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Separating sheep from goats in a tense Hong Kong

In Hong Kong these days, a Chinese and international city of 7 million brimming with both raw commercial energy and political tension, the newest hot button issue is how to separate the sheep from the goats.

It is a reflection of how tense things are in this partially autonomous bit of China since the pro-democracy demonstrations of last fall that a minor storm developed over the English translation of one Chinese word — yang. Hong Kong’s un-elected chief executive C.Y. Leung used the word in his Chinese language Lunar New Year message. And while all-encompassing in Chinese, the word has three possible translations to English — sheep, goats or rams.

Most Hong Kongers have been calling the new year the Year of the Goat, but in the English language version of Leung’s talk, the deeply unpopular chief executive admonished his citizens to live in the spirit of the sheep, peacefully in groups and to take inspiration from the sheep’s character.

Leung’s admonition took on sinister connotations among pro-democracy elements in a city very much divided since the student-driven Occupy movement fizzled out after blocking three key commercial and government areas for 79 days. Is the chief executive trying to persuade us to act like sheep? Is he, or the communist rulers he reports to in Beijing, which took over Hong Kong from colonial Britain in 1997, trying to be our shepherd?

In a column only slightly tongue-in-cheek and with an eye to Hong Kong’s substantial Christian population, analyst Frank Ching wondered if the chief executive were comparing himself to the Good Shepherd Jesus.

Satire aside, two words came up in dozens of conversations with friends, colleagues and former students from my five-month teaching stint here in 2013. Whether Hong Kongers, Westerners or the growing number of mainland Chinese coming to work or study, they all used the words “tension” and “frustration.” An accumulation of the latter fuels the former.

What the Occupy movement brought out in force is the parallel nature of unhappiness among large swaths of the population — partly political, more social and economic.

On the political front, under the one country-two systems deal between the departing British and Beijing, Hong Kong is supposed to choose its next chief executive in 2017 via universal suffrage. An election would replace the current system of a committee of pro-Beijing worthies picking a leader. The rub is that the Chinese government insists the election can only be between two or three candidates it approves. And if anything, the protests seem to have strengthened the resolve of the local government and Beijing on that position.

For Hong Kongers, especially the democrats on the local legislative council, the issue is whether to accept that partial loaf. The local legislative council has until mid-year to vote on a government election plan (still not formally presented). A negative vote would likely mean continuing the system of an appointed chief executive.

Of course, the vote will not come in a vacuum. In private conversations and in news reports, more democratically minded residents talk of increasing pressure, a kind of nibbling away, from the mainland government on news organizations, universities and even lower schools over what they print and teach and over who gets appointed to key jobs.

On the social and economic front, frustrations behind the protests could be just as threatening as a political unraveling to Hong Kong’s future as one of the world’s three international financial capitals alongside New York and London.

Michael DeGolyer, the leading academic authority on the Hong Kong transition, said he warned local leaders months before the Occupy protests of mounting frustration among the city’s young population.

Much of that frustration centers on real estate, in a city where a 300 square foot apartment far from the center can easily sell for half a million dollars (U.S.) and anything even slightly bigger goes for at least a million. Recently, the government raised the amount required for down payments, further driving a stake in many youthful aspirations.

And the response of the city’s chief financial officer, John Tsang, to their complaints: “If it is not affordable, then don’t buy a property.” His comment was the latest from top officials that seemed to channel Marie Antoinette, sentiments most famously voiced by the chief executive during the Occupy protests that the problem with one man-one vote is that poor people might take over politics.

According to David Dodwell, an analyst and former journalist, frustration has been exacerbated by a job market that has been shrinking in quality and quantity successively since the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, the Avian flu epidemic, the SARS epidemic and the 2008-09 global financial meltdown and the new competition for the better jobs from mainland Chinese moving to Hong Kong.

Ill will occasionally leading to violent confrontations continues to grow between Hong Kongers and mainlanders. Hong Kongers complain that the hundreds of thousands of visitors are driving up prices at the city’s 42 high-end shopping malls. (It is relatively easy to spot a mainland tourist in Hong Kong. They are pushing suitcases to fill with items from the most posh shops that do not carry the higher Chinese sales tax.)

More provocative are the mainlanders who clear shelves in shops near the border of baby formula and diapers for re-sale back home. Complaints that the visitors are loud, rude and unsophisticated are eerily reminiscent of what European sophisticates said about Americans in the early waves of 1950s and ‘60s U.S. tourism to Europe. The mainlanders, put off by the negative reception in Hong Kong, may be getting their revenge. During this Lunar New Year, mainland tourism and shopping slumped for the first in a decade, ringing off a different set of alarm bells.

The initial enthusiasm of the young to the Occupy protests, and the widely repeated view that an entire generation of apolitical Hong Kongers has now become politicized, may be evaporating, says DeGolyer, an American a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He said the most recent polling shows a new disdain and disillusionment with politics rather than a determination to seize political power that characterized the U.S. civil rights movement.

Among other Hong Kongers I talked with, there is a readiness to move elsewhere if the economic or political situation grows intolerable. One 30-something doctor said everyone in both his hospital unit and sports club has a foreign passport. And those without talk more of Taiwan, where the air is cleaner and real estate cheaper, even though politically that might be jumping from the frying pan into the fire as Beijing steps up its warnings that Taiwan must remember it is part of One China.

But amidst such talk are the reminders that Hong Kong is a quintessentially pragmatic place, which still offers mainland China a window to international capital and finance. It likely will for a least a decade or more until the Chinese currency becomes completely convertible and Shanghai can compete as a financial center where contracts are guaranteed by an independent rule of law.

The pragmatism, say local analysts, academics and diplomats alike, was demonstrated anew on all sides. Beijing and the Hong Kong governments and eventually most of the demonstrators let the Occupy movement fizzle with little bloodshed and certainly avoiding another Tiananmen Square. Instead it faded amid internal divisions among the pro-democracy factions and growing public impatience with disruptions to daily lives and commerce.

The youthful pro-democracy movement may have captured the imagination of the international press and the West, and certainly its leaders were as or more articulate than the government figures they confronted in occasional public forums. But its appeal here, judging by conversations and public opinion polls, is neither universal nor necessarily enduring.

And as one local columnist reminded, Hong Kongers will be on their own. Britain, which negotiated the one country-two systems arrangement, has made clear where its economic and political interests rest, most recently with the visit of royal heir apparent Prince William to Beijing.

The United States has been studiously quiet, in part to avoid Chinese paranoia — voiced again most recently by a top general, Gen. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army — that Americans are fueling unrest or revolution in China. The one time President Barack Obama made a passing reference to Hong Kong at a Beijing press conference last year, he was quickly swatted down by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who tartly reminded him that the city’s future is an internal Chinese issue.

As one resident noted, Hong Kong has shown incredible resilience for seven plus decades through the Japanese occupation, the turmoil of the communist revolution on the mainland that frequently spilled over to the city in the 1950s and ‘60s wars, the uncertainty before the 1997 handover and the financial and political crises since.

Perhaps that confidence is best expressed in the city’s signature skyline. Even now, when pessimism often seems to reign, new office and apartment towers continue to be carved out of mountainsides. Some are so tall they pierce low level clouds and their top floors reach blue skies above. They are one metaphor for a deep belief in hard work, determination to earn money and pursuit of a better future after two catastrophic centuries of Chinese history. These emotions have long driven this city and made it grow and thrive, and by most reckonings will continue to do so whatever storms lay ahead.

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