Lynette Ong on the Socio-Economic Context of the Hong Kong Protest

Lynette Ong is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, with joint appointment at the Asian Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs, where she currently serves as Director of Munk China Initiatives. Ong was an Wang Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies in 2008-09. She is also an expert in the politics and political economy of China. I also have expertise in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, where I grew up. My research interests are authoritarian politics, contentious politics and the political economy of development.

Her book, Prosper or Perish: Credit and Fiscal Systems in Rural China was published by Cornell University Press in 2012. It is the first book in the field to highlight the perils of mounting local government debt and non-sustainability of the “China model”. Written in the late 2000s, the book underscores many political-economic issues currently facing China, such as rising debt levels, and over-reliance on banking resources to finance local infrastructure spending.

Her journal publications have appeared or are forthcoming in Perspectives on PoliticsComparative Politics, International Political Science Review, Political Studies, China Quarterly, China Journal, Journal of Contemporary Asia, among others.

Her recent writings are on state control and citizen activism in China, specifically the government’s effort to maintain social stability. She is now writing a series of articles on outsourcing of state repression by the Chinese government to market agents. For instance, see forthcoming articles in Perspectives on Politics and China Journal

She also co-authored research forthcoming in Political Studies examines what drives people to protest in an authoritarian country, by drawing upon a nationally representative survey in China.

She is also undertaking a large project on protest and land politics in China, as part of the government’s effort to promote urbanization, which is one of the largest mankind has ever witnessed. I am also working on a comparative project on land politics in China and India. See forthcoming article in the Journal of Contemporary Asia. Ong's writing on urbanization in China has been featured in the New York Times and the Economist. Her research on the concept of “thugs-for-hire” received attention from the New Yorker in 2014. Her opinion pieces have appeared in a range of media outlets, including Foreign Affairs, Washington Post, New Mandala and East Asia Forum. I have been invited to give testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on China’s Banking System and Access to Credit”.

She received her PhD from the Australian National University and an MA in Development Economics from Sussex University in the UK.

Yinghe Mei CMC' 21 interviewed Lynette Ong in November 2019. 

Could you give a brief overview of the 2019 pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong and how it is different from ones in the past?

Mass protest in HK is a quite recent phenomenon, starting in the last ten years or so. Before that, one can argue that HK people are generally political apathetic. It is a highly commercial city, so political activism is not on the top of people’s mind for a long time. However, in the last decade or so it has changed, because the “one country two systems” had been promised under the Basic Law was not fulfilled, especially universal suffrage, which people have been asking for.

The anti-extradition bill movement in 2019 is fundamentally different from the Umbrella movement of 2014 in several ways. First, it’s a broader-based movement. Umbrella was largely led by intellectuals and some young students, like Joshua Wong. But this one includes a wide range of people, a very heterogeneous group of participants. You see young people who are at the fore-front, and there are also groups of teachers, mothers, bankers who had come out to support the movement. Second, the 2019 movement is a lot more fragmented.  It is both violent and non-violent. The minority, estimated to be around a few thousand people, takes a more radical approach,. The two groups disagree on the strategies and tactics employed, but oftentimes, they balance each other out. Over time, people found out that non-violent strategies, despite their attractions, are not sufficient to grab the authority’s attention and effectuate any meaningful outcome.

Latest developments since October suggest excessive and unjustified police brutality has backfired, instead of intimidating people. Police violence has hardened young people’s resolve to seek justice and to press for greater political freedom. In fact, the backfiring started with thuggish attacks at Yuen Long station, premediated and mobilized by pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong. As my research has argued, illegitimate and illegal violence such as that perpetuated by hired thugs, spark moral outrage and motivate greater mass participation in movements. That was a defining moment of the movement, I’d argue.

Most people who go out to do vandalism burned MTR stations and shops are either very idealistic or have nothing to lose. By nature, they are more likely to be young students who are either ideologically very committed to pro-democracy cause or materially very deprived. However, it’s not fair to say that only people with a lower socio-economic status would go on the street and resort to violence. I was listening to the Podcast “This American Life.” They interviewed one of the people who participated in vandalism and violent conduct. This guy has a Canadian residency, and he is from, at least, middle class. So, I would say that the profile is a little more complex than that.

Hong Kong has one of the world’s highest levels of income inequality with low social mobility. Meanwhile, technological development has changed the demand of future job market, decreasing the number of high-paying job opportunities in Hong Kong. How do these problems contribute to the rise of youth-led protests in Hong Kong in recent years?

I think this is a very tricky question because it is like asking whether the Arab Spring is caused by rising unemployment. On the surface, there is a relationship – high income inequality and economic grievances give rise to protest. But it is very difficult to isolate the effect of political grievances. The protestors had put out the “Five Demands,” and housing is not one of them. We cannot firmly assert economic grievance is the driving factor behind escalating protests. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find no relationship either. What we need now is a lot of data do rigorous analysis on such a correlation.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been cultivating ties with Hong Kong’s business elites by offering them favorable economic access to the mainland. What has been the role of the tycoons in the governance of Hong Kong since 1997? What are their stances during the current crisis?

The tycoons are divided into two groups. One group is pro-Beijing and the other is more independent. People like Li Ka-shing belong to the second group. Overall, during the British colonial period, the British administrators basically left the economy to the tycoons. The administrators adopted a hands-off, laissez-faire approach that basically let the tycoons run the economy. This is why Hong Kong’s income inequality has always been higher than that of some comparable countries like Singapore. However, the rule of law and the judiciary system were being held up pretty well, and the economy was growing and the pie enlarging, wealth creation and increased economic prosperity was generally shared among the Hong Kong people. People were generally contented with their lives. However, with the erosion of the rule of law and economic slowdown, a free market economy without government intervention to redistribute to the lower strata of the society becomes highly problematic . I think this is what has been happening in the last 20 years or so with rising income inequality. The rapid growth of mainland China and ability of some mainland cities to take over traditional economic roles of Hong Kong have exacerbated the process of economic polarization.

In her televised policy address last week, Carrie Lam promised to provide affordable public housing, reclaim some private land and offer more cash allowances to low-income residents. Will addressing some of Hong Kong most pressing socioeconomic issues help defuse the crisis and restore the city to normalcy?

I don’t think these policies would be effective in the short-term. The protestors have asked for a lot of things that they consider as immediate urgencies, such as independent investigation on police violence, but all the government was saying is that they “may consider.” There is police brutality taking place on a daily basis, but the government is not willing to conduct due investigations. I think issues like this might be the real immediate solution compared to housing. 

If Carrie Lam had tried, at her very first press conference, to pacify the people and maybe to agree to independent police investigations, try to meet one or two of the five demands, the protests would have been quelled earlier.

Beijing’s strategy right now is waiting for the protest to cool down itself when Hong Kong becomes economically worn out as a result of the protest. Right now, Hong Kong is plunging into a technical recession, mostly hurting retail businesses like hotels and restaurants. If rents don’t come down, you can expect higher unemployment. I’m sure some people will be victimized. But whether or not that would stop people from going out on the street, I’m not very sure. If you believe that economic grievances are driving the protest, I think high unemployment is only going to drive more people out onto the street because, again, they have nothing to lose.

Will the introduction of greater democracy, a key demand of the protesters, help address some of Hong Kong’s socioeconomic problems?

I think it is quite important to get the nature of the demands right. My understanding is that the protestors are not actually asking for independence. Their primary demand is universal suffrage, which is promised in the “one country to systems” and the Basic Law. Presumably, if the chief executive is popularly elected and received the acknowledgement from the majority of the Hong Kong population, I think overall there will be a better social order. However, whether or not such moves will lead to restructuring of the economy is a tricky question. A democratic government is popularly elected, but we also see rising income inequality in the United States and other Western countries. Therefore, democracy does not really promise better income distribution

Since the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, the mainland and Hong Kong have seen significant economic integration and cultural interactions, especially with tens of millions of Chinese tourists visiting the city each year. What has been the impact of these developments on Hong Kong people’s identity?

For a large majority of Hong Kongers, their Hong Kong identity is much stronger than the Chinese identity. There are several dimensions to this issue. Identity is a very complex question, but I think it’s fair to say that Hong Kong people feel increasingly different from mainland Chinese. The crackdown and these protests have a lot to do with that. With greater integrations between Hong Kong and the mainland after 1997, you have more wealthy mainland tourists and business people coming to Hong Kong, spending or investing a lot of money and contributing the GDP. But they are from a slightly different culture, behaving differently from the Hong Kong locals. There is also an influx of very well-educated mainland students studying and working in Hong Kong, getting into elite universities and taking up high paying jobs. When Hong Kong’s economic growth is slowing down relative to the mainland, Hong Kong people would feel that the pie is already shrinking, and why do I need to give up some shares of the pie to people from Mainland China. Thus, we have seen the movement of writing in vernacular Cantonese, attacks on people who speak Mandarin etc. These are signs of diverging identities.

In terms of economic integration, Hong Kong’s participation in the Greater Bay Area project only makes sense if the regional economies the project is bringing together is complementary. With the continued erosion of the rule of law in Hong Kong, a lot of what is unique to Hong Kong has become substitutable. Many multinational corporations have front-end marketing and back-end logistic support in Hong Kong and factories in other parts of China.

For example, it the proposal of the Greater Bay Area needs people who speak English, an Internet free of control and good infrastructure, cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou have good infrastructure and have a lot of people who speak reasonably good English. However, if Hong Kong’s situation keeps getting worse and its system converging with the mainland, at one stage companies will consider relocating their marketing and logistic support offices to Shenzhen. Therefore, Hong Kong people actually have a negative outlook for this project because chances are the project will take away Hong Kong’s prosperity. The important thing here is to preserve what makes Hong Kong unique – a commercial hub that has the rule of law and proper judiciary that actually differentiate itself from Mainland China.

Yinghe Mei CMC'21Student Journalist

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