What 165 square-foot flats tell us about Occupy Central protests

What 165 square-foot flats tell us about Occupy Central protests

Mike Rowse says demonstrators are fired up by social injustices in Hong Kong

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Protesters know it's easier to sleep at the Occupy Central site than think about the tiny flats they will be able to afford in the future.
Protesters know it's easier to sleep at the Occupy Central site than think about the tiny flats they will be able to afford in the future.
Photo: EPA

A lot of people have been struck by the tenacity of the Occupy protesters, wondering how and why they could keep up their occupation of Hong Kong’s highways for more than a month without showing any signs of giving up.

I may have stumbled on part of the reason. Last week, a report said that one of our major property developers had issued a price list for a newly completed project in Cheung Sha Wan. Some flats are as small as 193 sq ft, the largest just over 500 sq ft. Moreover, these were not the smallest flats to go on sale recently. Another of our major developers is offering flats of 165 sq ft.

Rub your eyes and look at those numbers again, then pinch yourself and look a third time. That was what I did.

A sales manager is quoted as saying the studio flats are "very suitable for first-time buyers". Surely he meant to say "very small people".

One has to ask what kind of social system we have created where flats this small are considered part of the solution to Hong Kong’s housing problems. In any other developed community, they would be considered part of the problem. What kind of economy and property market have we created that only flats of this size are affordable to a significant number of would-be homebuyers? And what kind of political system have we built to sustain such an appalling situation?

Then you go back to a news story from last month which shows the chairmen of these two property developers among a group of business leaders being feted in the Great Hall of the People, by President Xi Jinping no less.

Now you begin to see the big picture. You join up the dots - as those clever students have surely done - and realise why the protesters are so angry about the developments on the political reform front. They are calling for the end of corporate voting because they realise such a practice puts literally hundreds of votes in the pockets of those same property developers who are offering miniscule flats. They are calling for the scrapping of functional constituencies because they realise their existence entrenches the advantages of the "haves" at the expense of the "have-nots".

The most the government has done on corporate voting is to hint that it might be possible to end it in one or two sectors. And it has been totally silent on its proposals with respect to the functional constituencies even though, by its own admission, they need radical reform.

To top things off, we now have a ruling on arrangements for the next chief executive election which effectively means the status quo will be preserved, more or less indefinitely.

The degree of social injustice in Hong Kong is so extreme it screams out for change. If it is to be orderly, it must be faster than gradual. Yet the ruling by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee applies a further brake.

Put yourself in the position of the students. They know that, when they graduate, their and their spouse’s (if they can scrape up the money to marry) combined income will mean years of frugality while they save up for a deposit on a flat. Given the way flats are shrinking, it is by no means certain they would both be able to fit in it at the same time, let alone start a family.

Against that background, a shared tent in Harcourt Road right now, rent free, starts to look like quite an attractive option.

I am not a supporter of Occupy Central. It is causing serious hardship to some individuals and small businesses, and is beginning to affect the wider economy to the disadvantage of us all. I hope the demonstrators all go home soon. But I do understand why they went in the first place and why they have had the stamina to cling on.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as 165 sq ft flats offer a window into Occupy protest psyche

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