As the Occupy Central movement heads into its final act, it is important to understand that there is something larger than universal suffrage at stake. Look more closely at this so-called New York of Asia and you will see a strong connection between the recent demonstrations and diminishing human security in the city.
Human security is a widely cited paradigm that emerged in the 1990s. According to the 1994 Human Development Report, “human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life—whether in homes, in jobs or in communities.” Later, Professor Jorge Nef, provided with a fivefold classification, in which the basic components of human security: (1) environmental, personal, and physical security, (2) economic security, (3) social security (4) political security, and (5) cultural security. Although sometimes criticized as a vague and all-inclusive concept, human security has been a key player in addressing the global security challenges of the post-Cold War era.
Look at Hong Kong’s performance in the five categories and it comes as no surprise that Hongkongers feel frustrated. Although the city enjoys a reputation of being rich and business friendly, its people face widening income inequalities, environmental degradation, and gradual suppression of their liberties.
The biggest threat to Hong Kong human security is the widening gap between economic elites and the majority of the population. A year ago, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying released a report which indicated that in 2012 one fifth of the population (1.3 million) were living below the poverty line. The Gini coefficient, a common measure of income disparity, has been above 0.5 for Hong Kong since the mid 1990s, and in 2011 reached 0.537, a record high. One should keep in mind that for analysts, 0.5 is the threshold for very high income inequality and 0.4 suggests the potential for social unrest. The economic security of the majority of citizens is further undermined by a wide range of market distortions. Contrary to its reputation, Hong Kong is not a free market, at least when it comes to domestic trade. Tycoons dominate the economy while cartels control major sectors such as transportation, supermarkets, and electricity.
Economic disparity is closely linked to a housing problem, another major source of economic insecurity in Hong Kong. The city is the second most expensive real estate market in the world with an average home price exceeding HK$4 million ($515,000). Despite measures to cool the market, low interest rates and inadequate supply have seen the house price index surge 241 percent over the past decade. With an annual median household income of HK$270,000, the possibility of owning their own home is increasingly out of reach for the majority of citizens. It comes as no surprise, then, that many young people are choosing to delay marriage and stay with their parents, with significant socio-economic implications. Meanwhile, according to recent reports, in 2011 some 90,000 households were poorly housed while more than 50,000 people were living in 1.9-square-meter coffin-sized metal sleeping compartments, the infamous cage homes.
Environmental security in Hong Kong is undermined by air pollution, ironic as the name of the city literally means “fragrant harbor.” Air pollution has been spiking since the late 1990s and, based on a study conducted by the University of Hong Kong, it was responsible for more 3,000 premature deaths in 2012. Again, air pollution does not affect everyone the same way and according to Professor Anthony Hedley, who headed the research, higher death rates were observed among lower income groups. It needs to be stressed that although China’s economic development and Pearl River Delta have long been blamed for the environmental degradation of Hong Kong, this is only partly true – transportation and street level pollution are equally responsible. The government has recently undertaken a series of initiatives and undersecretary for the environment Christine Loh Kung-Wai pledged a “dramatic improvement” in air quality over the next five years. For the foreseeable future, however, citizens of Hong Kong will need to endure low visibility and soaring cases of asthma and bronchial infections.
Although universal suffrage in 2017 election is the centerpiece of recent demonstration, this is not the only threat to political security Hongkongers face. In March 2012 students took to the streets to protest the government’s decision to introduce a Moral and National Education (MNE) curriculum, a compulsory subject for Hong Kong national schools that praises the communist and nationalist ideology of China. In July that same year, 32,000 angry Hongkongers participated in a 10-day protest that forced Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to back down and promise that MNE would not be mandatory in his current term.
Moreover, although Hong Kong operates political and legal systems that are independent of mainland China and that include freedom of speech, the independence is hardly rock solid. During the past two years Beijing has been turning the screws on Hong Kong’s press, putting political and economic pressure on media companies. A 2012 survey by the Hong Kong Journalist’s Association revealed that 87 percent of journalists felt that press freedom in Hong Kong had deteriorated significantly, up 29 percent from 2007. Worryingly, attacks on journalists have increased and a series of resignations or dismissals of media employees have been linked to China’s bid to control Hong Kong media. In early 2014, following the dismissal of a commercial radio host who was an outspoken critic of the government, 6,000 Hong Kong journalists rallied over declining press freedom.
Two months after the protests erupted in Hong Kong, it is only a matter of time before the Occupy Central movement comes to an end. When that does happen, it is unlikely that it will have succeeded in its goal of ensuring genuine universal suffrage for the 2017 elections. But the movement could still play an important role, if it raises concerns and mobilizes the people of Hong Kong behind a larger cause, their human security.
Stratos Pourzitakis is a PhD student at Hong Kong Baptist University, Department of Government and International Studies. He studies under the scholarship of the EU Academic Programme in Hong Kong and his research focuses on EU-East Asia relations.