Hong Kong Is the Most Cyberpunk Place in the World
Protests are not just about Beijing—they’re also about Hong Kong’s tycoons
The simple story of the Hong Kong protests—tens of thousands of people camping out and demonstrating in the city center—is one about an uprising against Beijing’s attempts to stifle the city-state’s democratic aspirations.
That’s true. But the conflict also pits thousands of Hongkongers against the city’s millionaire tycoons. What it’s not—at least not yet—is Tiananmen Square redux.
Hong Kong is one the world’s few liberal authoritarian states. It’s liberal in the sense that Hongkongers have freedom of speech and expression.
The city-state has a separate legal system from China—and an independent judiciary—based on British common law. But Hongkongers don’t vote for their own leaders.
“Hong Kong is the most cyberpunk place in the world—it really is,” says David, a Hollywood finance agent based in Hong Kong. He asked we not use his surname.
It’s not just the skyscrapers and neon signs per Blade Runner. The actual governance of the region falls to a small group of oligarchs elected by a business association and supported by Beijing.
The protests reflects the weird and complicated situation of an authoritarian government in Beijing—that prohibits free speech—dealing with demonstrations in a semi-autonomous city-state that allows free speech, but does not allow any influence in the government.
How does it work? Hong Kong elects its chief executive from a committee of 1,200 members of various business consortiums. It’s a corporatist model, with the most powerful groups belonging to the financial and real-estate sectors.
Think of it as a rotating door of government and business executives. To put that in perspective, only 689 people voted for Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in 2012. That was a majority of the votes cast in the election.
“The tax structure here is almost non-existent,” the agent says. “There’s no dividend tax, no gift tax, no death tax, no property tax. Basically, any tax you can think of does not exist. The government makes all its money from land sales at incredibly inflated prices to these tycoons—who happily pass that cost onto the consumers.”
As a result, the city has one of the highest levels of income inequality and the second highest real-estate prices in the world. The most expensive house on a per-square-foot basis in the world? It’s in Hong Kong. The house altogether is worth more than $105 million.
These extreme economic distortions have a lot to do with the fact that Hongkongers don’t have a voice in how they are governed. Making matters worse, Beijing recently reneged on a deal to provide more democratic powers.
As part of the handover deal with the United Kingdom in 1997, Beijing agreed to allow Hongkongers to directly elect their chief executive beginning in 2017. But this year, Beijing announced that a new committee comprised of the same business consortiums would first nominate the candidates for the position.
In other words, the popular vote would just be a formality on the same, anti-democratic system.
“So all of this comes down to a question of how do we make this governance better?” the agent says. “This entire protest situation would probably not be happening at all if the Chinese government had just put in charge some incredibly effective technocrats.”
“But it didn’t happen,” he adds. “They just keep the tycoon oligarchy in power, and it just keeps shrinking the size of the pot for the majority of Hongkongers, and it’s definitely made people angry.”
The protests began when a student coalition occupied a government plaza on Sept. 22. Then on Sept. 29, police used heavy-handed tactics such as tear gas and water hoses against another crowd in downtown Hong Kong. The protests exploded as tens of thousands of people emerged, outraged at the use of force.
The protesters are encamped in three hotspots—one in front of the government headquarters, another in the central financial district an another on the Kowloon peninsula.
The protesters are well-organized, although there’s no central command and there’s at least three independent protest groups—Scholarism, Occupy Central and the Hong Kong students’ union.
Trash is swept away in an orderly fashion. Protesters text each other through the Firechat app, which uses peer-to-peer “mesh” networking to transmit messages directly—bypassing communications hubs.
Beijing does not control Hong Kong’s Internet and has no apparent method of shutting it down at the ISP level. Cell towers and other hubs are easy to monitor—and Firechat could be used to evade censorship if Beijing blocked the city’s 3G network.
But for now, Firechat is a means to send messages in protest areas where the wireless infrastructure is jammed by the sheer number of people trying to access it.
Beijing has clamped down on the Internet—for mainland Chinese. Censors comb through the Weibo microblogging network for pro-democracy terms and shuttered access to Instagram. Beijing is also likely behind a recent attempt to intercept Chinese web searches through Yahoo and infect protesters’ devices with malware.
However, Hongkongers are not entirely free of censorship. Using a mainland-based services like Weibo to discuss the protests risks having your account closed. Beijing has not—but could—block China Mobile users in Hong Kong. And people who do business on the mainland have to be careful about what they say.
As for what’s next, it’s anyone’s guess. The protesters are demanding Leung resign, but the Hong Kong government isn’t budging.
Beijing also appears unwilling to use lethal force to stop the protests. The worst case scenario is China sending tanks from Shenzhen to crush the demonstrations in a repeat of the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
But there’s lots of reasons for Beijing not to do that. Hongkongers demanding to directly elect their chief executive is a problem, but it’s a problem of lower magnitude to the existential threat the 1989 uprising posed to the Communist Party. That is, as long as the Hong Kong protests are contained to Hong Kong.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the government’s apparent strategy is to wait it out. Using heavy-handed tactics only risks inflaming the protesters further and bringing more people out into the streets.
In short, both sides are dug in and not moving. Beijing wants to keep the tycoons in place, and the same tycoons are not interested in giving up their privileges. And this could all change in an instant.
“I never have a prediction when it comes to China,” the agent says. “There’s no way to know what’s going on in the heads of the Chinese government. It’s completely opaque. They like it that way.”