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  • James Tam

The Grievances Behind Occupy Central

Now that the Occupy Central dust has settled in the landfills, it’s time to take a step back to try to understand the nature of the discontent.

When everyone was preoccupied with Occupy Central, I noticed a general distinction between the yellow and blue sympathisers I knew. The blue ones were on average the more analytical type — techies and scientists etc. Yellow supporters tended to be more passionate than left-brained. They felt it in their heart that something needed addressing, but couldn’t quite put their finger on it. Some people could be highly intelligent, yet refuse to subordinate an emotional response to cerebral scrutiny as a matter of principle. They regard analysis less true than feeling. I feel the same way too in many things. But politics is a notable exception. Modern politics has been plagued by crafty professionals whose job is to incite and manipulate mass emotions, and suppress rationality.

In ‘My Take on Occupy Central’ (, I suggested that OC protesters did have legitimate grievances, but were derailed, even hijacked, by dubious politicos and Democracy quacks waving the vacuous banner of Freedom and Democracy in front of their eyes.

To me, impeded social mobility and widening wealth disparity are two social ills that demand urgent attention.

The wealth chasm in any capitalistic system is a one-way gap which only widens. This systemic imbalance is becoming a problem in many places, not just Hong Kong, hence the Occupy Wall Street movement which Occupy Central copycatted without digesting the underlying thinking. Anyways, nothing will be done about Wall Street until the paupers have enough money to control their Democracy, which sounds paradoxical doesn’t it?

In the not so olden days, when HK was emerging from relative poverty, everyone (except the colonial masters) climbed doggedly to move up the social and economic ladder. The poor were relatively ‘happy’ because they had plenty of company, and lots of headroom to rise. ‘Just work hard, and tomorrow will be better’ — an understanding hardcoded in the Chinese DNA spurred everyone on, until stopped by mass balance and saturation.

A community can only generate so much fortune. If most of it is in the hands of a few, others have to make do with whatever’s leftover. It also becomes progressively difficult for the not-yet-haves to climb the economic ladder. The rungs above are fully occupied, and the incumbents will bequeath their privileged positions to heirs, regardless of merit. When the economy expands, new fortunes are swept away as return on capital. We all work for capital, don’t we? As a character Ma Yili in Man’s Last Song ( ponders: How’s that different from the injustice of a hereditary aristocracy in a feudal society?

Meanwhile, the education system moulders on the side, destroying the traditional upward path for the underprivileged, whittling their situation into a dead-end.

But surprisingly, the grassroots are not the most unhappy, perhaps they are too busy making ends meet and, being more in touch with reality, not so easily manipulated by high-sounding political slogans. The most acutely discontent are the middle-class kids, a main pillar of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. The fact that the entitlement class is the most unhappy might seem puzzling at first, but should have been expected.

When Hong Kong was kinda poor, it was a race track. Young people knew exactly what to do in life: follow the white lines, and run! There were enough medals at the finish line to make it worthwhile. Even the losers enjoyed a good sweat. Young people need a tangible goal to strive for. It’s biology, shaped by human evolution.

Then decades of laissez-faire policy handed a grotesque chunk of wealth to a few. Most of the leftovers was lapped up by the middle-class, and held onto for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Saving is normally a good Chinese habit. However, when savings are no longer for rainy days, but to keep the next generation(s) comfortably unproductive, a social problem is created. It has also unwittingly seeded the woes of the bourgeois kids.

Raised by amahs who sleep in closets, HK’s entitlement kids take overseas vacations and piano lessons since kindergarten. They have a personal golf coach, ballet and calligraphy teachers, the latest model of smart phone, even a flat from Mammy and Daddy for their 18th birthday, but don’t know how to fry eggs. When a roof over the head and rice in the bowl are taken for granted, and most imaginable targets in life have been pre-conquered on their behalf by anxious parents, these youngsters are left with just emptiness. Their youthful instincts crave something substantial and meaningful, but can’t find any. It transmutes into an unfathomable itch they can’t locate, and don’t know where to scratch.

These young people have been lovingly denied many things that had made life a worthwhile adventure for millennia: aspirations, struggles, responsibilities, hardships, risks, achievements, consequences, dreams. So they redirect their energy and ambition to video games. Some venture into the realm of illusive political idealism without bothering with the homework. They are uniquely restless and phlegmatic at the same time, blissfully unaware yet forcefully confident. Their brains are wash-friendly like the synthetic fabrics that they wear. They despise pragmatism (which has little connection with their real lives), and reflexively loathe communism without inquiry or contemplation. They guard their individuality with petulant fervour, yet cannot function without round-the-clock “likes” from peers. Live has never been more undemanding and unfulfilling for young Homo sapiens.

Along come some grownups with the idea of a toy revolution to demand things they already have too much of: Freedom! Democracy! Why not? As usual, there won’t be much consequence anyways. So they put on their kamikaze headbands, and lay siege to the mirage castle, charging straw-men with bayonets of yellow umbrellas.

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