The contrast between the TV pictures coming from Beijing and Hong Kong on October 1 could not have been more stark.
In the Chinese capital, as the country celebrated 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic, thousands of troops goose-stepped to upbeat military music and Tiananmen Square bristled with cutting-edge missiles and tanks.
About 2,000 kilometres (1,216 miles) to the south in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, anarchy reigned. Angry groups rampaged through the Asian financial hub, smashing up mainland-Chinese businesses and throwing petrol bombs at police.
The demonstrations began in June after the government proposed a bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to the mainland. Even though the government has withdrawn the bill, the protests have become a forum to vent frustration at the government for falling living standards and the perceived erosion of rights. More protests are planned for the coming days.
A growing number of analysts say Hong Kong’s exorbitant housing costs and a widening wealth gap have demolished young people’s chances of progressing and are direct causes for the unrest.
In many ways, the contrasting images on National Day reflected the changing fortunes of the two parts of China. Whereas once young people from the mainland flocked to Hong Kong to find high-paying jobs people in Hong Kong looked down their noses at these economic migrants. But now many fresh graduates on the mainland say they’re better off where they are.
“I am optimistic about the future in the mainland,” Yu Chang, a 30-year-old media professional in Shenzhen – just across the border from Hong Kong – told Al Jazeera.
“Personally, I think there are more choices living here compared to Hong Kong. I can choose to live, eat, and commute for cheaper,” said Yu, who used to work in Hong Kong but eventually moved to Shenzhen due to the high cost of living. “It would be hard to live on a similar budget in Hong Kong.”
More billionaires, more inequality
Hong Kong enjoys social and political freedoms not found on the mainland, a legacy of the “One Country, Two Systems” framework that Beijing agreed to when it took back control of the territory in 1997 from the United Kingdom.
That status has made Hong Kong an investment magnet and a gateway for capital for and out of China, creating immense wealth and one of the world’s biggest financial centres. According to Forbes magazine, which compiles lists every year of the world’s richest people and places, Hong Kong has the highest number of billionaires of any city in the world, bar New York. But that wealth is concentrated in the hands of only a few.
Many of Yu’s peers in Hong Kong are fed-up with having to pay exorbitant rents for tiny apartments while their wages and job prospects stagnate. According to the British charity Oxfam, rents for small apartments grew by 273 percent from 2007 to 2017, far outpacing wage growth over the same period.
Sarah Luo, a 29-year-old professional who moved to Hong Kong from the mainland a few years ago, understands why its youth feel glum.