Hong Kong will soon mark 21 years since the transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China. July 1 is a public holiday commemorating the Anniversary of the Establishment of the Special Administrative Region in 1997.
Considerable opposition to China’s sovereignty remains; and there is a widespread understanding that young people are the drivers of the Hong Kong independence movement.
But my research indicates that the so-called ‘Localist’ movement is based in economic inequality rather than a generational divide.
Recent challenges to China’s rule
In 2014, Hong Kong saw a series of pro-democracy protests that brought parts of the city to a standstill. The protests became known as the Umbrella Movement (due to protesters’ use of umbrellas to protect themselves from police tear gas and pepper spray).
The aftermath of the Umbrella Movement has given rise to Localism – which advocates the preservation of Hong Kong’s identity and autonomy from China. Some Localist groups including Hong Kong Indigenous, Youngspiration, and Hong Kong National Party also advocate for full independence from China.
Localist activists were behind the 2016 so-called ‘Fishball Revolution’ on Lunar New Year eve, which opposed the Hong Kong government’s crackdown on unlicensed street hawkers in the Mongkok district. The crackdown was seen as a suppression of Hong Kong’s local culture and Localist supporters gathered to protect the hawkers from being arrested.
Young people are widely understood to be the main protagonists.
Many leaders of the Umbrella Movement and Localists have been young people (and many have faced jail sentences related to their activism). Three of the most prominent activists - Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow - are all in their 20s.
Edward Leung, the former spokesman for Hong Kong Indigenous who has been given prison terms for offences relating to the Fishball Revolution, is in his 20s. And two popularly-elected Localist lawmakers from Youngspiration - Wai-ching Yau and Baggio Leung – are also in their 20s.
All have contributed to the widespread understanding that young people are behind the challenge to China’s rule. But I’ve analysed data relating to the only two Legislative Council elections since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which indicate that economic inequality is driving support for Localists, rather than generational change.
The first election result I analysed related to the West Kowloon Area in 2016. The result shows that Wai-ching Yau – the successful Localist candidate - was more popular in districts with lower incomes. I conducted a multiple regression analysis to compare the effects of the median age and income on the support rate of candidates in different electoral districts, and found that income was a stronger determinative of Yau’s support than age.
The second election I analysed was a subsequent by-election in 2018 in the West Kowloon Area, which was held because Yau was one of six lawmakers who were disqualified from the legislature for what was officially classified as their lack of ‘sincerity’ in swearing allegiance to Hong Kong as part of China when they took office.
Intended to replace Yau, the pro-democracy candidate Edward Yiu (who was not a Localist), was viewed by many Localist supporters as a traitor for running in the by-election under such circumstances.
Yiu lost the by-election to a conservative candidate. Significantly, age had no effect on his support rate, suggesting young people did not support him simply because he had a pro-democracy stance. In addition, his support mainly came from people with higher incomes, which indicates that people from lower incomes, who had supported the Localist Yau, did not support Yiu.
Localists have tapped into dissatisfaction within inequality
Hong Kong is the second-most unequal city in the world. In 2016, its wealth gap had widened to an historic high, with the richest households earning about 44 times what the poorest family scrapes together.
At the same time, Hong Kong has the world’s highest home prices. The median price for a typical Hong Kong flat was HK$5.42 million (AU$903,000) in 2017, at least 74 per cent higher than a comparable apartment in uptown New York, 18 per cent more than London and 148 per cent more expensive than Tokyo; though Hong Kong’s income level in general is lower than that of all these cities.
Localist policy priorities concentrate on issues supported by low income voters. For example, they propose that public money should be spent on local education, medical care, housing and social security; instead of on big-ticket China-initiated infrastructure projects.
Localists also advocate for Hong Kong having the approval authority over the migration of mainland-Chinese citizens, who are generally perceived as social welfare free-riders, job stealers or wealthy property speculators.
The advocacy of political autonomy is a promise of livelihood improvement, so it’s probably not surprising that the Localist slogan of ‘Hong Kong First’ appeals to many working-class people.
If China wants unity it must minimise Hong Kong’s economic inequality. Whether the region’s prosperity can be sustained and shared is crucial to China’s future.
The local interests of Hong Kong and the state interests of China may not be that antithetical after all.
This article is co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch.
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