Hong Kong's citizens remain determined to achieve democratic values for their city. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Stringer/Getty Images
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The fight for democracy and liberty in Hong Kong

Chinese pressure on the city's government is pushing the situation into dangerous territory.

Since the official handover from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong has been under Chinese influence once more. However, the “one country, two systems” mantra enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 dictates that the city’s capitalist system and way of life should remain unchanged for at least 50 years.

The city’s people are increasingly demanding democracy, but they aren’t getting it. Most want the city’s chief executive, a position currently held by Leung Chun-ying, to be elected by universal suffrage. Instead, moves are being made to ensure that occupiers of the post are endorsed by Beijing, a system which gives the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) significant control over the city.

Leung made a report to the CCP’s National People Congress on 15 July, stating that Hong Kong should enjoy universal suffrage, but should only choose between a range of candidates proposed by a nominating committee loyal to Beijing. This has been criticised by the currently flourishing pro-democracy movement as a pretence.

To further complicate the issue, on 19 July high-ranking CCP official Zhang Dejiang visited the city and expressed support for Leung’s proposals. His opinions suggested that “Beijing would not tighten its power over Hong Kong” but that full-blown “civic nomination... was illegal.” His CCP seniors have reacted negatively to his comments.

Finally, the pro-democracy campaign in Hong Kong is itself divided. A group called Occupy Central has proposed staging civil disobedience in the main financial hub of the city. This has been met with widespread criticism. The Alliance for Peace and Democracy condemns the proposal for fear of violence and damage to the economy, and claims to have collected well over 900,000 signatures against it. But the idea is by no means defeated. Student groups in particular have urged pro-democratic civil disobedience so that their opponents will “see how serious Hong Kong people are treating democracy”.

This unfolding drama has gone largely unnoticed by the Western media, with attention focused on the chaos in the Middle East and Ukraine. However, the threat to freedom and security evolving in Hong Kong should not be underestimated. The details of the proposals for universal suffrage may seem pedantic, but civil disobedience’s presence as a talking point indicates the potential for these tensions to escalate fast. For instance, it’s possible that the People’s Liberation Army could make its presence known in the city.

Michael DeGolyer, a leading pollster in Hong Kong, commented that “if [the pro-democracy groups] overplay their hand... the state comes down on them”. He drew pointed comparison to Tiananmen Square not long after the 25th anniversary of the massacre. The state-run Global Times ran an editorial claiming that “sharp political confrontation does nobody any good”.

Moreover, Beijing is undertaking a gradual suppression of the Hong Kong press, exerting pressure on pro-democratic outlets. The news site House News shut over the weekend, citing political pressure. One of the site’s founders said that “to act like a normal citizen, a normal media outlet... is not easy, it’s even terrifying”. The site had opposed plans in 2012 to introduce mandatory pro-China “patriotic lessons”, plans which were eventually shelved.

Mark Milke notes that the right to vote has by no means been a necessary condition for “peace and prosperity”, since Hong Kong has enjoyed both of those for many years without suffrage. But democracy matters to them for reasons beyond the instrumental. They feel that self-determination, at least in choosing the city’s government, is intrinsically important, important enough that many would risk violence and reactionary measures from Beijing itself. This risk should accord international attention, and Hong Kong could do with help from voices from elsewhere.

Moreover, all of this implicates Britain in an awkward clash with China. Britain has faced calls for it to express diplomatic concerns and vocally defend pro-democrats in Hong Kong. But disagreements with China aren’t high on the Foreign Office’s agenda. Britain’s allies, chiefly the United States, will also be keen to avoid any flashpoint scenarios. For now, unless the pro-democracy movement can quell its more violent urges, the situation will escalate and Beijing’s sinister moves against liberty in the city will continue.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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