Youthquake: Hong Kong’s New Political Generation in a Round-Table Conversation with TIME
byOct. 6, 2016
On Sept. 4, 2.2 million Hongkongers — a record 58% of the territory’s registered voters — went to the polls to elect their next Legislative Council, as Hong Kong’s congress is called. The elections came almost exactly two years to the day after the beginning of what was called the Umbrella Revolution: a three-month-long protest staged in the city’s most critical commercial districts to demand democratic reforms and stand up to Beijing, which has controlled the former British colony as a nominally semiautonomous territory since 1997.
Some critics would later call the protests a failure — the primary demand, the right to directly elect Hong Kong’s top official, was not met — but those who did so failed (or chose) not to acknowledge the movement’s most lasting consequence: the awakening of a new political generation that is brazen in its fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy and unafraid of an increasingly muscular Beijing.
This generation first stirred in 2012, when it rebelled against the government’s proposal for a mandatory pro-China curriculum at Hong Kong’s schools. The Legislative Council elections have now given it a mandate. Five young activists were voted into office, bringing political validation to a youth-driven movement dismissed by establishment elders as naïve, unschooled, and untenable.
The youngest, Nathan Law, who was a figurehead of the Umbrella Movement demonstrations, is just 23. But more unprecedented than the age of these new opposition legislators are their beliefs: several of them are self-described “radicals” who openly resent the notion of Hong Kong as a Chinese territory (they see it as a “colony” of Beijing) and are willing to entertain the drastic solution of Hong Kong’s outright independence.
On Sept. 21, TIME’s Asia editor Zoher Abdoolcarim, associate editor Helen Regan, writer-reporter Nash Jenkins and reporting intern Kevin Lui sat down for a conversation with three of them: Law, 30-year-old Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and 25-year-old Yau Wai-ching. (Thirty-eight-year-old Eddie Chu, a maverick who was elected on a bold anticorruption platform, had fallen ill the night before and could not attend.) Seated around a table in the gritty Mong Kok district — the site of some of the most violent clashes during the protests two years ago — these members of Hong Kong’s new political guard spoke frankly about their goals for office, their hopes for Hong Kong’s autonomy, and why they are committed to fight for the soul of China’s freest city.
What do your victories in the Legislative Council elections say about where Hong Kong is politically?
Leung: Hongkongers want change. They want some new faces in the Legislative Council and in the whole political system.
Law: People are feeling that the democratic movement is … stuck in a place where we follow an agenda provided by the central government but we gain nothing out of it. People want change. A lot of the new participants in this election want to uphold self-determination and [set] a new agenda for the democratic movement. We provide a new vision.
The Umbrella Revolution failed to achieve concrete political reform. How do you manage the disappointment?
Law: In terms of leading to concrete political change, it failed. But on the other hand, it left behind a huge political heritage. A lot of people were enlightened politically, and we can see that in the turnout rate in this election. Many people came out to vote. You can see that Hong Kong’s civic society is getting stronger. Having had quite a relatively important role in the movement, I think I have the responsibility to sustain that spirit, and to sustain people’s hopes.
You’re all relatively young. How has Hong Kong changed in your lifetimes?
Leung: We are losing our freedoms. The new generation is looking for a new solution.
Yau: Since the handover, the values and collective memories that Hongkongers treasure have disappeared. All the Hong Kong government and Chinese Communist Party want is to [take over] Hong Kong, with no regard for Hongkongers. In my primary school, I was taught that China was the motherland of Hong Kong and we would have a good future, but what I’ve experienced is that Hong Kong is getting worse under Beijing’s control — or, as I would describe it, colonization.
Law: Other than on military and diplomatic issues, the Chinese government [is not supposed to] intervene in Hong Kong. But Hong Kong’s [autonomy] is being eroded because a lot of things we uphold are in conflict with the mind-set of mainland China. For example, we might uphold democracy, but they might see it as a channel for hostile foreign forces to interfere in internal Chinese issues.
The use of power by the Beijing government is [also] arbitrary and vague. And many of our primary and secondary schools are using Mandarin instead of Cantonese — we’re almost losing a generation of fluent Cantonese speakers. Read more…