The wider concerns of Hong Kong's protesters

By Audrey Tinline
BBC News

image copyrightAP
image captionAre the economic and financial concerns of young people in Hong Kong a background factor to the protests?

For the Hong Kong students thronging the streets of the Central business district this week the issue at stake has been wider democracy.

But for the thousands more young professionals living and working in the city's nearby office blocks, the protests have re-ignited some worrying memories.

It was in the late 1980s or early 90s that many Hong Kong families took out citizenship of another country. They were prompted by fears of what might happen after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the UK back to China.

In the case of Joyce Man's family it was Canada that provided a temporary refuge; as an insurance policy in case things turned nasty in Hong Kong.

Ms Man, 30, was a teenager at the time of the handover. She moved with her parents and sister to Canada in 1989, and after obtaining Canadian citizenship, they later moved back to Hong Kong.

But now, like many of her contemporaries, Ms Man is thinking about moving again - and this time it could be for good.

"I think like a certain section of the Hong Kong population I grew up with the idea that you can leave," says Ms Man, who is now a writer of a popular blog: Criss Cross Culture.

"Hong Kongers are also outward looking. Before '97 many people left to go to England, Australia , Canada, or the USA.

image copyrightReuters
image captionProperty prices have soared in Hong Kong over the past decade

"That's a sizeable number of people, even though we are still talking about less than 5% of the population.

"You have this sector of society who identify with Western values.

"This idea comes into play when you have a situation when people are dissatisfied with Hong Kong - they have this other cultural identity too, and that leads them to think that they can land in another country."

Soaring property prices

Ms Man says it's not just the political situation that has led her and many of her friends to feel that now might be the time to think of leaving their "beloved Hong Kong". Daily life has just become too much of a struggle.

Property prices in Hong Kong have more than doubled in the past 10 years, up a massive 145%.

"Like many Hong Kongers I have seen things change for the worse in the last few years," says Ms Man.

"You cannot buy a flat, prices of everything are going up. I have a Canadian passport - this has all now led me again to think that maybe I can leave Hong Kong.''

image copyrightOther
image captionAndy Xie says the protestors are not only concerned by political issues

Andy Xie, former chief Asia economist at Morgan Stanley, and now an independent economist based in Hong Kong, agrees that it is economic factors that are behind much of the current unrest.

"Deep down most people are concerned about bread and butter issues," he says.

"Hong Kong has not been governed well since the handover, local people feel that their living standards have been going down, and that they are being marginalised in Hong Kong. That's what's behind this discontent."

Identity issues

Veteran Hong Kong and China expert, Jonathan Fenby, was editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong during the handover in 1997.

He says there are many different currents flowing under the surface of the current unhappiness with life in Hong Kong. One of the key issues is the identity of the citizens - how they see themselves.

image copyrightOther
image captionMr Fenby says Hong Kongers consider themselves to be different

Mr Fenby points out that surveys of the population by Hong Kong's universities going back over the past 20 years have frequently found that Hong Kong people do not identify themselves as being purely Chinese - most say instead that they are "Hong Kongers" or "Hong Kong Chinese".

And that makes the leadership in Beijing uneasy, he believes.

"A very large proportion of the people living in Hong Kong at the moment are the children or grandchildren of refugees from mainland China," says Mr Fenby.

"This is a more fluid population, and that is not something the authorities in Beijing like very much.

"Because they like the idea of Chinese national unity, Chinese stability and the Han race sticking together - and the Hong Kongers are different."

And it's the feeling that they want to maintain the differences between Hong Kong and China that appears to be driving many Hong Kongers onto the streets. But it could also drive many away from Hong Kong altogether if events take a wrong turn.

For middle class residents, many with passports to other countries, that's a choice they can make. But, as Mr Xie points out, many young Hong Kongers educated after 1997 find themselves trapped.

"It's difficult for the people here to leave now," he says. "Hong Kong introduced mother tongue education in '98 - in Cantonese.

People are less likely to speak either English or Mandarin than before the handover. So it is very difficult for people to emigrate."

"People are desperate and they are looking for a quick solution - I don't see that coming - so this thing is going to go on. ''

You can hear more on In the Balance on BBC World Service on Saturday, 4 October at 07:32, 17:32, 23:32 GMT, and Sunday, 5 October at 12:32 GMT.

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