What Does Hong Kong’s “Occupy Generation” Want?

As participants in the ongoing consider and debate next steps for the movement, some students leaders are considering a trip up to Beijing to press their demands with the Chinese leadership. Having grown up in post-1997 Hong Kong, the younger protesters who are now a dominant force on the streets have a very different opinion of and relationship to Beijing than the older generation of activists, and that is influencing their protest tactics and strategies. In the New York Times, Lian Yi Zheng writes:

The protesters, for their part, seem resolute. Unlike their parents and grandparents, most of them have grown up middle class in a city-polity with good governance, and mostly during what is widely deemed to be its golden period — from the late 1970s to the handover in 1997. Well-educated, well-traveled and well-informed, they have a surprisingly strong disdain for what they see in mainland China: an authoritarian government, corrupt, uncivil, lacking in the rule of law and controlled by an elite much inflated with a misbegotten sense of cocky patriotism.

These young people have been further alienated in recent years by the intrusion of the mainland’s economic clout, which among other things has driven real estate prices incredibly high. Immigrants from China keep arriving, and young Hong Kongers perceive the government’s preferential treatment of them as depriving locals of educational opportunities, health care and other benefits. They deplore seeing shops that used to serve their daily needs being turned into pricey outlets for well-heeled mainland tourists and bootleggers — “locusts,” as the latter are sometimes called. In fact, the more young Hong Kongers depend on the mainland economy for employment and income, the more they resent Beijing.

A generational fissure also runs through the wider democracy movement itself. Leaders of the biggest pro-democracy parties have for some 30 years endorsed a mild form of pushback against Beijing: mixing struggle with dialogue and accepting the mainland’s sovereignty over Hong Kong in exchange for promises of more democracy. In light of Beijing’s recent hard-line rulings regarding the 2017 election, the Generation looks upon the strategy of its elders as completely futile: They gave away much and got nothing in return. Civil disobedience is this generation’s starting point. [Source]

Seventeen-year-old student leader Joshua Wong also wrote in the New York Times about his generation’s expectations:

The post-90s generation is growing up in a vastly changed city from that of our parents and grandparents. Earlier generations, many of whom came here from mainland China, wanted one thing: a stable life. A secure job was always more important than politics. They worked hard and didn’t ask for much more than some comfort and stability.

The people of my generation want more. In a world where ideas and ideals flow freely, we want what everybody else in an advanced society seems to have: a say in our future. [Source]

The Hong Kong protesters’ shift toward more intangible aspirations was noted by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, whose recent book A Great Clamor collects his writing about China and Hong Kong. He was interviewed by Edward Wong of the New York Times:

Q.
In your book and in an earlier travel essay in the Times, you write that the logic of Hong Kong is based on the “immemorial human need to make — and squander — money.” Yet, you also conclude that “a society of such material plenitude would eventually foster spiritual longings that could not be appeased by the mere accumulation of goods.” Are the student-led protests we’re seeing now one manifestation of that?

A.
“Spiritual” is not a word generally used in mainstream discourse, but I think we should pay more attention to it. I used it here to define aspirations for dignity and recognition, or an end to humiliation — desires that often lie under even demands that are explicitly political and economic. Hong Kong came into existence as a hub of global capitalism, and that is what it has remained, under two regimes. But that cycle of materialism could not go on forever. A new generation is always likely to have a different sense of its place in the world, or what the good life consists of, especially if it has been exposed to the wider world.

Then there is also the cycle of modern capitalism, which doesn’t distribute its benefits evenly and in fact dispossess many. It began to seem oppressive to a substantial number of people who have neither the means nor the desire to join it — actually, the anxiety that your prospects and sense of possibility is shrinking can be more intense on a small island that is increasingly subservient to a big country. [Source]

Bruce Macfarlane, a professor higher education at Hong Kong University, notes that his graduate students, who are mostly from mainland China, and school administration, have largely stayed quiet during the recent protests, while local Hong Kong undergraduates have taken to the streets. He writes in Times Higher Education:

One of the reasons why scholars have argued that universities need academic freedom is that they act as a critical conscience of society. But having academic freedom in theory is not the same as exercising it in practice. The main problem is self-censorship. It’s about who feels willing and able to speak out. Sadly, those with the most to lose rarely do. The universities have kept their heads down while their students have placed theirs very firmly above the parapet. To our collective shame and embarrassment, it is the students, and not the universities, who are the critical conscience of Hong Kong society. They are the ones who have spoken truth to power. [Source]

Read more about the ongoing Hong Kong protest movement, via CDT.