The month thus far has seen violence on an increasing scale. The police and government supporters called for a face mask ban and the government obliged.

Protesters reacted forcefully to the government’s escalation of repression using a colonial-era tool, the Emergency Regulation Ordinance. They trashed government offices, the state-owned MTR, and businesses with a mainland connection; they attacked individuals who dared to oppose them.

On October 5, Hong Kong virtually shut down. In an unprecedented move the MTR, on which we all depend, suspended all services. Closing the MTR had a knock-on effect on the community. Many could not get to work. One of Hong Kong’s two supermarket chains closed completely and even reliable providers like 7/11 shut their doors.

Still, the community has stuck with the protesters. The government has so far been unable to entice the community away from them (‘peeling the onion’, the government said… we are onion peel apparently). The government implored us to distance ourselves from violence but has failed to ask why the community has mostly not budged. This is a fundamental myopia of an epic kind.

Carrie Lam. Photo:

The protests are now on shakier ground. Violent demonstrators have vented their fury on mainland economic organisations that serve the Hong Kong community. Protesters have attacked the CCP itself in graffiti spread over Hong Kong (‘The CCP? No!’) and have intimidated Mandarin speakers.

These are totally inappropriate tactics, illegal, sometimes immoral and self-defeating. To deny opponents the right to speak or to counter-protest, or to physically attack them is to undermine the very rights that the protesters claim to be demonstrating for. The protest should build alliances and not allow itself to be peeled.

Surprisingly, the protest has not targeted our ruling class, which has at its core six or so property developing families. Mingtiandi reports that they own assets equivalent to 42% of Hong Kong’s GDP. Some of them apparently understand their potentially fragile position in Hong Kong and have begun offering up relatively small amounts of money and assets for public housing and small businesses.

The government has tools with which it can resume their land banks. Perhaps when CE Carrie Lam is talking about using all legal tools available to her she should consider these tools as well. Some government allies apparently concur.

“Residents cover their faces, Carrie Lam covers her heart”. Photo: May James / HKFP.

The central government has suggested resuming land for public housing in Hong Kong. The allies of the property developers in Legco (located in functional constituencies) immediately shot back. Redistributing power in Hong Kong for social justice, a key protester demand, means abolishing the functional constituencies. The central government should support this move without delay to help restore peace.

The Hong Kong government has empowered our ruling class, especially the property developers, at every turn. The strategy, a carryover from our colonial past, involved low taxation, a narrow tax base, and raising revenue through high land prices.

The government then pushed most of us into unaffordable nano flats. The government protects monopoly and oligopoly that benefits our ruling class through weak and ineffective institutions such as the Competition Commission.

Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man. Photo: Citizen News.

Why has the community not focused its anger on our tycoons and their privileged position in Hong Kong? We apparently still believe that the poor can do well in Hong Kong, that upward social mobility is possible here. Maybe this was once true, but not now.

Tycoons themselves are self-aware. They try to cover their tracks, falsely claiming that Hong Kong’s divisions are not class-based, but the result of the protests. And they offer, for them, small gifts.

What is to be done? We need fundamental structural reform of our political system, not yet one of the protesters five demands, which focus mostly on ‘real’ universal suffrage.

Photo: Aidan Marzo/HKFP.

Our government is focused elsewhere: on repression and on buying peace in the streets through dialogue, inviting academics to study the problem, and a ‘policy address’. And the prospect of more emergency regulations, although paradoxically we are not in an emergency.

Government allies threaten curfews and shutting down the internet as next steps. Our brush with dialogue between the community and the government utterly failed. CE Lam offered nothing, not even insights. She also has a bad record of dismissing research and the results of consultations. Witness our social pensions policy and land supply policy.

So, we’ve got a leader who cannot be trusted. And then there is the ‘policy address’, which will undoubtedly propose some relief measures, that is, cash. Protecting the position of those in power apparently remains the government’s number one priority.

John Burns

John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.