Book Review: Generation HK Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow

Ben Bland missed the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ of 2014, when up to 100,000 university and secondary school students encamped peacefully for 77 days outside the HK Legislative Council in Admiralty and spilled over onto the retail districts of Causeway Bay and Mong Kok. Bland arrived in early 2015, as South China correspondent for the Financial Times.

“Over the next 18 months, I watched with amazement as Hong Kong was swept by a wave of political change that no one expected,” he writes.

Behind the facades of towering skyscrapers, teeming malls and thronged restaurants, he found a place “that is uncomfortable with its history, unhappy with its present and unsure of its future.” He has written Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow to delineate what the new generation looks like, what it feels and where he thinks it is going.

It began on Sept. 26, 2014 with calm initial crowds around the Legislative Council and Central Government offices until the ill-judged firing of tear gas and pepper-spray rounds by the police on the night of 27th September, watched live on TV. That outraged the protesters’ parents, who joined the students to protect them. The umbrellas to shield against pepper-spray became the symbol of the resistance.

NPC says we decide

The students were protesting the National People’s Congress ruling of end-August, effectively curtailing free universal election for the territory’s leader. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) preferred to vet and approve candidates for the post. The students viewed that as a betrayal of the compact of 1997, when Britain handed Hong Kong people to China, without their consent.

Having missed the event, Bland did the next best thing: he interviewed the main non-state actors who energized that extraordinary, peaceful, sustained, student protest. He found no simple explanation for why previously apolitical students and their parents, would have risked arrest, detention, and triad violence, over such an extended period of menacing uncertainty.

Beijing made no concessions. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, C Y Leung, ducked meeting the protest leaders. A televised round table with the then chief secretary, Carrie Lam, was inconclusive. The student leaders split from the professional “pan-democratic” politicians as peaceful protest failed. They splintered further, some advocating independence from China.

HK is not China

Bland’s search for clues uncovers an emerging Hong Kong “imagined identity” with common themes: preserve the traditional Chinese script (against the simplified one of the mainland); retain Cantonese for education and everyday use (not Putonghua); protect the personal, press, and other freedoms HK has long enjoyed; and evolve to a more democratic future.

The ‘Generation HK’ of Bland’s book are teenagers born after 1997. They have no personal experience of British colonial rule. They are three generations removed from their grandparents who fled Mao’s class struggles, the famines of the Great Leap Forward, and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Although ethnically Chinese, they feel distinctly separate from the mainland.

From 39 percent identifying as “Chinese” in 1997, the HK University (HKU) poll dropped to a remarkable 16 percent in 2016. Those identifying as “Hongkonger” rose from 47 percent to 64 percent over the same period. Tellingly, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) poll found 40 percent of the age group 15-24 supported independence from the mainland.

The student leaders present no concrete, alternative agenda to manage Hong Kong society. The independence advocates do not know how the territory would fend for itself. They are united in a rejection of mainland interference in domestic affairs. The Basic Law, the mini constitution of the “One Country, Two Systems” formula promised a ‘high degree of autonomy’ for 50 years.

Puppet Govt?

Instead of initiating policy for equitable development, the youth see a compliant, puppet administration, failing to address social problems. They see the political class making common cause with property tycoons to uphold the status-quo. They see an unrepresentative local leadership scrambling to gain favor with Beijing, on ideological matters of little relevance.

The student leaders feel true direct representation in the Legislative Council may be the best way to problem-solve through consensus. That is stymied by the ‘functional constituency’ formula, which perpetuates disproportionate commercial and institutional influence in the legislature. They see that as entrenching the vested interests which obstruct social justice.

Generation HK cannot dream of establishing their own homes when they get married. They cannot afford to rent a 150-sq. ft. cell. Only 50 percent of households own their homes. A university degree no longer gains rapid social mobility. Lack of opportunity leads to a fatalistic loss of hope. That left unresolved, sprouts a destructive energy of resentment and rejection.

Incompatible values

Bland wonders about the inherent contradictions of a society long used to freedom of press, thought and expression, being ruled by a Communist regime which brooks no challenge. The pressure for Hong Kong to pass a Security Law with broad and dangerously unclear definitions of what constitutes ‘treason, secession, sedition and subversion’ adds to the distrust.

As the post-Handover generation with weak ties to the mainland gets increasingly subjected to the habits of a police-state, Bland has grudging admiration for the student leaders and some mature professionals, willing to expose themselves for their greater mission to protect HK identity and freedoms.

He observes that the way the Beijing authorities and the Hong Kong administration go about imposing their will, alienates, rather than wins hearts and minds. Beijing’s 2015 body-snatching of inconvenient local publishers, solidifies the distrust. The increasing substitution of ‘rule by law’ to displace the ‘rule of law’ carries all the seeds for a dystopian future for Hong Kong.

Bland makes clear that his book is not a scientific sampling of a cross-section of HK society. He interviewed the protest leaders. He tries to assess the underlying currents that drove that uncharacteristic demonstration, which gained a life of its own beyond the professional politicians. The students don’t want to change China. They want to protect Hong Kong’s own values.