Benjamin Carlson on Occupy Hong Kong

by Reihan Salam

Benjamin Carlson has a new article in Global Post on the underwhelming response to the Occupy Hong Kong movement, which he attributes to the fact that its message strikes many locals as banal:

While tensions with mainland China are the biggest driver of protests, Hong Kong’s huge wealth gap, Asia’s largest, is a growing source of discontent. In 2011, the city’s Gini coefficient — a measure of wealth inequality — rose to 0.537, surpassing the US, Singapore, and mainland China.

Nearly half of Hong Kong’s population lives in public housing, and tens of thousands more sleep in depressing “cage homes” no bigger than a bed; yet the city has the world’s priciest real estate, and has more billionaires per capita than anywhere else on the globe.

Increasingly, local tycoons like Li Ka-shing, the richest man in Asia, and the billionaire Kwok brothers (who were recently arrested on charges of bribery) are seen less as heroes than wielders of monopolistic power over the economy and the political system.

All this adds up to an environment in which Occupy may not have caught on because its ideas have already gone mainstream.

There are a few observations I would challenge. The fact that nearly half of Hong Kong’s population lives in public housing is somewhat misleading, as public housing play estates a very different role in Hong Kong than in the United States due to the idiosyncratic nature of Hong Kong’s property laws. When we think of public housing, we tend to think of tower blocks populated by marginalized families in desolate urban settings, though of course that is not an entirely representative portrait, particularly in cities like New York where a number of relatively well-situated and well-managed public housing estates have evolved naturally occurring retirement communities. In prosperous Singapore, a large majority of residents live in housing estates developed and governed by the state. Though Hong Kong’s system of public housing was aimed at households of modest means, it now caters to a broad swathe of the population that includes households that are fairly prosperous.

And the fact that Carlson cites “cage homes” is particularly apposite in light of our recent discussion of the decline of so-called “cage hotels” in the United States. Essentially, we could understand “cage homes” as an alternative to homelessness for individuals who for a number of complicated reasons choose not to subject themselves to the rules and regulations, and to the perceived indignities, associated with living in public shelters or with submitting to the authority of friends and relatives. That is, some people value their autonomy more than they value living in what the average citizen of an affluent society would consider acceptable housing. When contrasted against living on the street, “cage homes” have a number of advantages, including a modicum of physical security and privacy.

The critique of Hong Kong’s billionaire class, however, is not groundless, in part due to the central role of property in building the territory’s largest fortunes.