HONG KONG — In a city with more Rolls Royces per capita than anywhere on Earth, you would think the Occupy movement would have no trouble gaining traction.
Yet after nine months, Hong Kong’s dwindling band of Occupy protesters, who have claimed a strip of plaza under HSBC’s headquarters, acknowledge that they have had a marginal impact on the consciousness of the city.
“We changed some people’s minds. Not many, just a little,” says Peter Kwok, 28, a swimming instructor who has spent six days a week at the camp for the last eight months. He estimated that 10 people are still active at Occupy.
One day after a judge ruled that the protesters had two weeks to defend against HSBC’s demands that they be expelled, the encampment was quiet. A middle-aged man sat on a ragged couch, next to a whiteboard with a faded, handwritten schedule for the “Occupy Central Free School,” last updated in April. All around, young bankers in tailored shirts swarmed around two bronze statues of the HSBC lions, seldom glancing across the plaza toward the handful of tents and scattered bookshelves.
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It’s a far cry from the boisterous, drum-filled scenes of Occupy Wall Street in America. But that’s not to say that the anti-inequality message is lost on Hong Kong.
The same intense economic anxiety that fueled the Occupy movement elsewhere has been channeled into broader political movements in Hong Kong, mingling with demands for democracy, freedom from meddling by mainland China, and more affordable housing.
The last decade has seen an awakening of political consciousness, with frequent protests, culminating in demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in 2004, and again in June of this year.
While tensions with mainland China are the biggest driver of protests, Hong Kong’s huge wealth gap, Asia's largest, is a growing source of discontent. In 2011, the city’s Gini coefficient — a measure of wealth inequality — rose to 0.537, surpassing the US, Singapore, and mainland China.
Indeed, the difference between the haves and the have-nots is stark.
Nearly half of Hong Kong’s population lives in public housing, and tens of thousands more sleep in depressing “cage homes” no bigger than a bed; yet the city has the world’s priciest real estate, and has more billionaires per capita than anywhere else on the globe.
Increasingly, local tycoons like Li Ka-shing, the richest man in Asia, and the billionaire Kwok brothers (who were recently arrested on charges of bribery) are seen less as heroes than wielders of monopolistic power over the economy and the political system.
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All this adds up to an environment in which Occupy may not have caught on because its ideas have already gone mainstream.
Of course, it has not helped that the Occupy movement in HSBC plaza has seemed to pride itself on exclusion.
Some visitors were told that if they wanted to find out the message of Occupy, they would have to stay with them for days.
And every Sunday, the plaza was flooded with huge numbers of Filipina maids on their one-day weekends — surely part of Hong Kong’s 99 percent — but the two groups remained separate.
Now, whether or not the camp is forced to break up, few Hong Kongers even seem to remember that the protesters are there. As an editorial in The Standard, one of Hong Kong’s two daily English newspapers, observed, if not for the judge’s ruling on Monday, “many people would have forgotten about the Occupy movement in Hong Kong” altogether.