Social unrest in places like Hong Kong is not proof of economic failure

THE MOLOTOV COCKTAILS, one blue, one yellow, arrive swaddled in a towel and wedged in a backpack. Wearing builders’ gloves and Guy Fawkes masks, the protesters balance them casually on a railing, like mixologists in a bar. Then the bricks arrive, piled on a trolley, hidden under a canopy of umbrellas. The protesters spend a few exultant minutes hurling projectiles and insults down the stairs of a subway exit at riot police below. A burst of flames adds drama, and is enough to provoke a response: a canister of tear gas rocketing up the stairs. The protesters disperse, and a row of police march up behind a tessellation of shields, firing gas as they go.

Once renowned as a city of progress, Hong Kong is now known as a city of protest. Bricks, cocktails and gas have descended on some of the most expensive real estate in the world. The clash described above took place in front of a Bulgari showroom and a branch of Prada. Many analysts, including in Hong Kong’s government, argue that the underlying causes of the city’s protests are economic grievances, especially high housing prices, stagnant wages and the suffocating ubiquity of dominant conglomerates.

The city is certainly home to vast inequalities. The watches on display in Bulgari sell for more than most residents earn in a month. And the trolleys that now carry...

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