Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The courage of youth on display in Hong Kong

An independent spirit might not mean separating Hong Kong from China, but adopting ways that threaten vested interests of the ruling class.

Photo: Studio Incendo/Flickr
Photo: Studio Incendo/Flickr
Published 2 Feb 2018   Follow @VivienneChow

Young people are the hope of a society’s future, but Hong Kong’s ruling class does not seem to agree. They don’t want young people to be smart, ask difficult questions, or challenge the status quo. Rather, they want young people to play by the rules, to do as they are told. In other words, the ruling class want robots that only take orders and continue to slave away to generate enormous profits. They want nothing that will disrupt the current system.

Such is the impression given by recent events in Hong Kong: the suspension of two university students who protested against the introduction of a mandatory Mandarin course; and the barring of young politicians from taking part in an upcoming Legislative Council by-election. Meanwhile, the new Secretary for Justice who was caught breaking the law still remains in office. What has gone wrong with Hong Kong’s moral compass? Where is the hope for the city’s youth?

The ongoing political and cultural conflicts between Hong Kong and mainland China is no news, but the conflicts, rather than being introduced directly by Beijing, appeared to have been brought upon by Hong Kong’s ruling class, which has gained young people’s distrust over the course of time.

The introduction of a mandatory Mandarin course is one example. Since 2007/08, the Hong Kong Baptist University has required undergraduates to pass a Mandarin language course in order to be awarded their degrees. Mandarin is not required in most local universities, but the Baptist University insists that training in the official language of mainland China will boost students’ opportunities for employment and cultural exchange. Last year, the university introduced a proficiency test for students seeking an exemption from the compulsory course.

But recent results showed that 70 per cent of students failed the Mandarin test. Unhappy students stormed into the university’s language centre, which led to an eight-hour stand off between students and the staff. In the end, two students were suspended after being caught on camera speaking aggressively and using foul language against the staff. Some observers, including the mainland media, even associated the protest against the mandatory Mandarin course with pro-independence and separatist motives.

The notion of pro-independence also became the cause for disqualifying young politicians from taking part in the Legislative Council by-election in March 2017. Four publicly elected lawmakers were removed from their seats for supporting the independence of Hong Kong.

After former Umbrella Movement student leader Nathan Law lost his lawmaker seat, fellow student leader and activist Agnes Chow, who belongs to the same political organisation as Law does, Demosisto, applied for the race. But her application was rejected on the grounds that Demosisto’s call for “self-determination” was associated with Hong Kong independence, which is against the Basic Law (despite the fact that self-determination is not necessarily translated into national independence from a legal perspective, and the Basic Law guarantees Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy).

While young people were busy facing condemnation and disapproval from the ruling class, society’s elites were occupied with defending the fatal mistakes made by one of their comrades. The new Secretary for Justice, Teresa Cheng, was found to have multiple illegal structures on her properties. And yet she still remains in office.

Illegal structures caused a major political storm in 2012 when the Chief Executive election candidate Henry Tang was found building a basement illegally on one of his properties. Tang was leading the race initially but was brought down by the incident, and lost the election to rival Leung Chun-ying.

Cheng, a Senior Counsel and a chartered engineer, not only survived two motions of no confidence at Legislative Council thanks to the pro-Beijing lawmakers, but also managed to give legal advice in disqualifying Chow from running the by-election.

This has left many Hongkongers baffled. We were taught to obey the law and play fair, but recent events showed the ruling class doing the opposite. It seems that once you have reached the top, you will get support from people who have power. Even if you have broken the law, you can still rule and prevent others from disrupting the current system as long as you weild the power – a situation that is familiar to many people north of Hong Kong’s border.

Labelling young people who dare to challenge the status quo as pro-independence activists is a convenient excuse to banish them from participating in building the future they deserve. They certainly have an independent spirit, not to separate Hong Kong from China but to make their home a better place by adopting ways that could pose threats to the ruling class’s vested interests. These young people aspire to make a difference to society, rather than live the life of a mouse running on a treadmill, wasting their lives to get a job they don’t want, just to pay a mortgage for overpriced housing.

It is not difficult to understand young people’s anger, frustration, and disappointment. How can young people live with hope in a society where power topples the spirit of fair play and justice? Their battle for independence – independence from the ruling class and the current system – has only just begun. That is, if they have the stamina to keep fighting.

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