“To take the branch for the root” is one of those wonderful Chinese idioms that don’t translate quite well, but are applicable to many situations. Used to describe things done contrary to logical order, this idiom can indeed be applied to Hong Kong on its 20th anniversary since the handover.
While their efforts are somewhat admirable, the struggle by the political opposition against the local government since 1997 has been quite futile. Their continuous push for electoral reform has yet to yield results, all while the city’s poor are left to struggle with ever-increasing costs of living perpetuated by the billionaire ruling class. With opposition focused solely on the feeble government, the four family conglomerates have effectively been given a free pass to continue their exploitative activities.
Although not immediately apparent, the opposition has made it more difficult for democracy to be achieved in Hong Kong. This is because, as the famed Karl Marx argues, the power of a small economic elite to decide where, when, and how production takes place is fundamentally undemocratic, given that the means of production theoretically belong to society. Alice Poon, author of Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong, takes this further and says that the economic structure of the city -where labourers are not fairly paid by their employers and exploited by the four families- is akin to feudalism. The fact that workers in Hong Kong have little occupational mobility and are forced to work for the business elite for unfairly low financial compensation (due to the lack of labour legislation) makes the laissez-faire capitalist system of the city inherently oppressive.
Critics of this argue that the power of the billionaire class is derived from the “undemocratic” political system, and therefore it is essential to implement one that fits “international standards” first.
However, a quick glance at “traditional democracies” suggests that this is not true. Trump’s budget is due to cut $800 billion from Medicaid and reduce corporate taxes by up to 20%, which will allow the rich to get richer. The recent corruption scandals in Brazil and South Korea have also revealed the ease with which the economic elite can buy out the political system and hurt the poor. With such an extensive history of democracies being controlled by the few, Noam Chomsky is right in saying that real democracy is not possible under capitalism. Social control of transport and utilities, and the equitable distribution of wealth, according to modern socialists, is needed to fix our political ills.
All of this is useless without a plan to achieve it. After all, the four families are not going to give up their power easily. But now, on the 20th anniversary of the handover, with public anger reaching new highs, there is profound incentive for the government to start tackling these groups. The trials of Rafael Hui, Donald Tsang, and Thomas Kwok have also demonstrated their will to fight crony capitalism. What we must do now is focus on demanding stronger labour legislation and more market regulation, and make sure that everyone has the chance to determine their future.