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Hong Kong protests: Danger, democracy and disillusionment in the far-east

On Sunday, 18th August, 1.7 million people gathered in Hong Kong’s second-largest pro-democracy march, defying a police ban and increasingly sinister warnings from the Chinese Central government. The demonstration, the latest in a series of protests which have gripped the island region, was initially sparked in June 2019 by a widely controversial extradition-bill which would empower local authorities to detain and extradite individuals to countries Hong Kong does not have formal agreements with, including Mainland China and Macau. Fears were ignited that these laws would undermine the autonomy of the region by placing Hong Kongers and visitors under mainland Chinese jurisdiction, where forced confessions and unfair trial procedures for political prisoners are common.

Although Chief Executive Carrie Lam asserted in July that the extradition bill was “dead”, the protests have since evolved into a direct confrontation against the encroaching power of mainland China in national affairs. Protestors have voiced a desire to protect the ‘high degree’ of autonomy promised when Hong Kong was transferred back to Chinese control in 1997 under a ‘One China Two Systems’ regime. Such harmony was guaranteed until 2047 but critics have long lamented the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) increasingly encroaching on Hong Kong freedoms.

Youth Protestors on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule

Anger has been heightened by a constitutional arrangement which is strongly weighted towards the mainland. Hong Kong’s 1997 Basic Law Article 45 and 68 broadly state an eventual goal of a Chief Executive and Legislative Committee (LegCo) elected via universal suffrage. At present, however, the Chief Executive is nominated by a 1200 member election-committee of Hong Kong Elites (nominated by just 6% of eligible voters), and one half of seats in Hong Kong’s LegCo are elected by functional constituencies (corporate-interest groups) heavily weighted in Beijing’s favour. The CCP has consistently intervened via disqualification of candidates in local elections deemed disloyal to the central government and direct removal of 6 politicians elected to Hong Kong’s legislature. Hong Kong’s youth have been sidelined in their own political process, leading to frustration towards a ruling class which has been historically dismissive of reform.

Economic anxiety and widespread income inequality in Hong Kong underlie political anger and have been one of the major contributing factors to the ongoing protests. Hong Kong is one of the most unequal places on the planet. The region boasts the world’s longest working hours and highest rents. Wages have failed to keep up with rents, which have increased by 25% over the past 6 years alone.. According to a global survey released in January by the research firm Demographia, Hong Kong was titled the world’s least affordable housing market for a ninth consecutive year; the average house price is 20.9 x the annual average household income. At the low end, Hong Kong’s minimum wage of $4.82 an hour lags far below the $7 ‘living wage’ calculated by Oxfam based on average household expenditures.

‘The Coffin’- A typical subdivided flat in Hong Kong

Economic inequality and soaring housing prices are directly linked to housing affordability, which remains a pressing frustration in Hong Kong. Many Hong Kongers face serious financial problems due to the high price of housing with just 49.2% of the population owning property in the territory according to government statistics (in comparison, 91% of the Singaporean population are homeowners). Subdivided Flats have become a ubiquitous type of rental housing in Hong Kong characterised by flats (illegally) divided into two or more separate units to house more people, often at the expense of the building’s safety or hygiene. It is estimated that over 280 000 people live in subdivided flats, known as coffins, with unemployed, low-income and new immigrants most likely to face these undesirable living conditions. The median subdivided flat was found to be 48 square feet, far smaller than even prison cells in Hong Kong, or the average parking space in New York City (153 square feet).

Part of Hong Kong’s woes have been attributed to topology, with swathes of mountainous land surrounding coastal regions severely limiting land supply. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong government has been lambasted for its failure to sufficiently invest in affordable housing development. At present, 250 000 people are waiting for access to public housing in Hong Kong with an average queue time of 5.5 years. This number may be higher, but the government has maintained an income eligibility threshold of less than $12 000 per year, a cut-off which arbitrarily excludes many individuals too poor to afford a down-payment on a home.

Government schemes to redress home ownership inaccessibility among young people have been insufficient. Based on data from the Hong Kong Housing Authority, the chance of being successful in the Home Ownership Scheme (HOS), a government initiative to help young people purchase their first flats, was only 1.63%. Government policy to court luxury buyers, such as the 2003 Closer Economic Partnership (CEPA) agreement loosening restrictions on mainland investment, have enriched wealthy homeowners whilst simultaneously pricing a generation out of the housing market.

Frustration amongst young people is encapsulated by Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker, “A lot of people, young people, do not see hope in their future. They cannot afford to get married, they cannot afford to buy homes, they cannot afford to have children, they can’t afford to sustain themselves.”

A government-run affordable-housing development in Hong Kong’s Cheung Sha Wan district. Government critics say public officials want to avoid further construction.

Faced with myriad problems, the Hong Kong government must work to address the underlying root-causes plaguing Hong Kong, both via sustainable investment in affordable housing, expansion of youth opportunity, and progressive policy towards universal suffrage. Without significant action, the island region risks threatening its prosperous status as Asia’s world city and risking the freedom of all future generations.


Thomas Kurian


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