Rocking the boat - Stephen Vines

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 January, 2010, 12:00am

The trouble with young people today ...' How often have you read these words, or something similar? For many years, young people in Hong Kong were criticised for being apathetic about social and political affairs; now they are castigated for irresponsible involvement in social and political movements. And when the criticism falters, there is a barrage of patronising talk, mainly from government officials, about how, if only they understood, they wouldn't criticise.

It is hard to know how to respond to all this, especially when much of what is being said is presented as new and original thinking, whereas it is nothing of the kind. The agonising over the development of the so-called post-1980s generation in Hong Kong mirrors concerns, and, yes, excitement, over the development of protest movements in other generations. Sure, there are differences in emphasis and differences in the way people mobilise but, in essence, things have not changed - youth gravitates towards change.

Let us first consider the situation in the late 1960s, a time of unrest around the world but mostly expressed in Hong Kong by leftists emulating the activities of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The history of this movement, like all history, is written by the victors, in this case the Hong Kong establishment, which has succeeded in depicting this period as an episode of mindless violence carried out by brainwashed youths who were misled.

This is not entirely untrue but it remains a facile interpretation of events. Hong Kong at the time was a relatively poor place rapidly emerging from poverty, yet the benefits of this transition were very unequally distributed. The lingering arrogance of the colonial authorities was out of synch with the changing world and the government had little vision for changing the status quo. In other words, there were perfectly sound reasons for protest and little excuse for the initial attempts to suppress it by force without considering whether there were other ways of addressing people's concerns.

Ironically, the person who is probably best placed to understand all this is Tsang Tak-sing, the home affairs minister, who was then a schoolboy protest leader and was thrown in jail on the basis of rather dubious evidence. Now a pillar of the new order, Tsang can shake his head in disapproval at the youthful protesters who are expressing themselves in ways far less violent than his contemporaries, yet are still castigated for irresponsibility.

Fast forward from the late 1960s to the 1970s, when students launched a campaign to protest against the Japanese occupation of the Diaoyu Islands. Again, this movement was violently suppressed by the government. Yet these protests continue, albeit nowadays with tacit government backing. And it was around this time that another group of young people formed the Hong Kong Observers, a landmark middle-class movement interested in social change; they certainly had no violent intent but were closely monitored and harassed by the Police Special Branch.

Some of the Observers' leading members became founders of the political parties and movements that flourished a decade later, only to find that their attempts to channel their activities in ways instantly recognisable in the rest of the world were criticised as being quite inappropriate for Hong Kong, posing a danger to stability.

Here we are again with the same old lie being trotted out about dangers to stability. There are even half-hearted attempts to suggest that the very people whose political involvement was nurtured in criticism of the old colonial regime are somehow trying to bring back the old order.

It is quite possible that many of today's young activists are not aware of those who blazed the trail of protest. They may think that mobilising protests by way of Facebook and using the internet means they are doing something very new, but the reality is that this merely implies a change in the means of communication.

Yet there is also something different about youth involvement in current protests because of the extraordinary scope of their interests. Youthful protesters have been at the frontline of heritage preservation demonstrations, have been very active in environmental movements and have linked up in an impressive way with villagers concerned about the disruption to their lives by the new express railway. And, of course, young people are also gravitating towards what might be described as hard-core political and economic issues. Some get involved in established political parties; others simply do their own thing alongside the veterans.

Meanwhile, it should not be overlooked that Hong Kong's best organised political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, is also working from the pro-government side of the fence to mobilise young supporters, with some success, not least because involvement in the DAB offers jobs and other material benefits, something denied to the anti-government camp.

Of course, those who are active in these movements remain strictly in the minority, albeit a growing one. But political activism has always been the preserve of the few rather than the many. It is somewhat childish to revel in the lack of wider mass participation and perverse in the extreme to criticise fine upstanding citizens who devote their time and energies, without material reward, to causes they believe will create a better Hong Kong.

Yet we are told that we need to worry about what's happening to Hong Kong youth. Go figure.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur