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Hong Kong’s Real Problem Is Inequality

A powerful, but oft-ignored factor underlying the frustrations of Hong Kong’s people is inequality. And, contrary to the prevailing pro-democracy narrative, the failure of Hong Kong’s autonomous government to address the problem stems from the electoral politics to which the protesters are so committed.

HONG KONG – Since China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, the city has prospered economically, but festered politically. Now, one of the world’s richest cities is engulfed by protests, which have blocked roads, paralyzed the airport, and at times descended into violence. Far from a uniquely Chinese problem, however, the current chaos should be viewed as a bellwether for capitalist systems that fail to address inequality.

In times of crisis, it is easy for emotion to overwhelm reason, and for dramatic and deceptive narratives to take root. This tendency is exemplified by media reports that frame the unrest as a clash of cultures symbolizing a broader global struggle between autocracy and democracy, or references to a “fight between two civilizations,” as Hong Kong legislator Fernando Cheung put it.

Such narratives often treat “democracy” as synonymous with improved welfare – a characterization that is not borne out by the facts. As the political scientist Francis Fukuyama has conceded, centralized, authoritarian systems can deliver economic outcomes that are superior to decentralized, inefficient democratic regimes. It is also worth pointing out that officials like Cheung are free to criticize China’s government on the international stage.

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