Three lessons for the West to learn from the Hong Kong revolt
This column was previously published in L’Opinion on 31st december 2019
It would seem that revolutionary fervor has come to an end: Hong Kong is preparing to abandon its hopes of political freedom thirty years before time, so as to conserve its economic freedom. This compromise is unacceptable to Western eyes, whereas Asians regard it as pragmatic since they believe that the economic model to be followed is that of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore rather than that of Western democracies. With the benefit of hindsight, three main lessons emerge that our Western governments can learn from.
Firstly, the true origin of the revolt was far more economic than political. However, whereas the revolts of Versailles, Tian’anmen and the Arab Spring were all triggered by rising food costs, Hong Kong was the first victim of a new phenomenon: hyper-inflation in real estate — collateral damage resulting from the monetary easing of the previous decade, which essentially deprived young people of their housing entitlement.
It is up to governments to combat hyper-inflation in real estate in an era of zero interest rates, by means of an aggressive policy with regard to social housing and by a fundamental overhaul of urban mobility
Secondly, the Hong Kong government was surprisingly divorced from social reality. Carrie Lam’s administration massively underestimated the local population’s rejection of the Mainland, which was seen as directly responsible for the real estate crisis. This was as much due to the way in which a cartel of a dozen or so tycoons were restricting supply as to the growth in demand arising from the influx of a million mainland Chinese since 1997, bringing the total population to 7 million. Thus an economic problem was driven to a political revolt which boiled over.
Hong Kong, August 3, 2019: Residents of Hong Kong protest the proposed extradition law with China. (omonphotography, shutterstock.com)
The third and final lesson comes from the surprising absence of leadership among the protesters, which can also be attributed to the technological revolution. Although social media certainly have the advantage of being able to mobilize a whole population within a few days, they cannot however produce a Che Guevara or a Fidel Castro, which means that any popular movement is doomed to failure over the long term… much to the gratification of Beijing.
In the future, in order to avoid more defeats for democracy when up against the rise of strong powers, our civilizations need to do three things. Firstly, it is up to governments to combat hyper-inflation in real estate in an era of zero interest rates, by means of an aggressive policy with regard to social housing and by a fundamental overhaul of urban mobility. Secondly, it is up to private companies to take on the new social responsibilities that fall to them, all the more so when human talent and financial resources have definitively deserted the public sphere to join the private sector. Thirdly, it is up to every one of us to bear in mind that, as we enter a decade that will witness the artificial intelligence revolution, the incredible leverage that digital power can exert will never transform our societies if it is not headed up by visionary human leadership.