Commentary: ‘When you’re pushed around, what else can you do?’ – The dilemma of Hong Kong people in facing a big bully

Our friend the accountant is, typical of a certain sort of Hong Kong person, generally apolitical. Whatever else you might say about him, he certainly isn’t a rabble-rouser. But that was his sympathetic comment about Occupy Central: “When you’re pushed around, what else can you do?” To him, Occupy Central is a logical response to bullying: Either you back down and comply with the bully’s wishes, or you stand up to the bully- there isn’t much middle ground. In a nutshell, that is the dilemma Hong Kong faces at the moment—what to do with a big bully.

The accountant’s comment is representative of a certain sort of political awakening that’s occurred in Hong Kong over the last few months, largely amongst those who for whatever reason had little previous interest in politics. It really became noticeable after the CCP released its White Paper on Hong Kong in June. Suddenly on Facebook, we started noticing the apolitical friends we grew up with, the ones with whom we’d never had a political discussion, expressing concern and opposition: Hey, what’s going on here? they were saying. This is our city- what’s the CCP doing to it?

Accountants are not usually in the forefront of democracy struggles. In Hong Kong, accounting jobs have a reputation as relatively secure and well-paid, if not the most exciting. Many Hong Kong people have used careers in accounting and other of back-office work to climb the social and economic ladder. Our friend grew up in a public housing estate flat. He and the four other members of his family shared its 350 square-foot space. Now, thanks to his job, he has become a solid member of the middle class, purchasing a 700-square-foot apartment together with his wife for themselves and their two children. From 350-square-feet for five people to 700-square-feet for four people, plus a helper to look after the children, some disposable income, supporting his parents, and a plan to retire by the age of 50 to pursue more altruistic projects. That’s the trajectory of his success, and in this city of hard knocks, it’s nothing to sniff at. People like our friend have been too busy improving their lives to think about politics. Besides, why worry about things over which you have no control? You keep your head down, you work hard to improve your life and the life of your family. Apart from being upwardly mobile, he has continued the traditional attitude of his working-class parents to social and political problems.

The question for Hong Kong now is how much this is changing. To what extent are Hong Kong people still willing to agree to the tacit colonial bargain?: You shut up and work; we make the rules. Almost nobody regards the NPCSC decision with enthusiasm, but what will Hong Kong people do about it? To what extent do they believe they can do anything?

A recent Ming Pao opinion poll conducted from September 1 to 6, right after the August 31 NPCSC decision, had some interesting results. Overall support for Occupy Central increased slightly, up to 27%. (Support for Occupy Central has throughout turbulent recent months held pretty firm at around 25%.) 45% of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 support Occupy Central, and most young people, professionals and university graduates oppose the NPCSC decision.

On the other hand, 62% of people 50 or older oppose Occupy Central. Even there, the story is more complex if you talk with people. We recently had a conversation with a sixty-something retired homemaker. According to the Ming Pao poll, 63% of housewives support the NPCSC decision. In her ‘past life’, this woman very well may have as well. But since her kids have grown up, she has converted to Catholicism. Along with that has come a greater interest in the welfare of others. Rather than political activism, this takes the form of direct service, such as helping people at elderly homes. Still, she has a greater understanding of the need to make political improvements. She generally sympathizes with the goals of Occupy Central and voted in our referendum. When asked whether she would consider participating in Occupy Central nonviolent direct action, she said, “I don’t have the qualities.” By this, she meant the fortitude and courage to go out to the streets and risk arrest and prosecution.

From the stories of the accountant and the retiree perhaps we can glimpse beneath the bald responses to opinion poll questions to see some of the subtleties of where Hong Kong stands. Hong Kong people are overwhelmingly unenthusiastic about the NPCSC decision, and this goes even for those who say they support it: They do so not because they think it’s great but because they think it’s the best option given the circumstances. On the other hand, there are large numbers of young people, professionals and university graduates who oppose the decision. Amongst the ones who are relatively apolitical, there is greater skepticism than ever towards the CCP, especially in regard to its intentions towards Hong Kong.

Zhang Xioaming, the Director of the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong, was recently quoted as saying to Hong Kong people, “The fact that you are allowed to stay alive already shows the country’s inclusiveness.” Such statements repel our friend, the accountant. In attempting to force Hong Kong to accept fake democracy, the CCP alienates many, an alienation that could endure for generations to come.

So here we are: Very solid support of 25% for Occupy Central, over 60% of Hong Kong people preferring genuine universal suffrage, passive acceptance of the NPCSC decision from another considerable segment of the populace, other large segments more alienated than ever from the governing powers. It doesn’t look like a recipe for a smooth-functioning, fair political system. Apart from the era of resistance, perhaps a new era of disaffection has also begun.


The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Occupy Central with Love and Peace.