Hong Kong is in the midst of what is coming to be called the “summer of dissent”* as a single early-June demonstration became two, and then three, and then five, and now yet more protests are planned. The ostensible object of protest is an extradition treaty with mainland China, but it is clear that so much more is at stake. Protesters, overwhelmingly young, yearn for ideological goals—namely universal suffrage and democracy—and very material hopes for a more equitable distribution of Hong Kong’s wealth, which has increasingly amassed in the hands of a small group of “ultra-elite” members of society.
Property costs have made ownership of even a humble home out of reach for the average worker, with Hong Kong’s property market the most expensive in the world. And it is not merely that it is more expensive—it is more costly by leaps. In second-place Vancouver, Canada, it would take the average wage earner 12.6 years to earn enough to buy a home. In Singapore, the time it would take is just 4.6 years, and in the United States it is only 3.9 years. In Hong Kong, by contrast, the time it would take to purchase a home is a staggering 21 years. As with many societies, home ownership is not just a mark of wealth, but an opportunity for stability and independence and, eventually, to start a family of one’s own.
Add to that the fact that Hong Kong’s “borrowed time” is ticking away quickly.** The extradition treaty is just the latest clear reminder to Hongkongers that they are under the watchful eye, even if not yet the judicial thumb, of the central government in Beijing. Young Hongkongers see a doubly bleak future: eroding political freedoms and falling standards of living.
In this, they have been pitted somewhat against a mostly older, more stability seeking generation of Hongkongers who own their homes and who generally a) do not worry greatly about the eventual reintegration of Hong Kong with mainland China, and b) do worry about the economic and social instability stirred up by recent protesters. This was evidenced in part when tens of thousands of Hongkongers turned out for a rally supporting Hong Kong’s police on 30 June, just ahead of the annual 1 July Hong Kong Establishment Day celebrations.
This rising division in Hong Kong society—often even within Hong Kong households as parents take one side and children the other—brings to mind a story from the life of the Buddha. The story is recounted in the commentary of the Dhammapada and is known as “The Story of the Pacification of the Relatives of the Buddha.”
In the story, two clans, both of which the Buddha had descended from, were on the brink of war. The ostensible object of dispute: a river with dwindling water levels after a long drought. In the absence of communication, the two groups prepared for battle. The Buddha, learning of the impending violence, interceded with these words:
For the sake of some water, which is of little value, you should not destroy your lives which are of so much value and priceless. Why have you taken this stupid action? If I had not stopped you today, your blood would have been flowing like a river by now. You live hating your enemies, but I have none to hate; you are ailing with moral defilements, but I am free from them; you are striving to have sensual pleasures, but I do not strive for them. (Tipitaka)
Hearing this, the two clans laid down their arms and paid obeisance to the Buddha. Hopefully, of course, nothing in Hong Kong will come close to this, even as protesters have made accusations of excessive violence by the police and have clearly engaged in destruction of property themselves.
More worrisome and urgent is the loss of the lives of a small number of protesters who had given up all hope. The level of despair that would lead to this is unimaginable, but nonetheless it demands our concern and attention as fellow citizens, or simply as fellow humans. Following the death of one woman, a friend told reporters: “It’s the responsibility of the government to give hope to young people.” (Time)
Before any more lives are destroyed, we implore leaders: Buddhists, politicians, activists, and others, to let down your guard and meet with one another. See the humanity in one another’s eyes, listen to one another’s concerns and fears. In the absense of this, we will only see increasingly polarized discourse: “lawless rioters” versus “tyrants.”
One of the ongoing demands of protesters is for a more open and democratic society. In this, we might see echoes of yet another story in the life of the Buddha, this one occurring in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which tells of the final days of the Buddha’s life. At that time, the king of Magadha, Ajatasattu, wished to wage war with another clan, the Vajjis. So he sent a minister to discuss the matter with the Buddha.
The Buddha’s response in the matter was to inquire about the Vajjis, asking, in part, whether they had frequent gatherings that were well attended and peaceful. Insofar as they have, the Buddha predicts that they will prosper. This points to a power available to both sides: that of openness, transparency, and inclusiveness. Who will make use of this power is yet to be seen. In the same sutta, the Buddha likewise praises both the Vajjian tradition of maintaining historical laws (rather than introducing abrupt changes) and their respect and esteem for elders.
These points of wisdom, distant as they may seem, have real potential for difusing conflict and directing the energy of Hong Kong, and indeed the world at large. In particular, Buddhist thought has the power to upset existing binaries: us versus them, activists versus government. Here, Li Yuan, writes that many of those skeptical about the goals of the demonstrators ascribe to the China model of economics: “economic growth at the cost of individual rights.” Given this model, one Hong Kong resident from the mainland said, “I want to take the best of Hong Kong, but I won’t take part in that nonsense local stuff. If there’s no return on your investment, what’s the point?” (The New York Times)
A Buddhist could interject: why can’t there be both economic growth and human rights? And, more importantly, why seek either, really? Why take for granted that we must have more stuff? Not just for the young, of course, but also for the ultra-wealthy. In fact, working to disperse some of their wealth to those without could bring economic growth to those who need it most, offering greater stability to all and, more importantly, harmony throughout society without any sacrifice of rights. How much wealth, how much sensual pleasure is needed for those with so much here and elsewhere in the world? How can those who have it not see the suffering so plain in the eyes, words, and deeds of those without?
* Hong Kong’s summer of dissent continues with more protests planned for weekend (Hong Kong Free Press)
** Buddhistdoor View: Hong Kong’s Turmoil – Spiritual Witnessing to Borrowed Time (Buddhistdoor Global)
Hong Kong tops the table as world’s most expensive housing market for 9th straight year (South China Morning Post)
Dhammapada Verses 197, 198 and 199 Natikalahavupasamana Vatthu (Tipitaka)
Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha, DN 16 (Access to Insight)
Another Hong Kong Protester Fell to Her Death After Leaving a Message for the Government (TIME)
Why Many in China Oppose Hong Kong’s Protests (The New York Times)