Titled “The Way Ahead: Hong Kongers’ Identity, ‘Autonomy’ & ‘Independence”, this year’s Annual Christmas Discussion Forum focused on the link between a growing ‘national’ identity and recent political movements and growing tensions across the political spectrum. Hosted by the London 4U PASS, we were fortunate enough to welcome the Hon. Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, Dr. Brian Fong Chi-hang, and Mr. Joshua Wong to join us for the afternoon.
After listening to all three guests’ individual speeches and the discussion amongst themselves, I found their views to be actually quite similar, despite how divergent as their views appear in the press or in the popular imagination. Their ideals may be different, their end goals may be different, their methods may be different, but in the end they all wish for Hong Kong to become a ‘better’ place. While the specific meaning of ‘better’ differs, I felt that all three guests believed in the development of a representative administration distinct from that of the PRC, maintaining Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy and way of life. But why then, if their wishes for Hong Kong are similar, is it so difficult to reach a consensus on what Hong Kong should do?
What I found from the Forum was the profound impact of circumstance. Being at a certain time and place, experiencing certain events firsthand, has most likely affected each guest’s idea of what ‘better’ entails for Hong Kong. The following are gross generalizations of entire generations of people, so take them with a pinch of salt.
The baby boomer generation was one that gained the most materially from their circumstances. One Country Two Systems established Hong Kong as a trusted economic gateway for a recovering state trying to find its foothold in a capitalist world. It makes sense to not want to rock the boat, since the system brought job opportunities, capital creation and economic growth to Hong Kong, benefiting those who came of age in the transitioning years. But material benefit is hardly the only motivation for disagreeing with social action; ideals about how Hong Kong should continue to move forward are just as important. This generation saw firsthand the colonial system and the utter lack of freedom that came with it, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China, and the difficult negotiations for the handover – in Dr. Leung’s eyes, the handover was a release from colonial confines and a chance to develop a civil society against a backdrop of a rapidly developing China. To her, Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement, to say nothing of the recent independence movement, were steps backwards that jeopardized what Hong Kong people had gained in the final years of the colonial administration, threats to hard-won autonomy and representation.
On the other hand, the 90s generation has a very different outlook on what One Country Two Systems means, what it has brought for them and subsequently where Hong Kong should go from now. Unlike the baby boomer generation, this generation has never known firsthand a Hong Kong without One Country Two Systems. To them, the prejudice and lack of freedom under colonial rule and the uncertainty surrounding the handover are but stories of days gone by with no real impact on the world they live in. Rather, what they know is that One Country Two Systems has failed them in more ways than it has benefited them. From technicalities such as limitations on the right to vote for their leaders, to personal issues such as the Basic Law’s enforcement of Hong Kong’s official identity as an ‘inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China’ which they feel no resonance with, One Country Two Systems has in certain respects acted as shackles that stop Hong Kong from moving forward. As this generation comes of age, they face a shrinking job market, a government that appears to not want to listen to their concerns, and the growing presence of Big Brother. It would be illogical for them to be accepting of the status quo or incremental change as the 2047 deadline looms over their heads, threatening their careers and personal way of life as they are supposed to reach the pinnacle of their influence in society.
So while the motivation to make Hong Kong ‘better’ is the same, the starting point of ‘the way ahead’ is different for the two generations. For the baby boomers, the starting point is absolute zero – no vote, no elected officials, no representation whatsoever. For ours, the starting point is substantially higher on the democratic scale – universal suffrage for part of our legislature, some voting rights for the rest of it, and a mechanism for electing our leader. The speed at which to proceed on ‘the way forward’ is thus different. For the baby boomers, an incremental approach is perfectly acceptable and even desired because we could lose what we already have. For our generation, an incremental approach is much too slow because we feel like we do not have the time to secure our own futures. The end goal of ‘the way forward’ will therefore also be different. While baby boomers may feel as if the status quo is enough because we have already gained so much, our generation feels as if we are stagnating because we are not gaining any more.
I have no solutions to offer on how to bridge the generation gap – dialogue is of course important, but that is a scarce commodity in Hong Kong’s charged political climate. I hope, however, that mutual respect of each other’s fears and desires will be able to prevail over blaming each other for Hong Kong’s current political predicament, and provide a starting block on which fruitful discussion on Hong Kong’s ‘way ahead’ can finally begin.