Youth in Hong Kong: A Fight for Identity

Isaac Lawrence / AFP - Getty Images
Isaac Lawrence / AFP - Getty Images

This article originally appeared in The Generation Spring 2020 print edition. The theme for this edition is “Youth Voices.” A link to our online version of the print publication can be found here: 

Over five centuries ago, Niccolò Machiavelli, renowned political scientist and author of The Prince, once observed that Republics were among the most difficult to establish control over in the face of an authoritarian conqueror. He noted that those that come into control of “a city accustomed to freedom” and do not “destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it.” This is because “in rebellion, it has always the watchword of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget.”[i]

The anti-government protests sparked in Hong Kong this past summer are reminiscent of this observation. As millions have taken to the streets to reject what they see as an erosion of their freedom, the youth leading the charge represent a simple fact: people who have lived their entire lives under a free society will be staunch in rejecting anything they see as an external threat to it.

The protests were sparked in the wake of a proposed bill that would have enabled extradition to mainland China.[ii] Hong Kong, a longtime colony of the British Empire, was ceded back to China in 1997. Upon its return to mainland China, the former colony was granted a separate governing and economic system for a period of 50 years.[iii] Protesters viewed the bill as a wake-up call over the Special Administrative Region’s future as an enclave of freedom within a country increasingly instituting sharper forms of repression.[iv]

Many saw the bill in a larger picture: a slow, concerted effort to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy. Over a year onward, the demonstrations have snowballed into broader calls for democratic reform and vocalized opposition to officials in Beijing.[v] All of this being a far-cry from the now abandoned extradition bill. 

The mass movements are overwhelmingly composed of young people. It is estimated that 60 percent of them are under the age of 30.[vi] Universities within Hong Kong have also been the center for some of the most confrontational and dramatic scenes of the protests.[vii] In November 2019, it was estimated that around 4.500 people had been detained since the protests began.[viii]

Views and perceptions of the Mainland have plummeted to all-time lows in Hong Kong. At the site of the siege of an airport in August 2019, a pamphlet that protesters were handing out to passersby’s read, “the Communist Party has increasingly encroached on HK’s territory” and intervened “in internal affairs of Hong Kong,” explaining that they were fighting “to preserve what makes this city our home.”[ix]   

The youth of Hong Kong, having lived their entire lives separate from Chinese rule, view today as an inflection point in which their civil liberties are beginning to be eclipsed and eroded by the encroaching, authoritarian nature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

It is a generation that has come of age during a time when China has grown more assertive, powerful, and repressive with the transformative leadership of Xi Jinping, the country’s current President and leader of the CCP.[x]

Joseph Chan

Beijing is cognizant of this reality. Attempting to establish any semblance of unity or common identity in a populace conditioned to liberal values of individual freedom, liberty, and the rule of law is destined to provoke a countervailing reaction that can unleash forces outside of the control of Beijing.

Kon Karampelas

This is perhaps the root of the conundrum that the “one country, two systems” approach poses. Beijing crafted the policy in an effort to eventually achieve full unification while pushing off sensitive questions such as terms of governance and levels of freedom. Its institution poses systemic problems when these tough questions must eventually be answered. In the case of both Hong Kong and Taiwan, a generation completely detached from mainland China will be placed in a position to vehemently oppose any prospect of unification and will be prepared to fight tooth-and-nail to protect the freedom they’ve become accustomed to and lived under their entire lives.[xi] Even veiled threats to it, as the case in Hong Kong demonstrates, can awaken a segment of the population which has no trust, allegiance or faith in Beijing. In 2019, the Hong Kong Research Institute noted that virtually no one under the age of 30 in Hong Kong self-identified as Chinese.[xii]

There is evidence that officials in Beijing comprehend this and are looking to implement long-term remedies for it. Imposing a more nationalist education aims to condition a new generation into becoming more pro-China.[xiii] Their assessment is that liberal educators have indoctrinated an entire generation of youth to oppose mainland China. If a rapprochement of education is effectively instituted, Beijing hopes that future generations coming of age by 2047 (when the terms of Hong Kong’s arrangement expires) will be more inclined to accept an end to the one country, two systems approach without much defiance. Beijing will also continue to aggressively push for the election and appointment of pro-China lawmakers within the special administrative region.

Today, the youth of Hong Kong are leading a fight and rejection of authoritarianism. Their actions have sparked a strong sense of sympathy and support throughout much of the free world.[xiv] From harkening back to Martin Luther King Jr’s take on injustice, to calling out the iconic phrase “give me liberty, or give me death!” in streets lined with tear gas and police in riot gear, Hong Kong’s youth have sent a clear message to Beijing.[xv]  

These recent events have led them to a state of deep reflection which has drawn many to forge an identity with a powerful rallying call: “Hong Kong is not China” – at least not anymore in the eyes of a newly empowered youth.[xvi]

[i] Machiavelli Niccolò, and M.K Marriott. The Prince. San Bernardino, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.

[ii] Cohen, Jerome A. “The Crisis in Hong Kong: What to Know.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, August 13, 2019.

[iii] Blakemore, Erin. “How Hong Kong’s Complex History Explains Its Current Crisis with China.” National Geographic, August 13, 2019.

[iv] Roth, Kenneth. “World Report 2019: Rights Trends in China.” Human Rights Watch, January 17, 2019.

[v] John, Tara. “Why Hong Kong Is Protesting.” CNN. Cable News Network, August 30, 2019.

[vi] “Young, Educated, Middle Class: Study Reveals Protester Demographics.” South China Morning Post, August 12, 2019.

[vii] Russolillo, Steven, and Joyu Wang. “Hong Kong Protests Take Over Universities, Business District.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, November 12, 2019.

[viii] Cheung, Gary. “Nearly 4,500 Hongkongers Arrested over Protests so Far.” South China Morning Post, November 18, 2019.

[ix] Schuman, Michael. “Hong Kong Shows the Flaws in China’s Zero-Sum Worldview.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, August 13, 2019.

[x] Yu, Verna. “Children of the Revolution: the Hong Kong Youths Ready to ‘Sacrifice Everything’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, December 15, 2019.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “Almost Nobody in Hong Kong under 30 Identifies as ‘Chinese.’” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, August 26, 2019.

[xiii] Wong, Chun Han, and Philip Wen. “China Pushes to Integrate Hong Kong Through Patriotic Education, Security Overhauls.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, November 1, 2019.

[xiv] Smith, Christopher H. “H.R.3289 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.”, October 16, 2019.

[xv] YouTube, October 2, 2019.

[xvi] Zaharia, Marius. “’Now or Never’: Hong Kong Protesters Say They Have Nothing to Lose.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters Corp., August 28, 2019. 

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