Stale wage levels, high property prices and business cronyism have angered many turning up at the Occupy Central protests
This being Hong Kong, one of the most iconic faces of the past 10 days of pro-democracy protests has been that of a Piaget watch.
Ringed with gems, the watch has kept fixed time on a massive billboard above the protests in Harcourt Road, where the Occupy Central movement has brought the thoroughfare’s usual flow of trucks and taxis, and of goods and shoppers, to a standstill. It is an incongruous backdrop to black-clad protesters and the raised fists of their leaders.
Hong Kong is full of images of wealth. While the protests here have been mostly political — demonstrators want to be able to freely nominate and vote for the city’s leader, instead of choosing from a list of candidates screened by Beijing — they also have an economic component, reflecting the struggles of the city’s squeezed middle class.
“We don’t see good prospects for our future,” said Katie Lo, 21, a university student pursuing a degree in social work and the daughter of two office workers.
Sitting against a median divider in Harcourt Road on a cool Monday morning, Lo listed her chief grievances: wages are low and rents are high. She wonders, she said, how she and her boyfriend will afford to move out of their parents’ homes and rent a place together.
“Over the years we’ve had a lot of rallies to solve all these social problems, but the government is not elected by us, so they do not listen,” she said. “I want a government that listens to me.”
The candidates for Hong Kong’s next top leader — who has the fittingly boardroom-like title of “chief executive” — are set to be vetted by an electoral committee perceived as loyal to two allied groups: China’s ruling Communist Party and Hong Kong’s financial elite.
“Hong Kong is in a bind: the economy is dominated by a few tycoons closely affiliated with the aristocratic families of the mainland regime and with the mainland regime’s Hong Kong puppet regime,” says Carsten Holz, an economics professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, in an email to TIME.
Indeed, to the protesters pitching tents in Hong Kong’s streets, a committee flush with red capitalists and oligarchs is all but certain to put up a list of chief-executive candidates disinterested in fixing worsening social ills here: rising property values, middling wages, and a sense that good jobs are best won through nepotism and cronyism, not ability.
“The nominating committee is not going to allow someone who promises a redistribution of wealth to get elected,” says David Zweig, a professor of politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“But the chief executive has an enormous amount of power, and the legislature has almost no power,” he says. “So, if you’re going to overcome all these social injustices, you’re going to have to elect a chief executive who is in touch with the majority of the people.”
Hong Kong’s protesters are mostly young — a flyer passed out in the protests one recent evening urged volunteers to donate not just food, but specifically “biscuits, chocolates preferred.” They are also mostly middle class, the sons and daughters of bank managers and teachers, and they aspire to have at least what their parents’ have, if not more.
But that’s not guaranteed: “Where has my dream city gone?” as one sign posted around protest sites puts it.
Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, went from index 0.518 in 1996 to 0.537 in 2011, according to government figures, giving Hong Kong the highest level of income inequality in the developed world. (The Gini index in the U.S., home to Occupy Wall Street, was 0.477 in 2011, according to U.S. census data.)
“The young people of Hong Kong are very worried that the Hong Kong their parents knew is not going to be the Hong Kong to which they grow up,” says Zweig.
A top concern is Hong Kong’s real estate market. The government owns almost all the land, and it is widely perceived as favoring high-end developers in leasing it. Those builders are seen as trotting out tiny properties for millions of dollars, and, if rich buyers — largely from China’s mainland — seem undaunted, listing the next offering for even more.
But as housing prices have gone up, real wages have remained flat. Properties here are the least affordable in the world, with the median home costing 14.9 times the median household income in 2013, according to a Demographia International Housing Affordability report. Plus, homes in Hong Kong are on average the smallest of the studied housing markets, the report said.
The housing problem is also getting worse: The South China Morning Post reported last month that average housing prices reached an all-time high in July — the third consecutive month that prices had set a new record. This summer, it cost an average of $652,475 to buy a 431-sq.-ft. flat on Hong Kong Island.
“The young people feel helpless,” says Paul Yip, a professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong, adding that fresh college graduates expect to spend at least a decade living with their parents before saving enough to get a flat of their own.
Meanwhile, the Economist this spring ranked Hong Kong No. 1 in its “crony capitalism index,” out of 23 economies where the magazine said politics and business had their hands deep in each other’s pockets. Indeed, when student demonstrators first walked out of classes two weeks ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping was meeting in Beijing with about 70 of Hong Kong’s biggest tycoons, whom he called “old friends.”
“The protesters see the collusion between the government and the business sector,” says Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. “And they think, if we could choose our leader, we could end that collusion.”
That’s the hope of Sunny Cheung, 18, a university student who was skipping class for a second week on Monday to sit at Causeway Bay’s protest camp. Protesters there had a week earlier put up a sign that said: “Hong Kong Is Controlled by the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and the Capitalists.”
“The wealthy control all of Hong Kong,” said Cheung.