Gen ’97 Drives Struggle for Identity and Fairness in Hong Kong

Gen ’97 Drives Struggle for Identity and Fairness in Hong Kong

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Pictured above: Scholarism leader Joshua Wong at a cafe overlooking the plaza where he was arrested. Photo by Yoichi Shimatsu / New America Media

HONG KONG -- On both sides of the barricades blocking this city’s streets, media pundits from New York and Beijing assert that the protests in Hong Kong arise from demands for greater autonomy. Completely unnoticed is a major demographic shift in the region’s population, which is redefining the issues that motivate the younger generation to shut down this global financial center.

The leadership and activist numbers are coming from Generation ’97, young people born during the 1997 handover of the then-British Crown colony to Chinese sovereignty. These youngsters, most still in the secondary level (high school), are finding themselves at the forefront of a populist struggle for electoral rights. They are motivated by anxieties about local identity and a consequent need for better representation, reflecting attitudes that differ subtly but significantly from the traditional opposition parties.

Leadership of the democracy movement was suddenly thrust onto this youth cohort before the protests, when a corruption scandal broke involving the controversial publisher of the Apple Daily press paying illegal contributions to politicians in the opposition parties. The Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation turned up examples of pocketing of unreported donations for personal gain. This corruption further taints the image of a pan-democratic alliance that was already divided by rivalries and unexplained dropouts prior to the street protests.

Underlying the youth movement’s strategy of civil disobedience is a deepening distrust of their pre-1997 elders in both camps, who operate in a political culture of “deal-making” and an elitist obsession with property and wealth, regardless of political affiliation. What the young radicals confronting tear gas and riot police reject is the selling out of Hong Kong’s unique way of life to the highest bidder, whether wealthy businessmen from China or globalist financial corporations.

In contrast with the figureheads of the opposition parties, these youth are not aligned with Britain or the United States, but are battling instead for their own Hong Kong as the last bastion of Cantonese culture. For that goal, the ever-increasing ranks of post-1997 youth realize the vital importance of equal voting rights to chose leaders who will represent the people of Hong Kong, especially the poor and disadvantaged, and not just its wealthy elite.

A manga antihero

The most charismatic figure to emerge from the youth movement is Joshua Wong, one of four student leaders of Scholarism, a political front of high school students and college freshmen. The Gen ’97 teen activists with Scholarism are the driving force behind the street protests, overshadowing the Occupy Central organizers and their seniors in the Federation of Hong Kong University Students.

These secondary schoolchildren are prepared to cast away university admission and promising careers -- unimaginable sacrifices in this upwardly mobile society that cherishes education above all -- in their commitment to political rights. By making the unthinkable break with traditional values in a conformist urban society, the rebellious youth have shocked anxious parents, unionized workers and the lower middle class of this Cantonese-speaking city into worried support with food donations, cash, praise and admiration. The example of teenagers holding out against tear gas has convinced many formerly passive residents to take a stand on the streets.

Joshua, 17, shows a precocious understanding of the complexities of Hong Kong politics, and yet remains adamant in remaining an outsider to the establishment. His strong commitment to street agitation is not based on an alpha male image from kung fu movies. To the contrary, the slim teenager is modest and soft spoken, while succinct in explaining his viewpoints. A Bruce Lee-style bowl cut touches his wide-set almond eyes, which are exactly like those of maverick antiheroes in Japanese comics known as manga. This lad is clearly the role model for young people across East Asia, who are disaffected by traditional career paths, choose a variety of lifestyles and are tuned in to social media.

“I admit it’s annoying to hear nothing but Mandarin in the metro instead of Cantonese,” he says, “but I am not a right-winger who makes comments against visiting mainlanders.” His statement should come as a surprise to the National People’s Congress in Beijing, whose worst nightmare is the electoral victory of an anti-China secessionist figure. Out of these gut-level fears, the NPC voted unanimously to require all nominees to gain its approval before the 2017 election of a new Chief Executive, the highest position in Hong Kong.

In contrast to the leaders of the opposition parties, or Hong Kongers who emigrated to Canada or Britain before 1997, Scholarism members simply do not have any personal memory of UK rule, and therefore hold no attachment to the British lifestyle that the last royal governor Chris Patton mistakenly referred to as “the Hong Kong way of life.” Gen ’97 accepts the “one country, two systems” formula as a fact of life. It is the only political order they have ever known.

“The relationship between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China cannot be amended at this late stage,” Joshua explains. “There is no other road than ‘one country, two systems’.” By the same token, he adds, “Under that formula, our first priority is equality for all residents, and this means greater equality in the electoral system. We cannot let our common future be determined by a 1,200-member election committee instead of by the 7 million people of Hong Kong.”

Money mania

What this youth leader makes clear is that local democracy can coexist with China’s sovereignty. But the problem of electoral inequality has been deeply rooted in the class structure within Hong Kong society. The political divide between the powerful elite and disenfranchised poor has widened as a result of rapid globalization, expressed in the closer collusion of Western finance capital and China’s rising economic power.

The Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) government is a reflection of converging financial interests, which tend to favor large-scale mainland corporate interests over the small local businesses and economic welfare of the lower class. Corruption is by now an acceptable practice among the governing elite, as exposed during the court conviction of Communist faction boss Bo Xilai, whose kin became millionaires in a Hong Kong rife with money-for-favors. Yet government officials and their cronies in the local property-development sector remain protected by making rather disingenuous expressions of support for Beijing.

The culture of corruption has seeped down into much of the middle class. From the 1980s through the 2008 Wall Street crisis, Hong Kong’s best and brightest university graduates -- fluent in English and Mandarin -- were eagerly sought after by both Western and Chinese companies. They were hired to manage new joint ventures on the mainland, play the thriving Hong Kong and Shanghai stock markets, and provide international services in legal consulting, accounting, financial strategy, banking and marketing.

Left behind during the boom decades was the growing number of less-advantaged youth who could not qualify for the top universities, and faced diminishing job prospects, while rising rental costs and competition from large corporate chains closed down local Cantonese-owned trading companies, shipping agents, movie industry, restaurants and coffee houses. The promise of a good career in the new information economy and creative industries quickly turned into a ghetto of low-paying part-time jobs with no share in intellectual property rights.

Joshua is frank about his own performance in school. “I was an ordinary secondary student, not very good at English, and always in danger of failing grades. The best I could do after graduating last year was to enter the lowest-ranked college in Hong Kong, Open University.”

“My first interest in political affairs was sparked in 2010 during the campaign for a popular referendum on the HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region]-proposed West Rail Line,” he said. The plan to lay track over environmentally sensitive wetlands for a third train corridor with the mainland was seen by many residents as a pork-barrel project, dispensing public funds to help the construction industry and property developers.

“The favorable policies toward mainland investors and tourists were supposed to help the Hong Kong economy, but what happened instead was rising rents that drove out local businesses and price inflation that’s made the city too expensive for locals,” he lamented.

In an attempt at morale-raising among disaffected youth, increasingly attracted by Japanese anime and Korean pop stars, the HKSAR education bureau had long been considering a proposal to instill greater local pride and patriotism through a curriculum called National and Moral Education. That May 2011 proposal stirred Joshua into action. He called for unprecedented rallies in front of secondary schools, and then a sit-in and hunger strike at the government offices overlooking the central district. The tender age of these activists triggered an outpouring of public support from some 120,000 residents who participated in the 10-day occupation.

In an interview just before the Occupy Central protests, Joshua expressed his determination to proceed with civil disobedience.

“Our generation, born at the time of the handover, bears the responsibility to defend full rights until the Basic Law period comes to an end [in 2047],” he asserted, “and we are not backing down from civil disobedience to achieve those promised rights.”

Pig with a message

If Joshua had an avatar, a guiding spirit that urged him to battle for popular rights, it would be the comic-book pig McDull. The Cantonese-speaking antihero of lower class origins is anything but a straight-A student. His mother pushes him to pass exams for entry into the prestigious University of Hong Kong, but his grades are miserable. His good-natured dreams about a fairer world are predictably shattered in every episode. McDull is a loser, but he keeps on trying, and one of his best efforts was to conjure up Excreman, a figure who symbolized environmental consciousness. After fertilizing some flowers, that pungent character bid farewell to his creator McDull, saying, “Remember us whenever you see the humblest, the deserted and the despised.”

The message of simple goodness, reminiscent of the Everyman icon of the Cultural Revolution named Lei Feng, poses no real threat to the rich and the powerful. Yet the powers that be take umbrage at youth who dare to stand against their elders, dispatching riot police and tear gas to suppress the impudent children. Following a weeklong boycott of classes at universities and secondary schools, Joshua Wong was arrested with 70 other young people for their sit-in in the public space in front of the supposedly democratic Legislative Council. The young activist is now awaiting trial on charges of exercising the right to assembly guaranteed under the Basic Law.

What is happening in Hong Kong is not a phony “color revolution” financed by foreign powers. It is simply a struggle for common sense and compromise. The aging politicians in Beijing and Hong Kong need to realize that in 2047, when the 50-year term of the Basic Law expires, the teens of Scholarism will be the most experienced political leaders in China and, like Nelson Mandela, tempered in street battles and prison. Refusal to dialogue with these young people now is a sure path to eventual disgrace and oblivion. It takes courage and wisdom to cross the barricades, especially from those in power, but that’s exactly what is needed to unite a country with the consent of the governed.

Yoichi Shimatsu was a founding faculty member of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at The University of Hong Kong.