Neoliberal Hong Kong Is Our Future, TooRoundup
tags: neoliberalism, Milton Friedman, capitalism, inequality, Hong Kong, neoclassical economics, deindustrialization
Macabe Keliher is assistant professor of history at Southern Methodist University. His research focuses on state-making and political economy in early modern and modern China. He is the author of The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China (University of California Press, 2019).
For two decades, demonstrations—both peaceful and violent—have become ubiquitous in Hong Kong. The casual observer might readily point to 2014 and 2019 as key episodes of unrest, years that captured the world’s attention. The former demonstration channeled the spirit of Occupy Wall Street and took over three downtown and financial districts for seventy-nine days; it came to be known as the Umbrella Movement, referring to the now universal protest tool deployed to fend against the onslaught of police pepper spray. The latest protests erupted last spring and continued in force well into this year. At its peak they drew as much as a quarter of the Hong Kong population into the streets in a single day. Police violence and a strong-arm government backed by Beijing fired over 16,000 rounds of tear gas into crowds and arrested over 9,000 people. Riot police put out eyes, broke bones, smashed faces, and shot demonstrators, some as young as fourteen.
But such events are not uncommon in Hong Kong. Tens of thousands of marches, demonstrations, and protests take place every year. According to Hong Kong police statistics, there were 5,656 such protests in 2010 and well over 6,000 annually through 2015. That number jumped to 13,158 in 2016 and stayed well above 10,000 through last year. With over 30 daily meetings, demonstrations, marches, and protests happening on average day after day, one must conclude that the people of Hong Kong find something terribly wrong with their society and are constantly engaged in both active opposition and a search for methods, practices, and ideas to do something about it.
Analysts and commentators often point to protesters’ demands of universal suffrage and the increasingly heavy hand of Beijing. But something more fundamental structures the injustices of Hong Kong society: the organization of the political economy has enabled democratic disenfranchisement and authoritarianism to emerge.
Over the past forty years Hong Kong has been guided by financial interests and free market idealism that has led to a gross concentration of economic power. Business taxes have been paired down, regulations annulled or minimized, and the public sector turned over to the private sector. In addition, government policy and administration have been put in the hands of business tycoons, who have leveraged it to expand their reach, and state power has been mobilized to preserve a well-functioning legal apparatus to uphold property rights, enforce contracts, protect business investment, and generally facilitate markets on the behalf of capital.
While orthodox economists like to point to these features having created the ideal free market, the social consequences have been disastrous. Inequality is rising, wages are declining and working hours increasing, overall economic opportunity is dwindling, and housing is so unaffordable that office workers sleep in McDonalds. Is it any wonder that the streets are now burning? Implementing this economic doctrine has led to great prosperity for a very select few but widespread disenfranchisement for the many. A handful of conglomerates have been able not only to carve out monopolies but also to orchestrate a complete takeover of all economic life.
While Hong Kong is a striking example of this socio-economic practice, it is hardly unique. This specific case is a stark manifestation of the development of trends in the global political economy over the past forty years. In the 1970s and ’80s, free market advocates and politicians began to advance ideas and implement policies that both empowered capital and mobilized government in service of capital. This led not only to the slow dismantling of social programs and protections, but also to the use of government powers to create an environment within which global capital could thrive. Through military, legal, and political means a certain set of ideas about markets, property rights, and individualism were implemented around the world.
This blurring of the division between public and private finds governments overtly working on the behalf of capital to extenuate an economic system that favors global capital over labor, private corporations over society and social welfare, and economic concentration over economic democracy. It is a system that is perpetuated by the attenuation of politics and capital, whereby the rich purchase beneficial economic policies that further insulate their position and wealth. Through political influence they obtain lower taxes, larger deductions, fewer regulations, and corporate protections, among other things.
From this perspective, Hong Kong is only an extreme case of a general trend—an advanced manifestation of the future that awaits a society caught in the clutches of neoliberalism.