Thursday, June 5, 2014

Days of Protest, not Shopping

Jam-packed protests

Empty luxury stores

Where have all the shoppers gone? It’s a question that many luxury retail shops in Hong Kong have been asking of late. Yesterday, on June 4 – the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the shop owners may have found the answer to that question by heading out to Victoria Park, where upwards of 180,000+ people gathered in a candlelight vigil to commemorate the event and raise their concerns to the world.

As reported in this SCMP article, the volume of luxury retail buying in the SAR has fallen off faster than the glass face of a cheap Shenzhen knock-off watch. The figures are startling. Jewelry and watch sales plunged by 40% in April. Sales of consumer durables were down by a fifth, and those of electrical goods and photographic equipment were down by 8.3 per cent. Financial Secretary John Tsang said: “The drop is the biggest since February 2009. If the decline persists, it could affect the economy and the employment situation.”

The abrupt change of fortunes over the past couple of years for the retail sector comes as little surprise to anyone who has taken note of the dismaying transformation of the urban landscape into an antiseptic sprawl of shops selling $3,000 hand bags, $300 jeans, $1,000 shoes and $100,000 watches in order to cater to a single demographic – the cash-flushed tourist from the Mainland. Now that the parade of well heeled Chinese has quieted to a peep as a result of the anti-corruption campaign and the slowdown in the Mainland economy, Hong Kong is left singing the double whammy blues of under-utilized retail space and a public that feels disaffected and jilted by its leaders for shunting aside their welfare. The luxury malls feel like ghost-towns during weekdays, while on weekends, eyeballs get a lot more action than wallets. Meanwhile, tea shops and family dinner tables are filled with locals who are increasingly pissed as hell about it all. It’s a safe bet that no one is going to cry over the demise of a bunch of Louis Vuitton, Valentino, or Vertu stores.

This year’s June 4th protest  has provided an occasion to reflect on interesting ironies about China’s development over the past quarter century. Back then, the Beijing protest was over government suppression of civil liberties in a society where poverty was also a widespread problem. In response to the uprising, the Chinese leadership liberalized the economy in order to increase the welfare of the country’s citizens, while still keeping thumbs firmly pressed down on personal freedoms. In the ensuing twenty five years, stunning rates of economic growth did much to keep a lid on widespread public protests; people were loath to upset the apple cart while they were able to bake larger and sweeter pies from them. However, the grotesque wealth inequality - much of it skewed in favor of the families of the bureaucrats who brutally crushed the student gathering - that has resulted from the government's go-go investment policies has been stoking public disgruntlement again. In essence, suppression of economy liberties caused by an uneven playing field has now become as big an issue as that of personal liberty.
The record crowds in Hong Kong that showed up to light candles and call out to Beijing and the world harbor a wide variety of concerns. They want to be able to directly choose their leader through free elections in 2017. They want those individuals and public institutions that are in a position to promote social equality to do more than look after themselves. They are outraged that rampant Mainland growth has imported pollution, inflation and scarcity for essentials such as quality healthcare, education, and safe foodstuffs. They want to be able to shop in their neighborhoods for things which they need everyday, rather than window-shop at glittery things they can only imagine owning without busting their budgets. But underlying it all, they want what anyone anywhere would want - fairness and freedom in a place where they have a sense of belonging. It would be sad (and potentially dangerous) to think that it would take another twenty five years to give those basics back to the people. It's not too much to ask for.

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