A picture is worth a thousand words, as the old saying goes. I saw a recent picture in the media that told much more than a thousand words about Hong Kong as it marks 21 years under Chinese rule. The picture showed a long line of people queuing up for tickets to visit the People’s Liberation Army barracks. Virtually everyone in the line was an elderly or middle-aged person, some accompanied by young children. There was not a single millennial.
That picture was, of course, just a snapshot of the situation at the time it was taken. It may not tell the whole story. But pictures I’ve seen in recent years of people lining up for PLA tickets showed the same thing. These pictures tell a story we already know: Hong Kong is now divided not only by our toxic politics but also by age. Older people have become more patriotic in the 21 years since reunification. But most young people do not even want to identify themselves as Chinese, preferring to be called Hong Kong people.
Who should we blame for what we must now admit is an identity crisis? It would be unfair to wholly blame Beijing or our post-handover government leaders. If we are to apportion blame, then it must be spread among Beijing, our post-handover government leaders, the pro-establishment camp, the opposition, the misguided political aspirations in recent years of our young people, and the monopoly of tycoons in our property sector.
They all played a part in making Hong Kong the dysfunctional society it has become since the handover. They did this by not fully adhering to the spirit of one country, two systems or choosing to interpret it in a way that suited their political agenda. One country, two systems is now 21 years old. It served Hong Kong well in the past. The international community applauded it as the perfect solution to ease jitters over the handover.
But it has now become a source of friction between Beijing and the Hong Kong government on one side, and the opposition and young people on the other. Fearful of the rise of localism and the independence movement, Beijing has become stridently vocal in making clear one country is more equal than two systems.
Local officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, and the establishment camp have adopted the same tough language. Just last week, Lam didn’t mince words in saying at the 21st reunification anniversary celebration that one country supersedes two systems.
But the opposition and most Hong Kong young people reject this reading of one country, two systems. They insist one country and two systems are equal partners. Traditional factions within the opposition push this point by resisting policies such as the national anthem law and allowing mainland laws to be applied in parts of the West Kowloon express rail terminus.
Younger people push their point by denying their Chinese identity or rejecting one country, two systems altogether by advocating localism or independence. Such aspirations are, of course, misguided because Beijing would never allow independence and even equates it with localism. But regardless of how much Beijing tries to squash the independence movement, it must wake up to the reality that such sentiments within our younger generations are red flags that must be handled delicately rather than by disqualifying young people from the electoral process.
If Beijing, Carrie Lam, and the establishment camp took comfort in the low turnout for the annual July 1 anti-government march, they would be wise to regard it as cold comfort. Many reasons could explain last week’s low turnout, not all of which are necessarily positive for the government. It could mean people wanted to put democracy aside for now to push for affordable housing and other livelihood issues. It could mean the intimidatingly heavy police presence caused many to avoid the protest march.
Or it could mean people no longer care because they no longer believe their voice can make a difference. When people lose hope in bringing about political change, their surrender is not a victory for the government. Lost hope among young people can turn into a powder keg that could explode without warning.
Despite it being the lowest turnout in many years, thousands or tens of thousands – depending on whether you believe the police or the organizers – still turned up even though the government had warned it was illegal to call for the end of China’s one-party rule, and the police had warned protesters against joining the march along the way.
A stark reminder of how alienated Hong Kong’s young people have become came during the march when localist group Demosisto received HK$530,000 in donations. It was not only more than last year but also far more than what the other pro-democracy groups received. The traditional democracy groups received far less than in previous years. This is yet another red flag about the radicalization of young people.
Hong Kong seems to be groping blindly towards the future while our neighboring competitors such as Shenzhen and Singapore are marching towards it with a confident swagger. Our rivals don’t just talk about excelling in innovation and technology. They are already walking the talk. We are still talking the talk after so many years.
Carrie Lam has got off to a good start in taming the hostile political climate. But she needs a vision for the future, not an agenda. The two are different. Solving the housing crisis is not a vision. It is a basic societal need. Singapore solved it decades ago. President Xi Jinping’s China dream is a vision. So is President Donald Trump’s America First.
One term may not be enough to fulfill Lam’s agenda of improving the livelihood of the people. No post-handover chief executive has served a full two terms. I would be the first to support two terms for Lam, but for her agenda to succeed she needs a vision to drive it forward.
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