Cont’d: UM – from inequality to anger-frustration & radicalisation

Lots of things on my mind now. Crazy how the world and myself evolve and I absolutely don’t have enough time to digest everything that illicit a response on me, and as usual I want to process too much at once. Which leads to processing nothing at all. A sign is I have borrowed so many books on labour strikes in HK & Korea, and also bought books on how to brace oneself during totalitarianism (it wasn’t a pressing issue to me until yesterday, for better or worse). The books I bought in my last rather hyper episode earlier this year still… remains unread :). Though the motivation behind buying and borrowing have changed for the better – not equipping myself with things that I *should* know, but things that I genuinely have an intense interest to get to know? (Did I think this way as well last time? A bit?) Let see.

Suppress your urges at times is good. I remember really wanting to acquire the book On Tyranny by Tim Sydner despite having an e-copy. Thinking of buying at Eslite, e-printing, etc… then I read the pdf and realised maybe I can just finish reading it on that. Also I am super impatient (this seems to be a recurring theme) – I kept reading that pdf while very impatiently waiting for a cross-harbour bus to bring me back home, having stayed out last night. I also kept looking at the new books or related online articles intermittently when chatting with a friend. Just bad habit. Really really bad. I am trying to learn force-feeding myself less and letting myself loose a lot more often.

For instance, this practice of writing a casual reflection of books/ articles I’ve read makes me feel like I’m chasing quickly gone buses. My trains of thought. Umbrella Movement, Populism, Totalitarianism, Strikes, Labour Ownership plans, Hong Kong future, relationship stuff, blah blah blah, all come and go in a rush. It’s like being in a CD shop listening to 4-5 or 6 different headphones interchangeably while trying to get a record “finished” and burnt onto my brain. Impossible. I now get what my friend says, I’m only going less fast. Not slowed down.

Inhale: a cooling sensation. Each exhale: a healing sensation. (Sexy yoga instructor tone.) (Doing shoulder, neck and back yoga with Youtube helped me lots. Let me realise how fucking tired I am over the weekends.)


CUHK battle against invading police got my nerves. I had this moment of helplessness seeing the fall of Hong Kong and the blatant loss of any remaining ruling legitimacy of the HKSAR govt. I got back to my depression brain for 15 minutes I think, twisting my fingers and sitting still in my metallic-ised brain on a sofa. My strength came from all the others who persevered through darkness in the past and present, in China and beyond. Hannah Arendt who survived the Holocaust. Tyrannies with the popular front crushed but restored as victorious after a few years or decades. We are one and it’s our turn. Solidarity and empathy mean something concrete, something that’s in front of our eyes, something that we can’t cover our senses to anymore.

Everything before – nothing but a truce.

A Devil’s Contract between a placated people and the cake divider(s).

Therefore, in the realities of the capitalist system, … no matter what form they may assume, whether of one imperialist coalition against another, or of a general alliance embracing all the imperialist powers, [they] are inevitably nothing more than a “truce” in periods between wars.

Peaceful alliances prepare the ground for wars, and in their turn grow out of wars; the one conditions the other, producing alternating forms of peaceful and non-peaceful struggle on one and the same basis of imperialist connections and relations within world economics and world politics.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Chapter IX


So, the 2nd set of papers I reviewed for Chris:

  • Zamęcki, Ł. (2018). Hong Kong Youth Radicalization from the Perspective of Relative Deprivation.
  • Cheng, J. Y. S. (2014). The emergence of radical politics in Hong Kong: Causes and impact. China Review, 14(1), 199-232.
  • Cheng, E. (2016). Street Politics in a Hybrid Regime: The Diffusion of Political Activism in Post-colonial Hong Kong. The China Quarterly,226, 383-406. 
  • 何明修. (2017). 第三勢力與傘兵: 比較台港佔領運動後的選舉參與. 中國大陸研究, 60(1), 59-86.
  • John Lowe & Eileen Yuk-Ha Tsang (2018) Securing Hong Kong’s identity in the colonial past: strategic essentialism and the umbrella movement, Critical Asian Studies, 50:4, 556-571

I think a much more layered picture that account for many features I observed/ experienced during and after the UM emerge when these papers are added to the more cornerstone-like framework provided by C. K. Lee. Especially on the relationship between economic grievances, the psychology driving a fomenting class of people to think & react in certain ways, and how it is manifested in narratives and political actions among us. (Sounds very social science.)


So let’s start with Cheng (2016) whose framework is most like how I used to perceive the trajectory of HK movements before. Basically it’s the state V. civil society narrative – regime vs. people locked in an institutional bind (ineffective LegCo & constitutional powers of the CPC), the people instigating protests over a host of issues (inequality, ‘white elephant’ developmentalist projects), and how the hybrid (semi-democratic) regime responded with an increased range of repertoire (e.g. more overt Chinese intervention, patriotic education, etc.), leading to a further diffusion and ‘scale shift’ in the participation rates after repeated public staging of defiance.

It’s the general way we viewed what happened in the past: escalation of conflict along the essentially one same fault-line: a non-responsive regime vs. people demanding representation. That’s how I understood HK politics since secondary school and got that desperate, burning desire to know how to get out of the bind where there seems to be no way out. Sighing and head-shaking in face of every inevitable escalation, sighing at every moment where the regime could have conceded but chose not to – really, instead to escalate it further in much more ridiculous Chinese ways. Sighing. Seeing us caught and sink into the spider web-like spiral.

That’s why it’s also one of the least interesting paper. This way of looking at the issue is too limited and lacking in insight to me. Also offer not much hope or action guidance except in ‘strengthening CS further to exert a greater cost on the regime if there is no concession’ -> concession is outright denied -> lie down and cry internally -> Get more frustration and want to erupt next time -> Repeat. (That’s literally my internal dialogue…)

This also explains the deliberative democracy theory-inspired ‘civil disobedience’ adopted by Benny Tai. As a CIVIL society you can only play your hand with the regime while retaining moral legitimacy through binding your hands by the law eventually. His is the biggest jump the placated pro-democratic middle class or middle-class-to-be – sophisticated enough to get the convoluted idea of ‘breaking the law so we can obey better laws’ – can take.


I think Cheng (2014), Zamecki and Lowe & Tsang can be discussed together as they serve to explain a crucial missing piece in the puzzle – objective conditions of inequality, the psychology of HKer’s economic grievances, and the partial form of their manifestation: populist nostalgia for British HK.


So I think the Cheng paper worths quoting in full in part when he discussed inequality. Sure, we all know HK is a very unequal place, but even I got my mouth wide open when I went through the statistics in the way he laid them out:

At the end of September 2013, the C. Y. Leung administration released its definition of the local poverty line, that is, families with incomes equal to or less than half of the median income of families in Hong Kong with the same number of members.

In concrete dollar terms, this definition refers to one-person families with monthly incomes of HK$3,600 or less in 2012, two-person families with monthly incomes of HK$7,700 or less, three-person families with monthly incomes of HK$11,500 or less, four-person families with monthly incomes of HK$14,300 or less, five-person families with monthly incomes of HK$14,800 or less, and families of six persons or more with monthly incomes of HK$15,800 or less.

According to these criteria, people in poverty amounted to 1.31 million, 19.6 percent of the population. With the intervention of social security and various benefits, people in poverty still reached 1.02 million.

I am sorry for being an off-ground person. $11500 for 3 people a month?? $3600 for one? $15,800 for 6? ~20% of the population living this life? I know inflation sort of grew with rent during 2013-9, but we all know wages increase far far slower than rent and price of stuff.

So I found the newest stat:

15,000 for 3?? 9800 for 2?? WTFFFF I can’t even imagine 9,800 monthly salary for one person being sufficient, given that rents are like 8,000 for a 100 sq. foot flat in Wan Chai? (Of course you can live in an even worse condition for not a lot less. And of course migrant workers are working at $3,721/month 🙂 )

20% = 7,000,000*0.2 = 1,4oo,ooo people living this way ?

Lord save us.

Maybe it’s just my stupidity for not having known these numbers by heart. But like compare it to my personal salary, which already isn’t high for a uni grad, I can’t imagine getting that amount on my bank book. Just wtf. Maybe lots of them are elderly – but still, elderly need to *live* and with this number they probably aren’t *living*.

Ok, so the Cheng paper also did some Gini coefficient and top 10% v. bottom 10% comparisons. Spare me for some perhaps common-sensical data to those who care about inequality:

Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and the poor poor has been widening. In 2001, the Gini coefficient in Hong Kong already reached 0.525; it is expected to be even higher.

Normally, a level exceeding 0.4 provokes caution, and the territory’s level is comparable to that in some Latin American countries. According to a document prepared by the local legislature, the Gini coefficients were 0.249 in Japan in 1993, 0.326 in Taiwan in 2000, 0.316 in South Korea in 1998, and 0.425 in Singa- pore in 1998.

In September 2010, Oxfam in Hong Kong published its report on poverty in the territory, which indicated that the incomes of the poorest one-fifth (20%) of families had shown no improvement in the past five and a half years and the median monthly incomes of the poorest one-tenth (10%) and one-fifth (20%) of families were HK$3,000 and HK$6,000, respectively.

In comparison, the median monthly income of the richest one-tenth of families had risen by 16 percent to HK$80,900, about 27 times that of the poorest one-tenth of families, reflecting that the gap between the rich and the poor had been widening since 2004.

Yea I know friends who can earn $80,000 at least as a 2-person household as fresh grad 🙂 So I am more accustomed to the top-end rather than the eye-popping bottom end. Just CRAZY. I can’t even sketch that whatever distribution curve – intensively skewed to the left.

Yep. I am more impressed by the data Cheng presented than his argument, that is there is no apparent correlation between economic inequality and the radicalisation of HK politics (remember the distant past where ‘radicalisation’ means Long Hair throwing banana skin in LegCo):

It has to be admitted that the existing literature has not been able to establish the organic linkage between poverty, social inequalities, and so forth on one hand and actual political radical actions on the other, though incidents of protest activities and related minor conflicts with the police have been on the rise.

Arguably a correlation can be established, but the causal effect has not been well analyzed. After all, the number of radical political activists in the territory remains very small.

Leaving us the puzzle intact to resolve. Thanks 🙂 He did mention people’s growing anger on the perceived inaction of the Tung, Tsang and C.Y. Leung administrations, involving slogans like 官商勾結, but nothing more insightful than what I would know from the news?

(Tbf, the poverty stat is something I should have known from the news. I guess I have been properly de-sensitised from the weight of those stat until now, forced to go through it purposefully. *thanks education & media*)


Cheng mentioned briefly that HK used not to have this issue with ruling legitimacy because people can move up the social ladder – just like the Chinese today who get satisfied by the CPC’s economic performance. Now that desperation really comes from not seeing an economic future that worths aspirating to, and rather seeing a political future filled with China-style cultural & social repression. So that desperation has a real, objective basis in the bursting of the promised middle-class dream for all, a promise made & once realised in the bright colonial 70s. (For those at 收成期.)

Zamecki provides a more intimate sketch of the different psychology in facing economic relative deprivation and the political one. HKers were promised high on political reform in early 2000s – there is now a gap between the high expectation and the stagnating and even failing reality, called ‘progressive RD’ by Zamecki. Whereas in economics, the people had received no promise, but rather at least a retainment of the status quo, while the reality underdelivered. This is called ‘decremental RD’. ‘Progressive RD’ – expecting high but receiving even lower than before – illicit a stronger emotional sentiment of anger from injustice regarding what one deserves. This explains the differing importance of political > economic demands psychologically.

(On this Ho Ming-sho complemented with the HKer’s general belief in universal suffrage as the panacea for ALL social questions ranging from inequality, collusion to immigration control. So political reform is generally seen as the tool for economic changes among all things.)

There is a move-up-the-ladder from objectively being deprived, to realising it, to being angered by one’s own deprivation, towards collective action in order to eliminate deprivation. I think Zamecki provided a sketch of a causal linkage:

The reason behind the frustration among Hong Kong’s students is rooted in their social position and political expectations. In the surveys on the group of Hong Kong students, almost all interviewees answered that they are strongly dissatisfied or fairly dissatisfied with the possibilities of social upward mobility in Hong Kong (73% fairly dissatisfied and strongly dissatisfied; cf. Chiu, 2010). Another reason for concern was the issue of housing – more than 90% of respondents were dissatisfied with housing quality (cf. Hong Kong Ideas Centre, 2015). Moreover, most of the students feel that the political and economic situation in Hong Kong became worse (91 % of answers concerning the political situation; 56% concerning the economic situation). Finally, many of them did not believe that the situation was going to improve (77% of the surveyed students).

The existence of collective identity, grievances and emotions is essential to outbreaks of radical actions. According to research (Simon et al., 1998; Stürmer and Simon, 2004), the role of collective identity in the process of the transformation of frustration seems to be crucial. Collective identity is also rooted in shared feelings ofinjustice. Stronger feelings of injustice, in turn, depend on how vulnerable the endangered value for a given person is. Consequently, the greater the danger for the group is, the greater the anger and the determination to participate in the protests.

This formation of collective identity is exactly what Lowe & Tsang contributed by examining the nostalgic ‘British Hongkonger’ identification: a very much known but insightful when re-digested mechanism in the current ‘HK Independence’ call , which stems from a feeling of hopelessness regarding the possibilities in the future, calling for a nostalgic, glorious re-imagination of the past in order to guide one’s vision for the future. One that also separates ‘us’ culturally, socioeconomically and geopolitically from the under-class Chinese.


Zamecki also provided a timely sketch of the steps it takes for an ordinary frustrated teen to become politically radicalised:

Fathali M. Moghaddam (2005), in turn, illustrates the radicalization process in a metaphor of a six-floor narrowing staircase:

The ground floor is the feeling of relative deprivation; the first floor is the search for options and solutions; the second floor is the anger and hostility against those who are perceived as responsible for the injustice; the third floor is the moral justification of terrorism; the fourth floor is recruitment to the terrorist group; and the fifth floor are terrorist actions.

The transformation from radical opinions to radical actions thus starts somewhere between the third and the fourth floor. I am of the opinion that we can use this model to analyze not only terrorism but also violence.

In the past few months we have seen a lot of moral justification, on utilitarian and normative value, of violent action. A LOT, even a blackmailing wave of it on the poisonous online network formed to mobilise this disaggregated mass over symbolic identity of ‘Hongkongers’. Which is something some of my friends and I are sick of.

Anger-frustration, more than ever, drives the eruptive politics of Hong Kong:

Gurr stressed the key role of frustration at the outbreak of collective violence. It is the “frustration-aggression” that is the primary source of the political violence.


Bit too tired to go into Ho Ming-sho’s very insightful paper contrasting the HK post-UM elections with Taiwan’s post-Sunflower movement elections. The main take-away: established opposition had been too under-resourced & badly coordinated to absorb the newly politicised, politicised on a ground that is different from them: self-determination rather than a democratic return to China. Quite good to see the ‘under-resourced and too powerless’ point emphasized, which is an important institutional, structural factor in HK politics but now often taken as the ‘original sin’ all on the opposition. There is so much more to this paper but I need a rest ..

I guess no one’s reading up to this point so thanks,

Anna x

Author: Veronique

To be tenacious, patient and independent.

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