25 October 2016
Tens of thousands joined the June 4 vigil at Victoria Park. But many young people no longer care about building democracy in China. Photo: AFP
Tens of thousands joined the June 4 vigil at Victoria Park. But many young people no longer care about building democracy in China. Photo: AFP

Intergenerational gap dividing HK democracy force

That old question, what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, received a new answer on June 4 when tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong poured into Victoria Park for the 26th year in a row to commemorate those who died in Beijing in 1989 when tanks rumbled into the capital and converged on Tiananmen Square.

Democracy is the ostensibly irresistible force. A quarter of a century ago, communist dictatorships crumbled all over Europe in the face of citizen protests and were succeeded by governments more accountable to the people.

In East Asia, too, the last few decades saw authoritarian governments give way to liberal democracies in South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan.

The immovable object is China. The Communist Party dealt with its existential threat by tightening political controls, instilling patriotic education, clamping down on dissent and censoring the internet while at the same time growing the economy and improving people’s livelihood.

Because of the policy of “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 after 156 years as a colony, was an exception. Here, rights and freedoms nurtured by the British continued to be safeguarded, including the right to hold annual candlelight vigils to commemorate those killed in the military crackdown of June 4, 1989.

This year, again, demonstrators filled all six football pitches in Victoria Park, which can accommodate 42,000 people, according to University of Hong Kong estimates. The police put the figure this year at 46,600, while the organizers claimed 135,000.

But, unquestionably, a lot of people were there to mourn, to oppose one-party dictatorship and to call for the democratization of China.

Such slogans have been staple fare for 26 years. However, this year, the pro-democracy movement, stymied in its attempt to create a democratic China, has split. Many young people, primarily university students, no longer care about building democracy in China. Indeed, they don’t even care about China.

Several thousand people who would normally have swelled the crowds in Victoria Park shunned the vigil this year, holding separate ceremonies in which Hong Kong, not China, took center place.

Their movement is being described as nativism. But in this age of globalization it is a little disconcerting to find people who don’t want to know about their neighbors even though they, to a large extent, actually control Hong Kong’s fate.

China will tolerate only limited democracy in the former British colony and these young people will soon discover that a democratic China may be a necessary precondition to a democratic Hong Kong.

But China, which has perceived Hong Kong democrats as its enemy for the last quarter century, may come to see the older democrats as preferable to young people who don’t identify with China and who don’t even think of themselves as Chinese.

Indeed, this is reminiscent of relations between Taiwan and the mainland. In the 20th century, when the two competed for recognition as the real “China” in the international community, Beijing insisted that Taiwan was nothing more than a province, with no right to call itself China.

But after the Democratic Progressive Party gained power in 2000, president Chen Shui-bian started dropping the word “China” from the names of state-owned entities.

The paper Free China Weekly became Taiwan Journal. Chinese Petroleum Corporation was transformed into CPC Corporation and China Shipbuilding Corporation turned into CSBC Corporation.

Beijing then insisted that Taiwan was Chinese and it should not drop the words “China” or “Chinese” from its corporate names, reversing its previous stance.

The mainland was euphoric when the Kuomintang, its old enemy which used to threaten to “counterattack the mainland”, returned to power in 2008.

Similarly, if the democratic opposition in Hong Kong, which calls for overthrowing the Communist Party, becomes irrelevant to large segments of the population, the development won’t be seen as good news by Beijing.

This is more than a case of better the devil you know than the one you don’t. It is rather empathy for those with shared basic sentiments about country, history and ancestors.

For one thing, appeals to patriotism, to ethnicity and blood lines will no longer work with those who simply repudiate their Chineseness.

So, in Hong Kong, the irresistible force of democracy has become divided, and arguably weakened, by intergenerational differences.

And China, which is likely to prove immovable for quite some time yet, will have to adapt to deal with new, confusing and unexpected circumstances as the 21st century unfolds.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

EJI Weekly Newsletter