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Why Rich Cities Rebel

Having lost touch with public sentiment, officials in Paris, Hong Kong, and Santiago failed to anticipate that a seemingly modest policy action (a fuel-tax increase, an extradition bill, and higher metro prices, respectively) would trigger a massive social explosion.

NEW YORK – Three of the world’s more affluent cities have erupted in protests and unrest this year. Paris has faced waves of protests and rioting since November 2018, soon after French President Emmanuel Macron raised fuel taxes. Hong Kong has been in upheaval since March, after Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed a law to allow extradition to the Chinese mainland. And Santiago exploded in rioting this month after President Sebastian Piñera ordered an increase in metro prices. Each protest has its distinct local factors, but, taken together, they tell a larger story of what can happen when a sense of unfairness combines with a widespread perception of low social mobility.

By the traditional metric of GDP per capita, the three cities are paragons of economic success. Per capita income is around $40,000 in Hong Kong, more than $60,000 in Paris, and around $18,000 in Santiago, one of the wealthiest cities in Latin America. In the 2019 Global Competitiveness Report issued by the World Economic Forum, Hong Kong ranks third, France 15th, and Chile 33rd (the best in Latin America by a wide margin).

Yet, while these countries are quite rich and competitive by conventional standards, their populations are dissatisfied with key aspects of their lives. According to the 2019 World Happiness Report, the citizens of Hong Kong, France, and Chile feel that their lives are stuck in important ways. 

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