Hong Kong, China - It used to be a place where anyone who worked hard, excelled in school and possessed an entrepreneurial spirit could rise above their parents' hardship to a better life. That was the Hong Kong dream.
Today, that dream has become a mirage - where meritocracy is seen to be supplanted by business and political connections, where good jobs and university places are keenly contested by the mainland Chinese. Young people in Hong Kong fear they are losing out as the playing field tilts increasingly towards China.
The tens of thousands of people protesting on the streets are not just fighting for democratic reform, they are also struggling for their economic survival in the former British territory returned to China in 1997.
"After 1997, you have to have good connections to get a good job. This is not an equal opportunity society anymore," said 54-year-old Jason Wong, a retired investment banker. "The rich and those in power have a better chance."
The son of a grocery store worker, Wong said he was able to move up in life through hard work and diligence because "social mobility was still easy during his time".
"I come from a poor family. During my generation, if you work hard, you can fight all the way to the top and accumulate your own assets. Everyone has an equal chance to fight for what they aim for," said Wong.
But it is not so now for many in the next generation.
|Bonnie Chau (right) is working on her master's degree while working to improve her job prospects [Al Jazeera]
"It is very difficult to move up now," said 27-year-old Bonnie Chau, a secretary who has been demonstrating since the start of the protests. To get a better salary, Chau is studying for a master's degree in corporate governance by attending night classes at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
One in five Hong Kong residents, or about 1.3 million people, live under the poverty line, according to government figures.
In a society where families cram into tiny apartments, owning a home is a cherished dream for many young people. But property prices on Hong Kong island, home to some 1.2 million people, are the third-most-expensive in the world after Monaco and London, according to the Global Property Guide website.
"When you don't have a good career, a good property, how can you be loyal to this city?" asked Wong.
Soaring property prices and land shortages, coupled with buying sprees and speculation by rich mainland Chinese, have pushed the cost of an apartment beyond the reach of many here. With starting salaries for new graduates at about $12,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$1,500) a month, it is almost impossible for young people to purchase their own homes.
"After sending money home to my parents, pay the rent, tuition fees and the high cost of living, I have no money to save for the future," says Chau. "An apartment costs around $7m HK [US$900,000]. How can I buy one? I can't even pay for the deposit."
The "one country, two systems" formula agreed on when Britain gave control of Hong Kong to China guarantees the region a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, with the right of Hong Kongers to choose their leader set as an eventual goal.
"That is why it is critical for us to be here to fight. We are not seeking independence. We know we are part of China. But we are different from China," said a 24-year-old student who works and studies at the same time. He has ties to the mainland, and asked not to be identified by name.
"We have an independent judiciary and a free press. We are just asking what was promised to us. If we don't fight, we will become just like another city in China."
The mainland moves in
Hong Kong is the world's most service-oriented economy, with the service sector accounting for more than 90 percent of GDP in an economy valued at US$272.5bn in 2013, according to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
Since Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, many mainland Chinese companies have listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
They are gradually controlling the economy and they are edging out the local companies. Within 10 to 20 years, it will be totally dominated by PRC [People's Republic of China] companies.
A total of 1,716 companies are listed on Hong Kong's mainboard - Asia's second-largest - and the Growth Market Enterprise, an alternative stock market. Of these, 854, or 49.8 percent, are mainland Chinese companies.
Willy Wo-lap Lam, a China scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera that mainland businesses were slowly pushing out Hong Kong businesses.
"This is happening gradually but relentlessly," says Lam. "So they are gradually controlling the economy and they are edging out the local companies. Within 10 to 20 years, it will be totally dominated by PRC [People's Republic of China] companies."
Al Jazeera contacted the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce and pro-business The Better Hong Kong Foundation for comment, but received no response.
Many students Al Jazeera talked to said it is difficult to get a good job with companies based on China's mainland.
"Employment for Hong Kong youngsters is getting more difficult. These mainland companies keep exporting elites from China to Hong Kong to work," said a 21-year-old student, who requested anonymity because his parents are civil servants and he did not want reprisals against them.
"We know the door is shutting on us. It is so clear for us to see."
Source: Al Jazeera