For Once, The Battle In Hong Kong Is Not Over Money, But For The Region's Very Soul

Protesters rally in Hong Kong. Photo: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

The protest movement in Hong Kong has already lasted a lot longer than anyone could have guessed and there’s no indication yet that it’s running out of steam. Why? Because this is not just a student-led movement for more political rights – it’s a battle for the very soul of the city.

For years leading up to the handover back to China in 1997, the Hong Kong catch-cry was “borrowed place, borrowed time”.

Virtually everything was secondary to the pursuit of money. Money that would buy security via a second passport or influence when the territory returned to China.

That mindset continued after the handover even as Beijing honored the one country, two systems principle which allowed the territory so many more political and personal freedoms than the rest of China.

But what is happening now in Hong Kong is a generational change. For the students it’s not so much about money and economics. It’s about the right to choose their own future, their own political leadership — for better or for worse. As the slogan on the T-shirt in Central said, “our home, our say”.

Beijing fears that true universal suffrage could result in an anti-Communist Party leadership in Hong Kong, which it would not tolerate. But how likely is it that Hong Kong would vote in a leader who is overtly anti-Beijing, if you consider that Hong Kong’s economic well-being rests entirely on the mainland?

Hong Kongers may be fighting for more political freedoms, but that does not mean they are prepared to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Mainland Chinese money floods into Hong Kong every day via investment, tourism or safe haven flows. It keeps Hong Kong’s economy afloat. What are the chances of any leader jeopardising that economic safety net. Remember, it’s the economy!

There’s no doubt the current model has caused many stresses and strains. It’s a source of resentment for many local people who fear they are being squeezed out by wealthier mainlanders, but until Hong Kong’s own leadership comes up with a better plan it’s the only model on offer.

These protests have also revealed a generation that has maturity beyond its years. They have mobilised tens of thousands of people onto the city’s streets for weeks and there has not been a single report of property damage or mob violence. The organisational skills of this movement have been extraordinary. They provide for each other food, water, shelter, protection and solidarity. They even provide homework tables on the streets.

It’s that sort of maturity that worries Beijing. These students cannot be dismissed as counter-revolutionaries or even hotheads. They are united in trying to achieve a goal through non-violence and that is proving to be a very difficult strategy for Hong Kong’s (and Beijing’s) leadership to deal with.

Andrew Stevens is a CNN anchor/correspondent based in Hong Kong.

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