Flower Power Is Stronger Than Hong Kong’s Parents

Recently, on a Facebook forum, I read that children were being told not to ride their scooters and bikes in a particular Hong Kong park. It’s a favorite activity and spot for my six-year old son and so I asked him what would he like to do instead. He was not pleased and said he wanted “to protest this like the protesters.”

It’s not a surprise. He’s learned by example. He’s seen what Hong Kong people have done when they’re mad: profanities against the government splattered on walls and graffiti in road tunnels, just as he was learning to read. And he knows those things got results. He was kept out of school because it was unsafe for children to be transported on buses as demonstrators flooded the streets. Riot police had to march around the city to keep order.

Angry over the park restrictions, he drew his own piece of graffiti on a white board: “Open Hong Kong’s plaYgrounds and Alloww Biking in parks.” 

I walked him back from protesting and we talked instead about composing a petition to explain why he was opposed to the rules. He got the point: “A written protest!” But then, he also got the problem: “Who do I send it to?”  

Just like that, he encapsulated the frustrations that I and thousands of other middle-class families in Hong Kong have felt through a year of the pandemic. Like countless other children, my son has spent endless hours in Zoom classrooms. Some kids are on campus once a week; even fewer are in school a couple times a week. Several children haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since early February last year. Schools have been closed roughly and intermittently for almost eight months. In contrast, they’ve reopened in 101 other countries, many with far higher transmission rates than Hong Kong. Across the globe, schools were fully closed for an average of 3.5 months since the onset of the coronavirus, according to Unesco.

Hong Kong’s closures are unreasonable and, I believe, unsound when community transmission rates are taken into consideration. But what can parents do? We’ve written our petitions but no one is reading them.

Parents – across the spectrum – are at their wits’ end. Those that have been able to relocate have left or are making plans to. The well-to-do have armies of tutors and nannies, parading in and out of their homes. Other parents are juggling working from home and keeping their kids in front of screens. Teachers have to figure out strategies for instructing kids online — and manage homeschooling their own children. Few educators will be able to tell you what the overall plan is with the shutdown. And the government hasn’t been forthcoming, to say the least.

If only I were a flower merchant. In early January, the Hong Kong government canceled an annual Lunar New Year flower market that typically draws large crowds. Angry florists, cultivators and traders stormed out of a meeting with city authorities, the South China Morning Post reported. They complained that they would face significant financial losses because of the abrupt decision. Significant sums were involved for the small businesses. Stalls in street fairs like this are put up for bid by the Food and Environmental Hygiene department and can cost up to HK$190,000  ($24,500). 

Just over a week later, the government reversed its decision. The fair is now back on with strict social-distancing and crowd control. Florists are relieved though still angry about the flip-flop. But at least they had a conversation with the authorities. 

The back-and-forth between the flower lobby and the government stands in stark contrast to what has happened with schools and education — what should be the most basic of priorities of the city. Parents aren’t even as powerful as the flower lobby. Petitions have been floated. There’s been ranting in private and on social media forums. Several consulates and business chambers in the city have reached out to the government. But it hasn’t actively engaged with stakeholders at a time when the city desperately needs an open conversation.  In other parts of the world, even if schools have had to close because of high infection rates, officials have prioritized getting kids back in classrooms and there are active, on-going public debates on the issue.

It has made one thing clear though: pandemic-control measures are implemented depending on relative bargaining power. The flower lobby was ultimately heeded because it had a business relationship with the government. What about ordinary Hong Kongers? In countries with competitive elections, there is power in each vote. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s legislative elections aren’t exercises in purely popular suffrage; representation is weighted toward businesses and other economic interests. On the school issue, as one political science professor put it to me, Hong Kongers can’t wield “the threat of the ballot box in forcing accountability.”

So, I’m left working with my son on his petition. And we’re still figuring out who to send it to.

Price for a fast food stall in Victoria Park for the Lunar New Year fair in 2019 for last year's event. These were reduced prices in an effort to support small and medium enterprises. The year before, stall prices went up over $370,000.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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