When I read about the Boxing Day arrest of four British flag-waving activists who broke into the PLA Central Barracks in downtown Hong Kong, I was reminded of a certain Facebook petition. The petition was seeking signatures to ask the Queen of England to retake Hong Kong.
Like the well-intentioned activists, three things characterize the Facebook petition. Firstly, it made ludicrous demands and unrealistic fantasies that even the most nostalgic of British governments would not dare propose to Beijing. Second, an increasingly vocal wing of the pro-reform movement is inclined toward a political obsession that alienates the moderates it needs for genuine civic engagement and reform-based dialogue. Finally, there is an almost charming if disheartening illiteracy of not only Sino-British relations but of politics and the humanities overall.
The first issue doesn't merit prolonged discussion. The idea that a city under China’s sovereignty will ever enter the Commonwealth, let alone be ceded to a non-existent British Empire, is a misjudgment to say the least. It is as ridiculous as breaking into a military barracks to force changes to the Basic Law. Did the activists think to convince the soldiers to rise against the tyrannical CY Leung and his masters in Beijing? Given the spectacle of their breaking of the law, they might as well have tried.
The second point is more complex. Radicalized people do radical things, and the young age of the activists is very telling. I once had dinner with a young, Masters-educated, middle-class acquaintance that sincerely told me a HK$20,000 monthly salary would be a “fantastic” wage. It is likely that the majority of young Hong Kongers are earning far below this modest amount (since the average monthly wage is currently $12,500), and it is therefore perfectly understandable that they feel ever more disenfranchised, helpless, and unhappy." (We are still among the most miserable of developed societies).
Add to that an unpopular government, a dearth of cultural vibrancy and meaning making, and extraordinary pressure from peers and the media to live a materialistic life, and it is not surprising that young people have a crisis of faith in society and themselves.
This has made Hong Kong youth very politically engaged, which is wonderful. Many powerful, effective protests, particularly over issues like Moral and National Education, were driven by Hong Kong youth.
But alienation has also driven an increasingly vocal minority of political obsessives to commit tactical errors like the Boxing Day break-in. This is unproductive in two ways: first, it led to pan-party condemnation, driving unnecessary disunity between pro-reform groups. Second, it will alienate over the long-term moderate factions that could otherwise be the reformists’ greatest allies. These moderate factions consist of businessmen, professionals, and socially influential individuals who are civically engaged and invested in Hong Kong. There can be no change if the actions of groups like Hong Kong Comes First bewilder and embarrasses the typical Hong Konger. She is too busy with her job, commute, family, and leisure to worry about partisan, personalized politics.
It is perhaps the third characteristic of the Facebook petition obsessives and break-in activists that is unhappiest. Decades of pathetic neglect of the humanities and an attachment to “useful” education has left a youth culture that idolizes and frequents French cafés but could not care less about French history. It has established a romanticization of the colonial era without any appreciation of British parliamentary heritage and the realities of pre-1997 British rule.
And it has entrenched a cheapened political discourse that is as shallow as the high school curricula that can be blamed on older generations. In this respect, the parents and policymakers of yesteryear fatally underestimated the value of an education in “unemployable” subjects like philosophy, theology, or history. It is to help our young engage in meaning making and serve as witnesses to their era.
We actually have plenty of youngsters who want to witness to our society as scholars, essayists, journalists, or writers, but are pressured or frightened out of it. Until they are empowered to do so, they will remain illiterate in the language that watchdogs of the ages used to effect reform. It is hard to believe that the present Hong Kong can produce witnesses to history like Lu Xun, Walter Bagehot, Edmund Burke, or Dietrich Bonheoffer.
The Boxing Day activists were brave. Their grievances and rage are real, as is the sense of helplessness amongst so many Hong Kongers. Reconciliation with Beijing will always have a degree of tension, and it should remain so due to our free press and defense of free speech. But in targeting the barracks, the activists misunderstood the nature and process of reform so fundamentally that there is no choice but to conclude that their mistake was a symptom. It was symptomatic of a frightening, multifaceted ignorance and illiteracy that may require nothing less than a Herculean shift in the city’s educational culture." Let’s hope that this change will come before 2047 for our youth and our march to democracy."
(Raymond Lam is Editor of Buddhistdoor International and a member of the Guild of Hui Neng)