Creative non-fiction / March 2015 (Issue 27)

The Mantis And The King

by Christopher Hill

I did witness the protests; well at least from the outside looking in. My mum landed in Hong Kong for a visit around the third week after the civil disobedience began, so my wife and I took her down to Causeway Bay, the city's shopping mecca. The three of us stood at the brink of the barricades that housed a large sea of multicoloured tents and took a couple of selfies. There didn't seem to be anyone around. The tents staked out the dissident's territory like a legion of terracotta warriors. The strong smell of marijuana sifting across the street caught me off guard. I glanced at a small group of police and wondered why they weren't charging in to make arrests. As it turned out, my senses were merely confused, a concoction of Chinese medicine was the source of the aroma. My firsthand experience of the "Umbrella Movement" ended soon after. We finished taking our pictures and headed off for a little retail therapy and coffee.

I did also show solidarity with some Facebook activism. I turned my profile picture into a yellow ribbon, however, the protests started to drag on after a month, so I changed it back to a shot of my son and me on holiday. Finally, there were a couple of heartfelt posts on the plight of the protesters, which did get reposted a few times, and I shared a few articles with my friends and family back home.

My lack of active participation in the protests wasn't driven by apathy, but a self-serving desire to protect my family. I have done two stints in Hong Kong since 2005, and so the city is a place close to my heart. I still remember the excitement of arriving at the airport and speeding into Central on the airport train marvelling at the abundant apartment buildings that sprung up like giant honeycombs in all directions. My first spell in the city was spent as an English teacher. I came for the opportunity to work in Asia's largest financial center; a place frequently summed up by the Cantonese axiom: No money, no talk. I, along with many other expats, left Hong Kong after the 2008 global economic crisis. Like the 2001 SARS epidemic, and the 1997 handover, the crisis rocked the city. This rollercoaster track record has ensured not only a constant ebb and flow of foreigners, but also locals. Since the early 1990s, many middle class and wealthy Hongkongers have held dual citizenships in places like the UK, the US and Canada—one foot out of the door—just in case.

I returned to Hong Kong in 2011 on a scholarship at a local university and was, at the time of the protests, just three months shy of submitting my dissertation. For me, this was the rub, with a young son recently added to the family, I wasn't about to risk my scholarship, student visa and three years of hard work, slogging away at my immensely important contribution to the field of literary studies, to have it all taken away by getting arrested. I did also have a few lesser concerns: I was not a permanent resident of Hong Kong and would not have any right to vote should universal suffrage be enacted; The Chinese government was also pointing an accusing finger at the attendance of foreigners at the protests as evidence that Western powers were meddling in its internal affairs. All of this gave me pause for thought.

Don't be a mantis trying to stop a bullock cart goes an old Chinese proverb. It is a caution for anyone who might overrate her- or himself in the face of an overwhelmingly superior force. The mantis' reputation for being fearless to the point of recklessness is an old one in Chinese culture. At first glance, the protests that jounced the special administrative region of Hong Kong for two months at the end of 2014 would seem an apt example of this adage. Students predominated the demonstrations, and it is hard to fault them for their bravery, yet, for all their efforts, the task at hand always seemed a little hopeless. One might also argue that the students demonstrated a certain naivety in their assessment of the particular bullock cart they chose to confront. The Hong Kong government has revealed itself to be little more than a proxy for The Communist Party of China (CPC)—the instrumental force behind the 1987 Tiananmen Square massacre. The CPC is an organisation with a history of ending the lives of its young people for the sake of its own ends.

The trouble with proverbs is that they all too easily fall into the realm of cliché and are readily neutralised with opposing truisms. The mantis and the bullock cart stems from an Spring and Autumn period fable born in China's feudal age. In the original narrative, a mantis confronts the King of Qi while the latter is travelling with his entourage. The King stops his procession when he comes up against the small insect, and makes enquires. Marvelling at its bravery, the King exclaims that if the mantis were a soldier it would be the most courageous warrior in the world. Rather than killing the mantis, the King chooses, out of respect for the tiny creature, to turn around and head back the way he came. Over the centuries, the interpretation of the fable has changed so that the modern idiom has come to invoke the opposite connotation of the original narrative.

The encounter resembles the confrontation between Hong Kong's protestors and the city's rulers. Instead of seeing the student protestors as a brave example of the country's future, the government has recognised them as a threat to its control. The Umbrella Revolution, the international media tells us, is about universal suffrage; however, the right to elect officials is symptomatic of deeper divisions in Hong Kong.

Many of those who took part in the protests were high school and university students, and their discontent and desire to choose their own government has grown out of the bleak future that confronts many of them. There is a feeling among the young and the poor that the incumbent government represent the interests of the city's elites and not their own. They are right to be concerned. Four family dynasties run Hong Kong, led by Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau-kee, the Kwok brothers and Cheng Yu-tung. The dominance of this plutonomy of tycoons, as they are locally known, is reminiscent of the feudal kings who once ruled ancient China.

According to a 2014 index published by the Economist, Hong Kong holds the dubious honour of being the world's capital of cronyism, winning by a substantial margin over any of its closest rivals ("Planet Plutocrat"). The city's elite has a net worth equivalent to 75% of the region's GDP. The five wealthiest of this group are on the Forbes top 100 global rich list and made the bulk of their money building and selling tiny overpriced apartments to Hongkongers (Stephen). The Hong Kong government has a long history of surreptitious collusion with the tycoons. It has achieved this through ensuring that the region's limited land supply is released in large pockets with specific criteria for development that make it impossible for any but the wealthiest and most influential to purchase.

The effect of this alliance has multiplied over the last 20 years and has had a significant impact on Hong Kong's people. The city is a hugely successful financial center, with a government that in 2012/13 managed a financial surplus in the region of US $8 billion ("2013-2014 Budget").[i] Unemployment in 2014 was just 3.3 percent (Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department). However, a substantial divide between rich and poor has grown. Since I first arrived in the territory in 2005, rents have tripled, but wages have remained stagnant, barely keeping up with inflation. Hong Kong's poorest endure wretched lives. As many 170,000 are believed to live in sub-divided apartments, the worst of which are known as "caged homes"—tiny 16-square foot enclosures, many of which contain no kitchen or bathroom facilities ("Study Reveals").

According to the Hong Kong government, the median monthly combined income for households in the city during 2013 was HK $22,400 (Hong Kong Information Services Department). This works out to around US $37,500 per annum, even accounting for the one-month Chinese New year bonus that many locals receive.[ii] Hong Kongers do pay less tax on their income than most other nations, and there are no goods and services taxes—nonetheless, this median is well below America's.[iii]

Over the past three and a half years, I have had a small taste of what it is like to be on the wrong side of Hong Kong's wealth chasm. Between my partner's salary, gained working as a secretary, and my studentship we earned a fraction more than the city's 2013 median. Living on this income for the past three years was not easy for us, but with careful management of our budget, and support from family and friends, we managed to cope. We were forced to move far from Hong Kong Island and the expat life that I had known before. The only place we could afford rent was Tin Shui Wai, an area located at the Northwestern corner of Hong Kong, near its border with Mainland China. Tin Shui Wai is nicknamed the City of Sadness among Hong Kongers after a series of suicides and other social issues afflicted the area. Many of our local friends were astonished and concerned when we first moved to the neighbourhood. Despite its reputation, we have found it to be a comfortable environment with a friendly community. We also have not wanted for food or clothing and are even able to employ a fulltime nanny from Indonesia. She left her own child in her home country to take care of ours while we work, a person then, who has known more hardship and poverty than we ever have.

The sticking point is that although we have got by, the idea of amassing enough money to buy a home or saving for a comfortable retirement would be a near impossible task, and plenty of locals face the same situation. Hong Kong people do have access to public housing although only after signing up for a three-year waiting list (Hong Kong Housing Authority). To cope with these challenges, they often choose to live with extended families—five, six or more people crammed into a tiny apartment. However, even if they manage to put a little money away, the idea that they could save enough for a deposit on a home is, for many, fantastic. In 2013, the average price for a 40 square meter apartment, in Hong Kong's New Territories (the cheapest and farthest region from the financial district) was just shy of US $400,000. These challenges are not altogether new to Hongkongers. Life has never been easy for the city's working class; however, there has been a long held belief that if you worked hard enough you could make your way.

I sat down to dim sum with my landlord during the protests and was curious to hear his point of view. He is a pleasant fellow, quietly spoken and intelligent. For many years, he worked with a local utilities company owned by one of the tycoons. When the 1997 handover loomed, he took the precaution of moving his family overseas for a few years before returning once he was certain there would be no trouble with China. With some astute investments in property, he has managed himself a comfortable retirement. Far from flashing his wealth around, he lives humbly, preferring to spend his money travelling the world with his partner.

As we ate, he offered me a few furtive glances, before cautiously enquiring about my thoughts on the protestor's disruption of the city. He went on to express great concern about the students' behaviour. He agreed that universal suffrage would be best for Hong Kong, but felt that protesting was the wrong way to bring about change. He abhorred the idea that the students could affect traffic and disrupt business. He reiterated that the students represented a small number of outspoken radicals, who were ignoring the views of the silent majority of Hongkongers.

My landlord is not a member of the elite group of tycoons who have shaped Hong Kong; nonetheless, he has benefited from the government's management of the property market. Like many middle class people of his generation, the status quo suits him. Were he a young person trying to make his way in Hong Kong now, I can't help but worry that the future would have something different in store for him. The gains in the property market that have made many of the older generation wealthy represent an insurmountable wall to young people and to the working class trying to get by.

The wealth gap is not just confined to property either—the overall opportunities for young people in Hong Kong are few and far between. Less than half the students who applied for a university place in 2013 got one ("Hong Kong's Growing Shortage"). The remainder must continue education at private and vocational institutions, or look overseas. The top postgraduate positions at the universities are frequently filled with foreigners. In my first year as a PhD candidate, I attended a seminar for doctoral students from across the liberal arts and social sciences. Of the forty odd people that attended just a handful were local Hongkongers. An equal number were expatriates like myself, but the vast majority was from Mainland China, much to the chagrin of the local sociologist who was enlightening us on the identity issues Hongkongers face in their relationship with Mainland Chinese.

Hong Kong does not have a reputation for cultural innovation, and locals often refer to it as a "cultural desert." It is easy enough to argue that innovation is superfluous in a city that is all about chasing the dollar, but business innovation is also sorely lacking in the region, and top jobs, like university spots, frequently go to imported talent from both overseas and Mainland China. There are few stories of young entrepreneurs or start-ups coming out of Hong Kong. The city's lack of innovation is less to do with its culture than the philosophy of its elite business leaders and the government's political-economic policy. The protestor's yearning to stand up for their rights, and the plethora of forms through which they sought to express this desire during the protests, reflects a generation brimming with creativity, energy and ideas, but with few outlets to develop them.

Hong Kong promotes itself as a free market paradise for business, but for young people, this is a distant reality. Hong Kong is not about to produce the next Mark Zuckerberg. Unlike Silicon Valley, for example, where venture capitalists are willing to back young people and their ideas, Hong Kong's plutocracy have squeezed out competition and sewn up all its major industries, creating barriers to entry.[iv] Even an entrepreneur in the mould of Alibaba's Jack Ma is more likely to come out of Mainland China than Hong Kong.

Beijing summoned Hong Kong's tycoons for consultations after the protests began. President Xi commented at the meeting: "I see most of my old friends," reflecting the cozy relationship the tycoons enjoy with the CPC (Chan). The axis that has formed between Hong Kong's government, its plutocracy and the CPC is significant because many of the party's members utilise Hong Kong's property market and businesses to stow money outside of the Mainland in order to reduce their exposure to the local economy. This alliance has not only elevated Hong Kong's wealth gap, but has turned Hong Kong into a giant duty-free zone for Mainland Chinese visitors—a huge boon for the large businesses the tycoons control, but one that has exacerbated social divisions between everyday Hongkongers and Mainland Chinese.

The implications of this alliance are ominous, because there is far too much money at stake for anyone in power to risk changes to the way the city is run. Hong Kong's Chief Executive C.Y. Leung summed the situation up best with his comments on universal suffrage: "If it's entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you'd be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US $1,800 a month" (Brown). Leung openly admits in this statement that it would be unacceptable to let Hong Kong's poor choose their leader.

The "Umbrella Revolution" then is about universal suffrage, but at its heart, it is about freeing the city's everyday people from a strategic alliance of governments and elites that have controlled the flow of the city's wealth to fill their own pockets. It is about opportunities for a young generation of people, who want to be a part of China's future, but is being denied access to it. Like the mantis, Hong Kong's protestors have been tremendously brave in confronting seemingly insurmountable opposition. They have captured the world's attention with their voice. Yet the "King" they confront shows no desire to back down. Rather than inspiring the CPC, the protests have merely highlighted the dangers of Hong Kong's liberal rule of law and freedom of expression. The CPC is now the world biggest political party with 86 million members; yet despite its Marxist roots, the party appears to see the future of China as one structured on an authoritarian hierarchy reminiscent of ancient China, in which elites milk the countries resources while the poor toil. In denying an ear to the protesters, the party has signaled that it is prepared to disenfranchise its own young people for money.

The protests are over, but Hong Kong is buzzing with fervour and the protesters have made it clear that this is just the beginning. Unlike myself, and many of Hong Kong's wealthy who can dust of a foreign passport and head off to another home, many of Hong Kong's students and its poor have no where to go. The CPC has even banned many of the protesters from entering the Mainland for fear they will stoke up discontent. The mantis then still stands in path of the King and it remains to be seen what will happen next. It is of course easy for me to speak from the outside looking in, much as I did when the barricades were up, so I have chosen to end with the thoughts of three young Hongkongers who describe their experience of the protests and their own ideas about the city's fate.


Anonymous—The Hong Kong protests were my first experience of engaging in a political movement. I learnt more about our government and democratic progress, and was depressed at first, but was still hopeful that we youngsters could make a change. That was why I took part in the protests; I wanted to add my own strong will to my generation's voice. As the weeks went by, the movement kept going. We longed for a response from our government, yet we were unsuccessful. At the same time, due to a large discrepancy between the political standpoints within our society, there was a lot of tension, with nonstop arguments and even violence between different parties. The pursuit of democracy was at the expense of our society's stability. In the end, both the citizens for and against the movement became losers. I believe our government has been irresponsible and should be ashamed. Even now, I see no reason why they are "chosen" to be civil servants, as nothing has been done to relieve the social tension in Hong Kong. What we needed was to solve the problem effectively by both parties compromising rather than strengthening their ideologies.

The Hong Kong I dream of would be a place where everyone lives happily with each other. There would be no conflict, as our goals, although different, would move in the same direction. The whole society would have a set of pre-agreed and clear rules, which benefited everybody and which no one could violate or override. Even the rich and privileged would have to follow the same laws as everyday people. These laws and policies, based on the social values of peace, equality and the welfare of the people, would help shape Hong Kong into a better society. Firstly, peace would mean that conflicts were resolved by means of dialogue instead of violence. Secondly, equality would mean that the best and the brightest of each generation would be able to advance in their careers, and not be limited by their social or economic status. Social welfare would mean that resources were allocated to the urgent needs of those people with lower educational and income levels. Our society would be a caring one that spreads love and helps the needy feel they are worthwhile members of our society. People would be thankful for what they have and money would not be the first and only consideration in their lives. They would work hard in order to construct a city of harmony.


Sau Yi—I am a political science student, so I do follow local political developments closely. Having said that, until the outbreak of the Umbrella Movement, I was never present physically in the field, let alone on the frontier of political reform in Hong Kong. I was merely a keyboard warrior, someone who cared about political developments but preferred expressing my opinion and discontent in cyberspace. It was not the police brutality, nor the tear gas that drove me to the street, but the unprecedented scale of the movement. My rationale for joining lurked in the paradox of collective action. On the one hand, why go onto the street when I could buck pass or free ride on someone else's effort? On the other hand, if the collective movement were not strong enough, the attempt would likely be in vain. I confess that I am a thinker more than a doer. I am coward and was scared of being apprehended even for a good cause. I wanted to change Hong Kong society, but I did not want to bear the cost. Even on the day when the tear gas was dropped I was at home watching it broadcast live on television. I thought the protests would be the same as before, with people doing some shouting and then going home. I was overwhelmed that the people were determined to stay behind. The scale of the reaction was so large that it rendered the police incapable of containing the protests. So I found myself out on the avenue in Admiralty, breathing in the cleanest air ever in an otherwise hazy district.

It was a delight to see people from all walks of life wandering around the occupied harbourfront. There was joy in our duty. It was a place without class: white-collar business people, blue-collar workers, students in uniform and frowning elderly all stood together. These people, gathered in this space, contributed to a common goal for Hong Kong. Our city has long been depicted as an individualistic, money-first and indifferent society, but this movement proved this perception wrong. Hong Kong is embarking on a soul-searching journey.

The occupied avenue during the protests was a shared space where no higher authority dominated. The city belonged to the people, for 75 days. It reflected the need for this city to open up as a space, a parallel society and economy, to be shared by its citizens, rather than just the exclusive domain of state institutions and those who can bid the highest price. Sharing the city as a space gave the general public a sense of belonging. In this way, the protests have given a voice to the future direction of Hong Kong.

In the occupied area, I witnessed a huge amount of bottom-up creativity and innovation from the protestors: self-study rooms, furniture manufacturing, sustainable electricity generation, vegetable gardening. These were pioneer examples that currently have few avenues for development and yet can transform Hong Kong into a more competitive, self-sufficient and responsible city. One that is less dependent on the development of Greater China. Committing to this path would offer an appealing alternative means of collective action. Our current government is unaccountable; I believe we have to show the government that we are capable of running a society with modest interference from Mainland China, that we can hold onto our own destiny.

So wait, what about the focus of the movement—universal suffrage? If I am honest, the idea remains a distant dream. I believe that a constructive compromise can help reconcile a society that has become polarised over the occupation. At best, the Swiss model of democracy: consultation, participation and liberty would work for me. The merit of this compromise would be to reach out to the hearts and minds of the many Hongkongers who disagree with the methods of the protestors, rational conservatives and those indifferent to politics. The size of this pool of people should not be underestimated. Those that joined in the protests have to gain the support of this wider public by resorting to a compromise. Hong Kong people treasure stability and prosperity, but these values cannot continue without a cost. Fair economic distribution requires inclusive political institutions. Fighting for universal suffrage, then, aims to level the playing field. Hong Kong is an affluent society, but its political institutions are barring everyday people from realising their dreams. That is the whole point of having the Umbrella Movement.


Charlotte Wang—On the night of September 28 2014, many Hong Kong students set aside their business and assignments and set out from their universities, dormitories and homes. I was one of them. When my friends and I got off the minibus in Wan Chai, we found the streets were all empty. It was unusual for a Sunday night. Where had all the people gone?

On our way to Gloucester Road, several young men from different directions joined us. I could tell by the yellow ribbons pinned on their chests where they were headed. There seemed to be a silent consensus that we were all going to Harcourt Road. An exhausted young man walked next to me with his forearm bandaged. I asked him how he had got injured, although I could pretty much tell.

"The police pressed the metal roadblock against me with a lot of force, they acted as if I was trying to attack," he answered in a weary voice. After talking to me, he disappeared in the crowd, shadowy and insubstantial in the twilight.

Our march continued west of Gloucester Road, passing by the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, and eventually merged with a large crowd in Harcourt Road. The number of people gathering here was beyond count; all the surrounding streets were occupied. It was mysteriously silent for a place with hundreds of thousands of people gathering. A sense of danger emerged from the unnatural stillness.

A sharp noise of trolleys rolling on the road broke the quietness all of sudden. The girls rolling the trolleys shouted, "Everyone guards up now! The police just threw tear gas down Tim Mei Avenue!"

Another boy repeated in a louder voice, "There is a shortage of saline and safety goggles at the front perimeter!" People then ransacked their bags and poured all their first-aid materials into the trolleys. We wheeled round and dashed to the front at a gallop. Those not pushing the trolleys put on their goggles and cling wrap, arming themselves with umbrellas in their left hands and mobile phones in their right.

The Wi-Fi connection broke down intermittently due to the huge load of people trying to use it at the same time. The attack by the police sparked off rumours and fear among our throng; we were bombarded with masses of uncertified information. Some people sent pictures of bullet shells and even of the People's Liberation Army marching to the protest areas. A stranger showed me a fake soundtrack of the student activists. I was confused about his intention. There was hearsay that the police would shoot after midnight. The atmosphere became tense as people pattered about whether they should retreat. No sooner had midnight come, than the police brutally pushed their perimeter forward against the protestors.

We kept moving backwards. I looked behind us and saw the police throwing tear gas at the spot where I had been standing. "That was close enough," I thought to myself. We hurriedly ran back to the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, which had become a makeshift shelter for the protesters. Medical students helped the wounded; journalism students used their cameras and computers to spread the latest news online; law students gathered and provided legal support to those who had been arrested, and the rest of us volunteered as logistics staff.

That evening, for the first time, I stayed on the street overnight. I was in awe, watching how people converted Admiralty from the economic and administrative center of the city to a base of a social movement and civil disobedience. That night, Hong Kong people gave the city a new shape.


Works Cited

"(2013-2014 Budget) Surplus Tops HK$64.9b in 2012-13 - The Standard." The Standard. The Standard Newspapers Publishing Ltd., 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 09 Jan. 2015.

Brown, Ken. "Hong Kong Leader Warns Poor Would Sway Vote: Leung Chun-ying Plays Down Expectations Ahead of Government Meeting With Student Protesters." The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.

Chan, Kelvin. "Trouble in Hong Kong? Beijing Summons Tycoons." Time. TIME INC., 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 08 Jan. 2015.

Hargreaves, Steve. "Poverty Rate 15%, Median Income $51,017." CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 09 Jan. 2015.

Hong Kong. Census and Statistics Department. Unemployment and Underemployment Statistics for September - November 2014 [18 Dec 2014]. Census and Statistics Department, The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 24 Dec. 2015.

Hong Kong. Hong Kong Housing Authority. The Government of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Housing in Figures 2014. Hong Kong Housing Authority, 2014. Web. 08 Jan. 2015.

Hong Kong. Hong Kong Housing Authority. The Government of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Number of Applications and Average Waiting Time for Public Rental Housing. Hong Kong Housing Authority, 2014. Web. 08 Jan. 2015.

Hong Kong. Information Services Department. Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government. Hong Kong: The Facts. Hong Kong: Information Services Department, 2014. Web. 08 Jan. 2015.

"Hong Kong's Growing Shortage of University Places." Time Out Hong Kong. Time Out Group Ltd., 27 Aug. 2013. Web. 08 Jan. 2015.

"Planet Plutocrat." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 15 Mar. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

Stephen, Craig. "The Year the Lid Came off Hong Kong." MarketWatch. MarketWatch, Inc, 28 Dec. 2014. Web. 09 Jan. 2015.

"Study Reveals 170,000 Living in Subdivided Flats – The Standard." The Standard. The Standard Newspapers Publishing Ltd., May 2014. Web. 08 Jan. 2015.

Webb, David. "An Aerial Tour of Hong Kong's Monopolies and Anti-competitive Practices." (n.d.): n. pag., 09 Dec. 2014. Web. 08 Jan. 2015.

[i] HK $64.9 billion. This and all subsquent currency conversions are based on a Dec 2014 Hong Kong/US currency conversion.

[ii] This figures is based on a 13-month salary (Chinese New Year bonuses equivalent to one month salary are common in Hong Kong).

[iii] According to Hargreaves, in 2012, the US median household income was US $51,017.

[iv] David Webb's "An aerial tour of Hong Kong's monopolies and anti-competitive practices" provides a catalogue of examples that describe how Hong Kong's major industries are controlled by an oligarchy of owners.

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