‘It’s not about the money’: What Beijing doesn’t get about Hong Kong protesters

Hong Kong protesters
Anti-government demonstrators in Hong Kong face tear gas attacks by police on Oct. 6.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Chinese state media released a video this month that was directed at Hong Kong youth and titled: “Shenzhen’s success could be yours too.”

It features old and new shots of the mainland city located just across the border from Hong Kong, set to a triumphant chorus celebrating its transformation over the last three decades from a collection of fishing villages into a metropolis of shiny new skyscrapers.

“When you are on the right track, positive changes will occur,” says a caption.

The video appeared on China’s National Day, as tens of thousands of protesters were marching in Hong Kong, burning celebratory banners and hoisting up signs condemning the Communist Party for human rights abuses.

As the demonstrations enter their fifth month, the Chinese government continues to pursue a strategy that misunderstands the motives of the protesters and has little chance of quelling the unrest.


The video encapsulates a trade-off at the core of the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic legitimacy: Give up your freedoms in exchange for stability, development and wealth.

It’s a social contract that’s been widely successful in mainland China, where many of the 1.4 billion people remember living through famine and poverty, and willingly eschew freedom of speech and other rights for the sake of economic well-being.

But it does not resonate in Hong Kong, the semiautonomous Chinese territory that was a British colony until 1997 and remains one of the world’s top financial centers. Many of its residents arrived as refugees fleeing communist rule and are accustomed to legal and education systems established by the British.

What started as a series of protests against an unwanted extradition bill has become a movement with five demands, none of them economic: withdrawal of the bill, investigation into police violence, amnesty for arrested protesters, the right of Hong Kongers to elect their own politicians and an end to government descriptions of the protests as “riots.”

Recently, with two teenagers shot by police and a new ban on masks under an emergency law likely to lead to harsher crackdown on public assembly, some have also begun to chant: “Disband the police!”

Yet the central government propaganda continues to push the notion that material concerns are at the heart of the protests. State-controlled media and social media portray the protesters as “wasted youth,” unemployed, lacking direction and easily manipulated.


Beijing has publicly pressured Hong Kong authorities to seize land hoarded by developers and make more housing available. Recent commentaries in the state-owned New China News Agency, People’s Daily, and Global Times called unaffordable housing the “root cause” of the protests.

Though there is drastic economic inequality in Hong Kong and the housing market is severely warped, recent polling by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute shows that youth dissatisfaction stems primarily from overwhelming distrust of the political system and the police.

“People simply don’t believe in the system,” said Leung Kai-chi, an expert on mainland-Hong Kong relations at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Nearly half of respondents to a survey last month said they had zero trust in the police.

“This number is simply insane,” Leung said. “But that’s what’s going on right now. People don’t feel like they can have their grievances resolved within the system, so they are doing it themselves.”

Other recent polling shows 80% public support for opening an independent inquiry into violence during protests.


The distrust helps explain why so many Hong Kong residents have opened their homes to protesters fleeing the police and why, when the government shuts down public transit, volunteers offer protesters rides home.

Police have only alienated themselves more with stop-and-search operations aimed at finding suspected protesters and arresting them — even when there are no demonstrations underway.

On an otherwise quiet night last week, around 100 residents of the middle-class neighborhood of Tai Koo were heckling police for having fired tear gas and blocked the road.

“This is totally disruptive,” said a 35-year-old woman who asked to be identified only by her surname, Luk, to avoid drawing the attention of authorities. “Wherever police go, chaos is going to happen.

“Everybody’s trying to protect everybody against the police, which is pretty ironic,” she said.

Backers of the government explanation for the unrest include business moguls close to Beijing.


“There’s a very large divide between rich and poor,” Allan Zeman, the billionaire founder of Hong Kong’s nightlife district Lan Kwai Fong, said in an interview at his high-rise office. “Most young people’s upward mobility is missing.... Suddenly life is very difficult and no one’s helping me, so you blame the government and you blame China.”

Zeman gave up his Canadian citizenship to become a Chinese national in 2008 and often goes to mainland China for business, he said.

Praising China’s political system for making its citizens more prosperous, he said: “You need a government that makes the right decisions for you.”

In early August, Beijing summoned 500 of Hong Kong’s business elite and pro-Beijing politicians to a meeting in Shenzhen, where they were reportedly told to “stand up” to protesters. Upon return, tycoons began publishing full-page newspaper ads condemning violent “rioters” and vowing to stand by the government.

Pansy Ho, billionaire heiress of Macau’s biggest casino operator, criticized protesters at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last month.

“I feel repressed,” she told the council, describing protesters as “indoctrinated” youth who harassed “regular” people like her.


Others have tried to quell protests with cash. In July, pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip proposed giving $1,020 to all Hong Kong residents to make them “feel happier” in light of protests.

Critics say these methods miss the point.

“It’s not about the money,” said David Webb, a business analyst in Hong Kong. “It’s about freedoms.”

He pointed to Hong Kong’s history of mass protests: 2003 resistance to national security legislation, 2012 protests against nationalistic education, and the 2014 Umbrella Movement for the right of citizens to elect their own leaders. All featured demands that were political, not economic.

Fernando Cheung, a pro-democratic lawmaker who works on social welfare, said that Hong Kong’s inequalities were “deep-rooted” and required structural reform. But Hong Kong protesters believe that democracy, not the Communist Party, is the path to that reform, especially given the party’s historical alliance with elite interests.

“The government has demonstrated to its people that without an accountable system, we will never have justice,” he said.

Beijing’s application of mainland approaches to Hong Kong’s youth is “totally miscalculated,” said pro-democratic lawmaker Charles Mok.


“Young people in Hong Kong understand the communist system more than the communists understand our system,” he said.

“You can’t just tell them, ‘I’m going to give you a bigger house,’” he said. “The point is democracy: sharing of political power, which will lead to sharing of economic power.”