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Economics, Tensions With Mainlanders Fuel Hong Kong's Protests

Oct 9, 2014
Originally published on October 9, 2014 10:26 am

If the goal of the protesters who flooded Hong Kong streets in the past couple of weeks can be boiled down to a word, it's "democracy."

But many real-life worries have driven that demand, including economic ones. They range from frustration about jobs and high housing prices to competition — and a culture clash — with mainland Chinese.

Perry Chong, a die-hard protester, was sitting beneath a tent in a nearly abandoned protest zone Wednesday across from the city government headquarters.

Chong says people want real democratic representation to address real-world problems, such as Hong Kong's crushing housing prices. He uses the tent he's sitting under — an area the size of a bedroom — to illustrate some of the city's extremes.

"This area, it can cost you HK$2 million," he said, the equivalent of $260,000 in the U.S. "So I think that is too crazy. ... We can't accept that kind of price."

Chong, who used to work as a real estate agent, says one reason prices are so high — and are about double what they were in 2007 — is that newly rich mainlanders snap up apartments as investments, and often raise eyebrows by making down payments with bags of cash.

"No Hong Kong people, no one would do things like that," says Chong, who now works as a nurse and provided medical care to protesters. "If our government do not stop it, we have no power to compete with them for our house."

Across town at City University of Hong Kong, there are other kinds of competition for grades and — eventually — jobs. Vincent Chow, a sophomore studying finance, says 20 percent of the students in his major are from the mainland.

He says Chinese students are very different from local Hong Kongers.

"In the weekends, [mainland students] will study, but on the weekends, the local ones will play," Chow says. "Mainlanders have very high GPA when they are compared to the local students."

There are also a lot of small conflicts in the dormitories, says Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the university, "because these hard-working mainland Chinese students think that local students, they don't work hard, they make too much noise, they affect the serious academic work in the dormitories."

The economic importance of China is also having an impact on parts of the labor market here. Cheng says personal connections — a hallmark of mainland Chinese culture — increasingly influence who gets important jobs in certain sectors in Hong Kong.

"If you come from the mainland and you have excellent connections because you are a princeling and you come from a very powerful family, then a lot of the financial institutions will be after you, because you can open the doors in China," he says.

Cheng — who is also a pro-democracy activist — says these various tensions have been building in recent years as people have become more dissatisfied with the direction of Hong Kong and what they see as unfairness in the system.

"Most people would tell you they encounter a decline in real living standards," he says. "They see a widening of the gap between the rich and poor. They see more and more collusion between the government and the big business groups."

Of course, China — the world's second-largest economy — provides huge benefits to Hong Kong. For example, mainland tourists made 40 million visits to the territory last year — and gave a big boost to the local economy.

But even that has a sting: Some Hong Kongers now must cater to wealthy Chinese visitors. That's a big role reversal, says Michael DeGolyer, a professor of government at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"This is really a humiliating experience to Hong Kongers, who for many, many years thought that they were superior to mainlanders," he says.

It's one more source of frustration for people in this former British colony as they try to manage growing pressure from the colossus across the border.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When protesters flooded Hong Kong city streets in recent weeks, we called them pro-democracy demonstrations. They were, but they were about something else as well. Many everyday concerns motivated the crowds. They ranged from frustration over jobs and high housing prices, to competition and a culture clash with mainland Chinese. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Perry Chong is diehard. Yesterday, he was sitting beneath a tent in a nearly abandoned protest zone across from the city government headquarters. Chong says people want real democratic representation to address real-world problems, like Hong Kong's crushing housing prices. Chong uses the tent he's sitting under to illustrate some of the city's extremes.

PERRY CHONG: This area, it can cost you $2 million in Hong Kong. So I think that's too crazy.

LANGFITT: Gosh, this is, like, the size of a bedroom.

CHONG: Yeah, so we cannot accept that kind of price.

LANGFITT: A price equal to about 260,000 U.S. dollars. Chong used to work as a real estate agent. He says, one reason prices are so high is newly rich mainlanders snap up apartments as investments and often raise eyebrows by making down payments with bags of cash.

CHONG: No Hong Kong people - no one would do things like that. If our government do not stop this, we have no power to compete with them for our house.

LANGFITT: There's another kind of competition across town at City University of Hong Kong. It's for grades and eventually jobs. Vincent Chow is a sophomore studying finance. Twenty percent of the students in his major are mainlanders. He says Chinese students are very different from local Hong Kongers.

VINCENT CHOW: In the weekends they would study, but in weekends, the local ones will play. They have very high GPA compared to the local students.

JOSEPH CHENG: You have a lot of small conflicts in the dormitories.

LANGFITT: Joseph Cheng is a political science professor at the university.

CHENG: Because these hard-working mainland Chinese students think that local students, they don't work hard; they make too much noise; they affect the serious academic work in the dormitories.

LANGFITT: Cheng says personal connections - a hallmark of mainland Chinese culture - increasingly influences who gets important jobs in certain sectors here.

CHENG: If you come from the mainland and you have excellent connections because you are a princeling and you come from a very powerful family, then a lot of the financial institutions will be after you because you can open the doors in China.

LANGFITT: Cheng, who's also a pro-democracy activist, says these various tensions have been building in recent years as people have become more dissatisfied.

CHENG: Most people would tell you they encounter a decline in real living standards. They see a widening of the gap between the rich and poor. They see more and more collusion between the government and the big business groups.

LANGFITT: Of course China, the world's second-largest economy, provides huge benefits to Hong Kong. For example, mainland tourists made 40 million visits here last year and gave a big boost to the local economy. But even that has a sting. Michael DeGolyer is a professor of government at Hong Kong Baptist University. He points out that some Hong Kongers now must cater to wealthy Chinese visitors - a big role reversal.

MICHAEL DEGOLYER: This is a really a humiliating experience to Hong Kongers, who for many, many years thought that they were superior to mainlanders.

LANGFITT: It's one more source of frustration for people in this former British colony as they try to manage growing pressure from the colossus across the border. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.