Let's get engaged
The picture painted by the media is that the growing radicalisation of the pro-democracy movement, the scenes of confrontation during the protests on New Year's Day, and the escalating campaign against the high-speed rail project by young activists can all be linked as the rise of the so-called post-1980s generation.
Each generation produces its own idealists and people who want to do something - and the post-1980s generation is no exception. However, the media has played up and simplified the phenomenon; it is the politics of the media as much as the new style of the network-based social movement that is at work.
The lack of substantive democratic progress since 1997 has no doubt demoralised many people and caused some to take more drastic action. Thirty years of the pro-democracy movement in the form of rallies, protest marches, walkouts and even hunger strikes has led to political fatigue. Now that pan-democrats form a critical minority in the legislature, thanks to democratisation so far, they must 'countersign' any reform deal in order to move forward. This requires a new brand of negotiation and compromise that they are not ready for.
Some, especially the younger activists, could well take part in new forms of agitation, 'mass resignations' or direct action. But it still raises the question of how these new actions could effectively provide hope of a breakthrough, or whether they would ultimately lead to just another round of fatigue, feeding into total despair and escapism.
The conventional politics of the ballot box and of welfare are giving way, in the new millennium, to a new politics of values; green issues, public space and cultural actions have become new focal points in the social movement. It is not only government officials who have been caught by surprise, but also our politicians and political parties, who still operate in the mindset of the 1980s and 1990s.
The New Year's Day rally is the first time pro-democracy activists and supporters have thrown their frustrations and anger at the central government's liaison office, on the grounds that Beijing holds the veto on democratisation.
While this is correct, constitutionally, in the interests of 'one country, two systems' it has long been held that matters of governance should be resolved locally, through lobbying and agitating against the Hong Kong government.
The 'one country, two systems' framework is, of course, not static but embedded in a political-economic context that has changed tremendously since the 1980s, when China was an economic backwater looking up to the Hong Kong model.
The equation now is gradually being turned around as China rises to become an economic power and the mainland is seen as the key factor to drive and sustain Hong Kong's prosperity.
Still, maintaining a fine line between the Hong Kong government and the liaison office is crucial both strategically and symbolically. If Hong Kong people and mainland officials unduly play up the central government dimension, or the primacy of 'one country', this will not only belittle the Hong Kong government's authority, it will also feed into a restraining interpretation of the 'two systems' concept.
Hong Kong people are concerned about the crackdown on political dissidents and aspire for liberalisation on the mainland. However, they also realise that the tail does not wag the dog and that democratic progress here can only be achieved if there is a harmonious relationship and mutual accommodation between the mainland and Hong Kong, where neither side pushes its own logic to the extreme.
All along, mainstream democrats have preferred a talk-and-fight approach that emphasises dialogue.
Such an approach is now questioned as being too conservative and outdated by so-called new democrats, who ironically also lack an agenda that squares with the constitutional reality and can point to a concrete way forward.
The paradox of democratisation in Hong Kong has always been that Beijing is inherently sceptical of local democracy and its spillover effect. The adversarial stance taken by some pan-democrat politicians vis-?-vis the central government does not help to remove such fears, or to improve mutual trust.
Inasmuch as the pro-democracy camp needs to think innovatively, the national and Hong Kong governments also need to develop new thinking on Hong Kong's political future and forge a new form of political engagement.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank