Hong Kong's disillusioned young people: A ticking time bomb

June 07, 2018 09:00
Though the Occupy movement, led by young people, failed to achieve so-called true democracy in Hong Kong, it boosted awareness of and disdain for China's authoritarian system. Photo: AFP

Can Hong Kong ever be like mainland China? That question came up at a recent private dinner I attended. One businessman gave this blunt answer: Hong Kong is part of China but it will never be like mainland China. Taiwan is more like China culturally and linguistically even though it is a full democracy that has yet to reunify with the mainland. The businessman had hit the nail on the head.

It is an irony that Hong Kong, which is a part of China, and Taiwan, which China claims, remain the only two places now leading the charge against the country’s hardening authoritarian rule and human rights behavior while Western democracies shift attention to the benefits they can reap from China's economic rise.

In two weeks, Hong Kong will mark the 21st anniversary of reunification. But more than two decades of being part of China has done little to move Hong Kong people closer to the motherland culturally and, more importantly, in the way they think. Unlike Taiwan, Hong Kong has a British colonial history which is still so ingrained in its psyche that I can’t see it becoming more like the mainland anytime soon.

The 1997 reunification was, in essence, a sovereignty transfer. China reclaimed the land it lost to the British. But reclaiming land and its people and reclaiming hearts, minds, and the soul of a society are two different things. Sure, there are outward signs of mainlandisation everywhere. We hear more and more Putonghua in the streets.

The mainland accounts for more than 70 percent of our tourists. Over 90 percent of our post-graduate students are mainlanders. Many choose to remain and settle in Hong Kong after graduation. Chinese firms are buying land, property, and listing in the local stock exchange. Most locals can now speak at least basic Putonghua. Government officials have even changed their vocabulary to refer to the mainland as the country instead of the mainland like before.

But all these things have only cosmetically changed the city. Its heartbeat is still very Hong Kong. Sure, many Hong Kong people now say they are patriots who love the country. But there is also a growing number of locals, especially among the younger generations, who refuse to identify themselves as Chinese, preferring to call themselves Hong Kong people instead.

We saw the most recent example of this just days ago when young Hong Kong people refused to join the annual June 4 candlelight vigil to commemorate those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Their reason was that they had no moral duty to call for the end of China’s one party rule because they don’t consider themselves Chinese.

A recent University of Hong Kong survey found 31 percent of respondents felt they had no responsibility to advance democracy in China. This is the highest percentage since 1993. The survey found 54 percent had no confidence in "one country, two systems", and 48 percent distrust the central government. Opinion polls consistently show a rising number of young people denying their Chinese identity, preferring to be identified as Hong Kong people instead.

This is a deeply worrying trend that is a time bomb in the making if not handled delicately. But how to handle it, let alone delicately? Today’s younger generations will form the backbone of Hong Kong’s future as taxpayers, academics, businessmen, civil servants, professionals, and ordinary citizens. What will it mean for a future Hong Kong if a large percentage of its citizens from all walks of life do not identify themselves as Chinese?

The inconvenient fact is that the central government’s increasingly hardline treatment of Hong Kong is losing rather than winning the hearts and minds of young Hong Kong people. A growing number have formed the mindset that mainland China is ruled by an authoritarian regime which does not respect even basic rights.

Can you blame them? Already they have seen people from their generation being disqualified as legislative councilors, banned from becoming election candidates, warned against using their free speech to demand the end of one party rule or to disrespect the national anthem, and even jailed. They are regularly told by mainland officials that one country supersedes two systems and that Mandarin should be their mother tongue.

Even though the Occupy movement, led by young people, failed to achieve so-called true democracy, it increased awareness of and disdain for the mainland’s authoritarian system. There is a simple reason why Hong Kong’s young people have shown little interest in the Greater Bay Area scheme despite its promise of good-paying jobs and a better life. They cannot accept living in a society across the border where free speech is limited, political speech controlled, social media censored, and loving the party is required.

Our own government is seen by the younger generation as an accomplice of the central government’s tightening grip on Hong Kong. Our top leaders, past and present, have failed to give hope to young people who see a dismal future in which basic aspirations such as buying a home, getting a well-paying job, and climbing the social mobility ladder are impossible dreams.

What worries me is that both the local and mainland authorities are either not aware of this ticking bomb or are not bothered by it. It is not something we can ignore. Doing nothing about it is not an option.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.