The young and the restless lead way to enlightenment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 December, 2011, 12:00am


An essay written by Qing dynasty scholar and journalist Liang Qichao in 1900 titled The Young China made quite a splash in its day.

It said China's destiny was in the hands of 'quality youth' and had a profound impact on the political culture during the New Culture Movement in the early 20th century.

A local version - 'Young Guangzhou' - is playing out 111 years later.

There has been a remarkable flourishing of civil rights awareness in Guangzhou this year, with young men and women living what Liang taught. Their defence of beliefs, values, cultural heritage, dialect, historical monuments and social justice, while sometimes clumsy, has been like a breath of fresh air. And that is something needed to counterbalance regular displays of cowardly public behaviour, with many mainlanders expressing little interest in public affairs and living life with their heads down to avoid trouble.

That attitude was partly blamed for the tragedy in Foshan, Guangdong, which saw 18 passers-by ignore a critically injured two-year-old girl after she was hit by two vehicles.

Massive pro-Cantonese protests broke out in Guangzhou during summer last year as part of a public backlash against an official proposal to switch programming on Guangdong TV's main channels from Cantonese to Putonghua. Officials later said they had been misunderstood. Provincial party secretary Wang Yang even claimed to be learning Cantonese.

However, the official response failed to pacify popular anger, prompting the authorities to resort to form, mobilising scores of police to break up rallies and arresting those who organised them.

The local authorities might have felt more relaxed after quelling that social unrest but they were soon to learn that suppressing the people's voice just built up more pressure.

As Liang wrote, if the young men and woman of a nation are wise, rich, strong, independent and free, then the nation will share those attributes.

In Guangzhou, some young people are not afraid to speak their minds. They care about the city's culture, personal rights and environmental protection.

The media has run extensive reports about some of their campaigning for worthy causes, lone battles against giant corporations and government officials with outcomes most could not have dreamed about.

Pan Yanhui, 28, shaved his head in April and posted a picture on his microblog, calling for others to join his 'brain is brighter' campaign to protest against a 150 million yuan (HK$183.8 million) lighting project the Guangzhou city government was planning for the banks of the Pearl River. Eighty-seven people joined him in shaving their heads, attracting widespread attention, including from government officials. His campaign did not get far before it was muted by the authorities.

But the effort to block the project did not stop. Ou Jiayang, a fourth-year university student commonly known as 'the thumb girl', took up the battle through microblogs. She asked those who supported her call for the financial details of the lighting project to be disclosed to take their own 'thumbs-up' photos and post them on their microblogs. The gentle approach was well received and, followed by a concerted petition letter campaign, resulted in good news last week, with the city government resubmitting a tender for the lighting project, cutting the cost from 150 million yuan to 27 million yuan. Instead of the giant LED screen, it now proposes to build LED light poles and light statues.

In May, Chen Yihua, a skinny, bespectacled high school pupil from Guangzhou 16th Secondary School, stood outside subway stations with a placard decrying a renovation project that sought to unify the interior of all the city's subway stations. He also collected signatures from people who supported his cause, attracting massive media attention that eventually put so much pressure on the subway operator that it abandoned the wasteful scheme.

It is encouraging to see young people using simple tools, platforms and creative ideas to launch influential public campaigns.

Young voices such as theirs are breeding a new generation of civil-minded people. The battle to advance civil society will be tough but they have shown the way with their victories this year.