the bank.

TIME movies

Transformers Is Making More in China Than in the U.S.

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, humans, from left: Bingbing Li, Stanley Tucci, Jack Reynor, Nicola
Transformers: Age of Extinction Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The film made $134.5 million in China in its first five days

Hollywood’s appeal to foreign markets has officially paid off.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is more popular in China than it is in the United States, Variety reports. China Movie Media Group, a partner in the production, said Tuesday the film has made $134.5 million in China during its first five days of release, compared with $121 million in the first five days.

The film brought in $10.5 million in the U.S. on Monday and $10.4 million on Tuesday, so it’s unlikely it will match China’s figures after Wednesday’s grosses are tallied.

But the film isn’t only popular in China compared to its U.S. sales. It also destroyed the record for a China-Hong Kong production in half the time of the previous movie, The Monkey King, which grossed $133 million over 11 days. Transformers: Age of Extinction is even on track to surpass Avatar’s record $217.7 million in China, according to China Move Media Group.

Hollywood movies rarely perform better in foreign countries than they do domestically. It’s especially rare in a protectionist market like China, the No. 2 film market, which often takes great pains to protect local productions.

But in this case the success doesn’t seem so surprising. Paramount Pictures went to great lengths to appeal to a Chinese audience. The company shot parts of the film there, cast Chinese star Li Bingbing in a lead role and partnered with local companies to help promote the film.

This was the first time China Movie Media Group, the country’s largest distributor and film promoter, partnered with a U.S. studio.

Previous Transformers films brought in about $165 million in China.

[Variety]

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s People Are Left Wondering How Long They Will Have to Wait for Genuine Democracy

Civil Human Rights Front Gather For July 1st Marches
Protesters hold banners and flags as they march during the annual pro-democracy protest on July 1, 2014 in Hong Kong. Anthony Kwan—Getty Images

The answer, if Beijing has its way, is a very long time indeed

Two and a half years ago, at a polling station in Taipei, I met a man from Hong Kong. It was the final day of what had been a hard-fought race between Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s Kuomintang, which wanted closer ties with the People’s Republic of China, and the more independence-minded opposition. What did the man from Hong Kong think?

He said he was not there to protest or politick; he was interested in the process itself. He flew in on his own dime to bear witness to democracy being exercised, and to take notes. To him, Taiwan represented the possibility of full democracy in Greater China. Hong Kong would get its chance, he said, and it would be ready. It was only a matter of time.

It has now been 17 years since the Union Jack was lowered over Hong Kong and this former colony returned to Chinese sovereignty. Under a political conceit known as “one country, two systems,” the city was told that its day-to-day way of life — common law, unfettered communications and all the rest — would remain unchanged for 50 years. But on matters of state, such as security and foreign policy, Hong Kong would be beholden to Beijing.

The forced marriage of Asia’s Manhattan and a highly repressive, one-party nation has always been an awkward one. Hong Kongers did not choose it. But in Beijing’s “two systems” provision, many of them were lulled into thinking that Hong Kong and China were to enjoy a sort of parity; to them, the emphasis on the territory’s new designation as China’s “Special Administrative Region” fell very much on the first word.

Beijing has never seen it that way. To the grandees of the Chinese Communist Party, the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 righted a historical humiliation suffered at the hands of British opium merchants, and the autonomy Beijing was prepared to grant Hong Kong was a civic autonomy only. It certainly didn’t amount to the de facto independence that many Hong Kongers still yearn for.

Beijing has made its position consistently clear — most recently in a white paper on its relationship to Hong Kong, in which it emphasized its “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory, and in an ill-timed editorial in the state press exhorting Hong Kongers to show more patriotism.

“It’s like they own us,” says Fion Leung, 27, who took part in a massive pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on July 1, timed to coincide with the anniversary of China’s resumption of sovereignty. “It’s like Beijing owns us now and they never asked us — Britain or China, nobody asked us anything.”

The hundreds of thousands who marched on July 1 — some are calling it Hong Kong’s biggest political protest in a decade — are left wondering just how long they will have to wait before somebody asks them how they would like to shape their city’s future. They are frustrated with a lot of things, from land-use policy, and a border with mainland China they regard as far too porous, to freedom of the press, appalling income inequality and a lack of social mobility — the latter an especially distressing development for a people raised on entrepreneurship and the examples of the city’s rags-to-riches billionaires.

Most of all, these politically sophisticated and well-educated citizens are outraged that they still have to agitate for these issues to be addressed, instead of being allowed to resolve them through a genuinely democratic legislature and through a leader who has a popular mandate. Nearly 800,000 Hong Kongers vented their constitutional frustrations in a recent informal, civil-society backed poll on how the city’s top official, known as the chief executive, should be elected. (The post is currently filled by a 1,200-strong electoral college of mostly pro-Beijing voters.) Local authorities refused to recognize the results. China’s state-backed press dismissed it as a farce.

The July 1 protest was meanwhile largely peaceful, though it ended with the arrest of several hundred people, mostly students, who occupied parts of the city’s financial district overnight. The Hong Kong government struck a cautious response, telling media that it respected people’s right to protest, but holding firm against the idea of allowing the public to nominate chief-executive candidates in 2017 — a key demand of many demonstrators but a red line for Beijing.

Across the border, nightly newscasts played up the small, pro-China celebrations taking place on the same anniversary but chose not to mention the massive street protests. On much of the country’s social media and search engines, the term July 1 was blocked. The Hong Kongers who hoped that the city’s freewheeling ways would, after 1997, light the way for a more tolerant and open China have been taken by surprise by a Communist Party more determined than ever to control every tweet, post and program that mainlanders see. The believers in “one country, two systems” never took into account Beijing’s ability to game the system. Both systems.

TIME Hong Kong

Police Arrest 511 People at Hong Kong Democracy Protest

HONG KONG-CHINA-POLITICS-DEMOCRACY
Policemen remove protesters in Central district after a rally seeking greater democracy in Hong Kong on July 2, 2014 Philippe Lopez—AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators at the annual rally were calling for voting rights

Updated: July 2, 2014, 1:05 a.m. ET

Chinese authorities in Hong Kong have arrested over 500 protesters who took part in a sit-in to demand electoral freedom, in the city’s Central district in the early morning hours of Wednesday.

The demonstration, held on the anniversary of China’s resumption ofsovereignty of the former British colony in 1997, was described by some as the largest such rally in a decade, the BBC reports. Tens of thousands of protestors joined a massive march to push for democracy.

Police said 511 people were arrested Wednesday for unlawful assembly and preventing police from carrying out their duties, according to the Associated Press.

Organizers claimed that about half a million people participated, while police placed the number at closer to 100,000.

After a march earlier in the day, hundreds of protesters staged a sit-in in the central financial district, which police deemed “unauthorized,” leading to the arrests.

Facing annual protests by locals, Beijing has promised to introduce universal suffrage in Hong Kong by 2017, though how that will be implemented remains to be seen.

[BBC, AP]

TIME China

WATCH: Large Crowds Rally in Hong Kong for Democracy

Marchers endured baking heat and heavy rain to demand more democratic rights

+ READ ARTICLE

Clarification added, July 2, 2014:

Almost 100,000 pro-democracy protesters marched through Hong Kong on Tuesday during an annual rally to mark the anniversary of the territory’s return to China in 1997.

Mass demonstrations have taken place annually on July 1 in Hong Kong for more than a decade. But this year the territory’s discontent has shifted significantly against mainland China — and stems from many residents’ fears that Beijing is curtailing Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“I think Beijing is trying to tighten the controls of democracy in Hong Kong. But I think it’s a type of war game,” said Gary Sik, a financial consultant from Hong Kong who took part in the demonstration.

The protest comes after an estimated 800,000 votes were cast in an unofficial referendum on how the territory’s top leader, the chief executive, should be elected. Citizens in Hong Kong are not allowed to nominate candidates for the position; candidates are chosen by an electoral college that is largely seen as sympathetic to Beijing.

And public nomination rights are what protesters like Janice Yeung, a 27-year-old secretary from Hong Kong, are pushing for.

“Just like other countries, Hong Kong is a developed city — an international city. So I think Hong Kong should decide our future by [ourselves] — and not by Beijing or any other people,” she said.

Clarification: Hong Kong police estimated the number of protesters at 100,000, while the protesters put it at several times that figure.

TIME Asia

In Hong Kong, Tens of Thousands March for Democracy

HONG KONG-CHINA-POLITICS-DEMOCRACY
Demonstrators walk on their way to join a pro-democracy rally seeking greater democracy in Hong Kong on July 1, 2014 Philippe Lopez—AFP/Getty Images

July 1 marks 17 years since the former British colony became a Chinese Special Administrative Region. Calls for popular representation are growing ever fiercer in the freewheeling metropolis

When typhoons begin to lash along Asia’s coastlines each midsummer, Hong Kong usually manages to escape serious damage, since storms in the South China Sea tend to lose their muster over the Philippines and Taiwan by the time they make landfall. Some locals will cheekily boast that the city, constructed across an archipelago and on a peninsula extending south of the Chinese mainland, is protected by an invisible dome that blocks out these tempests.

But weathering political storms may be a different story for the former British colony, now a semiautonomous territory under the controversial domain of the Beijing government. On one hand, inside this proverbial dome a vibrant society enjoying free press and rule of law has flourished alongside — or rather, within — the last superpower on earth to describe itself as a communist state. On the other, some conflicting visions of this duality have spurred a more existential political unhappiness in Hong Kong, one that some believe is approaching boiling point.

On Tuesday, up to 500,000 people are slated to march on the city’s central financial district, in what in years past has encompassed myriad domestic grievances while commemorating the official end of British rule 17 years ago. This year’s protest, however, forms the loudest testament yet to mounting opposition to just one thing: China.

“We have waited for democracy for so long, but year after year it’s been bad news,” 21-year-old Lee Kan-tat, a liberal student activist, said on Tuesday morning in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, where the march starts.

The call of the day — and, for some political dissenters, of the past five years — is for “universal suffrage.” Beijing has agreed to enact electoral reforms, most importantly the direct election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive — the territory’s highest office — by 2017, but only from a list of preapproved candidates who must be “patriotic.” Nearly 800,000 Hong Kongers voted in an unofficial plebiscite that ended on Sunday and instead called for open nominations. Beijing deemed that referendum illegal.

“The message from Hong Kong is very clear after the referendum,” added Lee, “800,000 people have spoken, and an overwhelming majority believe that the legislature should veto any reform proposal that doesn’t meet international standards.”

At present, there are 3.5 million registered voters in this Special Administrative Region, but virtually none of them have ever cast their ballot in the quinquennial elections for the Chief Executive. The position is instead appointed by a 1,200-seat election committee, whose decision ostensibly reflects both the wishes and interests of the people of Hong Kong.

Critics of the system — and there are increasingly many — scoff at this presumption. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s hundred-plus-page de facto constitution, the majority of seats on the election committee are occupied by individuals hailing from Big Business and various professional sectors, with only a small fraction reserved for legislators directly represented by the people. Some point to this as a plainly and conspiratorially pro-China endeavor.

“The government created a system that is deliberately complicated,” says Emily Lau, the chairwoman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, with marked bitterness. “The corporations don’t want to upset Beijing — they need China to do business. So they elect pro-Chinese candidates. It’s all ‘money, money, money.’”

Within Hong Kong’s ideologically popular but politically fragmented pro-democracy camp, Lau and her party represent the moderate minority that believes some tapered form of “universal suffrage” is compatible with the current electoral system structured by the Basic Law. In other words, the existence of the election committee needn’t necessarily inhibit popular choice; what, Lau wondered aloud, if the latter had a role in determining the makeup of the former?

This isn’t to say Lau and her fellow moderates have sympathy with the pro-Beijing side. Lau, whose seat in Hong Kong’s legislature gives her an ex officio position on the election committee, has chosen to abstain from voting in past Chief Executive elections.

“It’s pointless to take part,” she says. “If you take part, you legitimize it.”

Given Beijing’s trademark stubbornness when it comes to amending Hong Kong’s constitution, Lau’s moderate stance may encourage the most pragmatic course of action. Say what you will about the Chinese government in Hong Kong, but it’s there to stay: Lau made a point to gesture outside her window to the 28-story headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army, just across the road from her office in the Legislative Council Complex.

But pragmatism doesn’t always prevail, and reactionism tends to be radical. The past five years have seen the rise of pro-democracy student groups that view a complete upheaval of the current election system as the only option, and any who oppose such a solution as traitorous to the cause of building a democratic Hong Kong.

For many of these activists, any gesture of political compromise with the Chinese government is a further sacrifice of Hong Kong’s autonomy. A civil-disobedience movement called Occupy Central threatens to paralyze the city’s main business district later this month, naturally incurring Beijing’s wrath. (Immediately after the July 1 march, a prominent students’ group is planning a rehearsal sit-in.)

“More and more young people are aware of the disappointments and failures of the Chinese central government,” says 22-year-old Johnson Yeung, convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organizes the July 1 protests. “We believe that civil disobedience is the best means of fighting for democracy.”

This sentiment of extremism has all but hijacked the pro-democracy stage in Hong Kong, with mixed results. While the “civil disobedience” endorsed by Yeung and the thousands marching through downtown Hong Kong on Tuesday has given an unprecedented voice to the city’s discontent with Chinese rule, it also threatens to intensify the political hostility coming from Beijing that prompted the discontent in the first place.

Last month, China released a white paper condemning the intensified push for democracy in Hong Kong, calling the understanding of the “one country, two systems” policy here “confused or lopsided,” as by definition it only operates at the behest of Beijing. On Tuesday morning, a pro-democracy group burned a copy of this document in protest.

“The radical [pro-democracy] choice is loud, and potentially destabilizing,” says David Zweig, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “China feels its sovereignty has been infringed upon. But it has all the authority it wants — there’s nothing to stop it. It’s their territory, and they know that.”

TIME Hong Kong

Here’s What Keeps Asia’s Richest Man Awake at Night

Li Ka-shing Inequality
Li Ka-shing stands for a photo during the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy award ceremony in New York on Thursday, October 20, 2011. Bloomberg/Getty Images

Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing disclosed to graduating students at China’s Shantou University the chief reason for his insomnia: wealth inequality.

“So why am I sleepless in Hong Kong?” Li, the world’s 15th richest man, posed in his commencement address. “I fear that widening inequality in wealth and opportunities, if left unaddressed could fast become ‘the new normal.’”

Indeed, in Hong Kong (and worldwide) the rich have become richer, the poor only poorer. The city-state has the highest growth of millionaires, yet nearly one-fifth of its population lives in poverty. Li’s net worth, now $34.5 billion, has increased nearly 50% since 2010, while the average household income of Hong Kong’s poorest 10% in 2011 fell by 16% since 2001.

Aside from Li’s sleeplessness, wealth inequality is also fueling Hong Kong’s annual Occupy Central movement, scheduled for July, in which demonstrators are blaming Chinese politicians — who select Hong Kong’s chief executive — for Hong Kong’s skewed wealth distribution.

One measurement of income equality is called the Gini coefficient, which measures the dispersion of income across a nation’s residents: the higher, the more unequal. Hong Kong has the world’s 12th highest Gini index; in 2011, the Hong Kong government logged the highest Gini index since it began recording the score in 1971:

Hong Kong Gini Coefficient 1971-2011
Half-Yearly Economic Report 2012, Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

While Li’s commencement speech is laced with ostensible irony — he is, after all, Asia’s richest man — his urging of students to promote economic equality is derived from his own philanthropy. He’s known as “Superman” to his fans, and not just for his staggering wealth: Li has made nearly $2 billion in charitable donations, the majority towards education reform.

Still, Li has said that while he supports democratic reform, he does not support Occupy Central, which he estimates will cost at least HKD 1.6 billion if the protest disrupts business for just one day. Instead, Li proposed in his address that the Hong Kong government must introduce “dynamic and flexible redistribution policies that can strike a fine balance between the need to promote equity and economic objectives.”

Li is chairman of Hong Kong-based investment holding company Hutchison Whampoa.

TIME Aviation

It Sounds So Last Century, but Cabin Crew Are Still Hassled by Sex Pests

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Getty Images

From Coffee, Tea or Me? to The Swinging Stewardesses to the Singapore Girl. For years, books, movies and marketing campaigns have sold us the story that flight attendants are sexy girls who serve, not working men and women. Years of organizing and activism has helped alter this perception and has dramatically improved working conditions in many parts of the world. But decades after Continental promised to “move our tails for you,” there are those who still feel free to return an attendant’s smile with a wink and a leer — or even a casual grope.

Thankfully, legislation is slowly changing that. Last week, Hong Kong became the latest jurisdiction to take action on the issue after officials proposed an amendment to the territory’s sexual-harassment laws that would make sexual harassment of service providers illegal, even if it happens outside the territory. Under the Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Bill 2014, airborne sex pests would face civil action in Hong Kong courts. “Some people think they can run away from their actions — well, maybe they can’t run away anymore,” says Dora Lai, who heads the flight attendants’ union for local flag carrier Cathay Pacific. It’s a far cry from the 1970s, when the airline used to market itself with a nudge-nudge play on its code: “Try CX. You’ll like it.”

Though all this may sound like an improbable 1960s throwback, in-flight harassment is an enduring, industry-wide problem. Global stats are hard to come by because such behavior often goes unreported, or may be logged as an in-flight “incident.” But veteran flight attendants with international experience say it is a semiregular occurrence and an unfortunate fact of the job. The new rules in Hong Kong, for instance, follow a survey by Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunity Commission, which found that 27% of Hong Kong flight attendants reported being sexually harassed in the past year.

Statutory protection is a step in the right direction, but is still limited in scope. In drafting their proposal, Hong Kong officials looked to existing laws in Canada, New Zealand and Australia — a small slice of the travel pie. Some markets still lack harassment laws, many the will to enforce them. And it is notoriously tough to pursue claims against someone who may live and work elsewhere.

Part of the problem is that in-flight offenders are emboldened by a perception that they will not be called out. Airlines are certainly not the only place where this happens — creeps and criminals are universal — but there is something about flying that seems to bring it out, says Kathleen M. Barry, author of Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants. “There has always been that sense that there is something distinctive about being on an airplane, it is a space apart, away from your family, removed from normal constraints of a service relationship.”

Airline marketing has not helped. In 1974’s Sex Objects in the Sky: A Personal Account of the Stewardess Rebellion, Paula Kane observed a link between the rise of sexy ad campaigns (“Fly me”), salacious depictions of stewardesses and real-life, one-the-job harassment. Her businessmen customers felt entitled to a “pinch or a pat.” Some still do.

Today, few would venture to grab a bank teller’s breast, or to casually show a shop assistant or receptionist part of their anatomy without expecting consequences. But both still happen in-flight, cabin crew say. One Chinese employee for a German airline told me in an email how the mere act of pouring a beverage — a humdrum part of the job — prompted one passenger to joke about ejaculating on her. (Fearing repercussions at work, she asked to withhold her name.)

Flight attendants have led the charge to change the industry. Bolstered by the civil rights movement and feminist activism, workers at U.S.-based airlines successfully campaigned for an end to things like age and weight limits and the requirement that stewardesses stay single. They also fought for better pay and benefits. In doing so, they helped changed the perception that working on an aircraft is somehow not real work at all.

Current conditions vary widely across regions and carriers. The International Transport Workers’ Federation last year called out the United Arab Emirates and Qatar for “flagrant abuses” of aviation-workers’ rights (including restrictions on marriage and pregnancy). Hong Kong–headquartered Cathay Pacific has a strong and vocal union, but flight attendants in mainland China cannot organize. Major Chinese airlines still have height and age requirements. At a 2011 recruitment pageant, prospective hires had to walk a runway in swimsuits and were evaluated on the shape of their legs.

Of course, it is not really about what recruits wear, or how they look, but about power. Flight attendants could wear potato sacks and still get hassled. Stopping would-be offenders means showing passengers and staff alike that abuse will not be tolerated, says Heather Poole, an industry veteran and the author of the bestseller Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. “There’s a reason foreign carriers like to keep their flight attendants young,” she says. In her experience, young people, who often have less job security, may be hesitant to speak up.

When, as a rookie, she was groped by a passenger in first class, she fled to the galley and did not report it. “I had just started flying, and I didn’t want to lose my job by causing a problem with an important passenger,” she recalled in an email. “I still don’t [know] who I’d go to for something like that. The union? Human resources? A 1-800 number?”

For Hong Kong–based crew, at least, the new rules may provide some help. And at least the issue is being discussed. But tackling the problem globally will require all jurisdictions, and airlines, to step up. Not to mention passengers. “I’d suggest that any person with a propensity to act out in this manner consider traveling as if their mother is sitting next to them,” Poole says. “An 18-year-old new hire may handle a situation differently than a flight attendant with 10 years’ seniority and a black belt in Taekwondo.”

Creeps: consider yourself warned.

TIME Hong Kong

Are Hong Kong’s Democracy Activists Chasing an Illusory Goal?

HONG KONG-CHINA-POLITICS-DEMOCRACY
Demonstrators supporting the Occupy Central movement display placards asking Hong Kong residents to cast ballots for the June 22 referendum on three proposals outlining rules for the Chief Executive election, during a protest outside Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong on June 11, 2014 PHILIPPE LOPEZ—AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kong's Occupy Central movement is forcing a showdown with Beijing on democratic reform. There appears to be little hope of winning

On Sunday, Mary Cheung, a business executive, braved the steamy weather, and the labyrinthine passageways of Hong Kong University, to cast her vote in an unofficial plebiscite on the city’s democratic future organized by activist group Occupy Central With Love and Peace.

The nonbinding character of the poll failed to dampen her excitement. “The government says this vote is illegal, but what law are we breaking?” Cheung asked, while waiting at the university’s polling station — one of 15 set up across the city. “This is our chance to make our voices heard. We want true democracy.”

Since Friday, when the referendum began, about a 10th of Hong Kong’s population has cast its vote, either in person like Cheung, or online. Voters are asked to express a preference for one of three options that detail how nominations should be made to the territory’s top position, the Chief Executive (CE). Presently, an electoral college of 1,200 proestablishment figures selects the candidates, but many in Hong Kong want candidates to be publicly nominated by the city’s 3.5 million registered voters, and all three referendum options allow for that proposal — much to Beijing’s ire.

Beijing has granted what it sees as an important concession, allowing the CE to be directly elected (if not directly nominated) by voters in 2017. China’s leaders have also learned to tolerate a certain degree of dissent in Hong Kong since they regained control of the semiautonomous territory in 1997. Tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters take to the streets each year on the anniversaries of the Tiananmen Massacre (June 4) and China’s resumption of sovereignty (July 1). Occasionally, vocal discontent leads to the ouster of a particularly unpopular local politician, or the shelving of a contentious issue.

The ongoing plebiscite, however, is viewed as a more serious challenge to China’s power. What Beijing fears, above all, is that if Hong Kongers are allowed to freely nominate CE candidates, the slate will become filled with figures opposed to the Communist Party, such as popular local firebrand Leung Kwok-hung — a radical legislator more at home on the barricades than in the chamber, who shouted “Long live democracy!” at his swearing in, and who once set fire to the Chinese flag. The fear that somebody even half as radical as Leung could get elected is why Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the National People’s Congress Law Committee, stated last March that future CE candidates must “love China” and not confront the central government.

Adding to Beijing’s concern is the Occupy Central movement itself — a sort of redux of the all-encompassing Occupy protests that took place in Hong Kong and other major cities around the world in 2011 and 2012, but this time with a specific focus on the issue of public CE nominations. The group has vowed to bring the financial district of Hong Kong, known as Central, to a standstill if its core demand — that there be “no unreasonable restrictions on the right to stand for election” — is not met. The occupation will take place in July or August.

“They’ll try to remove us with tear gas and water cannons, and we’ll get arrested,” says Benny Tai, one of Occupy Central’s three leaders. “But we’re ready, we’re not going to resist.”

Tai, an associate professor of law at Hong Kong University, sparked off the movement last January when his article “Civil Disobedience Is a Weapon of Mass Destruction” appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal. The idea was simple: because Central’s street are so narrow, densely packed and traffic-choked, it would only take few thousand people, perhaps even a few hundred, to paralyze one of the world’s great financial centers by staging a sit-in. “Our goal is to win bargaining power,” says Tai.

It is a quixotic aim. Beijing would regard it as a supreme loss of face, if it was forced to the negotiating table by a group of slogan-chanting democracy activists. Party officials, fearful of copycat protests erupting all over China, would simply not allow the precedent to be set. The only possible outcome, therefore, is the surrender or forcible removal of the protesters, either by the police, or — as has been darkly hinted at in recent weeks — by the People’s Liberation Army garrison, if needs require it.

Beijing has already fired its warning salvo. Earlier this month, it released a white paper affirming its “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory and stating that “the most important thing … is to maintain China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.” Many interpret the timing of the document’s release as a warning to the Occupy activists.

While the proposal for a publicly nominated CE has broad support in Hong Kong, the same cannot be said of the sit-in. Some are worried the demonstration could be hijacked by violent elements. The owners of downtown businesses — the area is home to luxury hotels, banks, brand-name boutiques and exclusive malls — are making contingency plans and fretting over the impact that the protest will have on trade. The Hang Seng Index suffered its sharpest fall in three months on Monday, spooked by the potential of political instability.

Occupy Central’s fiercest antagonist, however, is the former government broadcaster Robert Chow. He and his organization Silent Majority — a vaguely ironic title, given that Chow was known as an outspoken daytime talk-show host — commissioned a study that found that a blockage of Central’s main thoroughfares would, in well under an hour, cause massive traffic tailbacks, sealing off vehicular tunnel access to the Kowloon peninsula and effectively cutting off the southwestern district of Hong Kong Island, which is home to nearly half a million people. (The amateurish and hilariously overblown video they made to publicize this scenario probably doesn’t do them any favors, however.)

“What about the ambulances, fire trucks, police cars, or if someone goes into labor and can’t get to a hospital?” asks Chow. “I tell parents of school children that we’re not black people in Alabama struggling against segregation. Because a couple of thousand people want this, the rest of Hong Kong should sit on their asses and say nothing? This is a democracy!”

Nominally, that is true. Hong Kong still enjoys the democratic rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law, including the right to assemble, the rule of law, free speech and universal suffrage. However, Emily Lau, a Hong Kong legislator who has come out strongly in favor of Occupy Central, expresses the common fear that these privileges may be evaporating.

“Compared to mainland China, this is Disneyland — but the question is for how long?” she says. According to Lau, the legal avenues for voter reform are about to be exhausted. “The thing is: What else can we do? People want reform, not revolution, but we’ve held so many rallies and marches. I know [Occupy Central] is effective because [the idea of it] has upset so many.”

At the same time, many doubt that ordinary Hong Kongers — much like ordinary people anywhere — will commit an act of civil disobedience for the sake of an electoral principle. A poll in October showed that only 25 % supported the Occupy Central movement, and much has been made over the fact that the three options put forward to the public at the referendum were selected from a broader group of proposals by just 2,500 core activists.

At the polling station in Hong Kong University, voters expressed their support for the sit-in, while hesitating over whether they would participate themselves. For Mary Cheung, the referendum itself was a powerful message. “The government may cover their ears and eyes,” she says, “but this is like a fire —they can’t get away from the smell.” That’s true. But fires can get extinguished — sometimes rapidly.

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