The youth are not monolith

August 11, 2023 09:22
Photo: The Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups

In conversations with friends and colleagues I often hear the question, “What do the youth make of this?”, or “What, really, do the youth want?” As I have argued elsewhere in my assessment of events ranging from social movements across the world to identity politics (itself a most heterogeneous phenomenon), from youth cooptation and behaviours on TikTok and Snapchat to the challenges confronting teachers in universities and high schools in developed and developing economies alike, the youth are not a monolith.

We could ill afford to lump them all together in one category, and assert that “This is what the youth really think!” Indeed, the last thing we should do is to appoint a figure(head) or two and insist that they be the spokesperson for the youth - the youth in the world come from all sorts of backgrounds: some are wealthy, some are not; some are white, others are black, and still, most in Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese; some are gay, others are bisexual, and still, there are those who are straight. There are youth from Kathmandu who spend their years seeking ways of lifting their communities out of poverty; there are youth from Los Angeles who enjoy the Californian sunshine whilst they remain engrossed in their next start-ups (these are caricatures in their own right), but there are also Kathmandu dwellers who are far more affluent than their Los Angeles counterparts. We simply can’t homogenise them and lump them all together - let alone speak on their behalf.

So whenever I’m asked to comment on what the Hong Kong youth - “as a youth myself”, I find myself flinching somewhat at the question: not at the often benign intentions underlying it, nor at the curiosity concerning how the future generations (or, shall we say, present stakeholders) think or imagine our city. I flinch instead at the thought that I could in fact speak for the youth who inhabit this rich, hustling and bustling cauldron of ideas, cultures, and values. I cannot.

There are many a youth who are struggling under the weight of the exorbitant housing prices - the market might have cooled somewhat at the top end, but the barriers to entry and ‘sheunglau’ (the Cantonese term for first home ownership) remain entrenched and prohibitive. Yet there are also youth who live in significant affluence and material comforts. And then there are also youth who have told me that they very much prefer living in subdivided flats to living with their families - whether it be for familial or geographical reasons (when it comes to work). I used to think this was a Hobson’s Choice, but perhaps there is indeed more choice than meets the eye in the situation. One way or another, wealth inequality persists, and has manifested through opportunity inequality and sociocultural stratification alike.

To lump all of the demands of all of the youth in Hong Kong into one homogenising category - e.g. socioeconomic rights or upward mobility - however, would be fundamentally erroneous.

There are Hong Kong youth who have found themselves enamoured with the prospects and opportunities brought about by our continuous integration with the mainland. For them, the expedition of our integration into the Greater Bay Area connotes a second chance, a genuine path to economic rejuvenation in the aftermath of the past few years of turbulence.

Yet there are also youth who find themselves uncomfortable with the changes that have taken to this city and its navigation of the uneasy modus vivendi going forward. There are those who pit local culture and language against the mainland, who are drawn to the pathos of incendiary narratives that create (false) antagonisms and (constructed) binaries between Hong Kong and its very own country. For many amongst these folks, I do think the answer ought to rest with more engagement, conversation, and information with the intention of facilitating mutual understanding, as opposed to outright dismissal or exclusion.

A few youth might want to preserve and innovate indigenous culture at the expense of incorporating international and national influences. Others appear much keener on embracing and importing mainland cultural icons and rituals - from Heitea to Haidilao - and engaging in spontaneous bricolage that draws upon both local and international cultures. Some might argue that only the latter group - who moves with the times and who understands that we could ill-afford to rest on our laurels - is worth our time and money. I’d say, to the extent we are concerned about parochialism and the inward-looking, navel-gazing skew in the former group, we must demonstrate to them the possibility of transforming Hong Kong culture into one that is more progressive, more cosmopolitan, and more enduring, precisely through its drawing upon Chinese and Western, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern influences alike.

Then there’s the age-old question about politics. The sociopolitical instability that has rocked Hong Kong over the past decade is testament to the need for formal political structures to absorb, incorporate, and systemically include a wide range of viewpoints in decision-making processes: this is not an excuse for the “consultation”-fixated inertia that had plagued parts of the bureaucracy in the past; it is instead a call for more strategic and vivid demonstration that the voices of youth, even ‘unruly ones’ that do not conform to political orthodoxy, can be taken seriously - provided they respect the political system as is, and do not pursue the path of destruction that many did in incandescent and indecent rage.

So there’s no easy answer to the ‘youth question’ in politics. Perhaps one way of going about it would be to see them as less a problem to be managed, and more a sounding board (or, sounding boards) for policymaking and social reforms. Another way of seeing it, is that the youth are as much what we make them out to be, as they are their own, free selves -- malleable and gullible perhaps, but rarely unsalvageable.

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Assistant Professor, HKU