Why Hong Kong’s youth anger has parallels with German history

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 11:43am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 12:47pm

Nativism has recently emerged as a force in the local social movement. Its presence can be identified with specific isolated events – the anti-locust action, baby formula action, anti-cross-border parallel trade actions, and student union elections at several universities. The prospect that it may become a political force to be reckoned with was suggested in the outcome of the recent Northeast New Territories by-election.

A new generation of youths is becoming socially active. Not all of them have a nativist profile, many are still looking where to land, but they are discovering that nativism is appealing to a growing number of their peers.

Who are these young voters? Why are they interested in politics? I conjecture four factors are shaping their development, which I base on parallels in German history – a natural point of comparison because it is the intellectual home of nativism (that eventually transformed into nationalism) as a political force.

The four factors are (1) prolonged economic and social deprivation amidst growing opulence, (2) humiliation and failure to find human fulfilment, (3) rejection of the narrative of the glittering world, and (4) the search for a new narrative that embraces courage and the martial spirit.

The first factor is present in Hong Kong’s remote public rental housing estates, which are a fertile breeding ground of isolated, lonely, frustrated youths. These estates are now populated by low-income households, divorced households, single-parent households, and recent immigrant households. Many of them are concentrated in the remote and isolated parts of Hong Kong.

Individuals and families that live and grow up in public rental housing estates often do not circulate in the rest of the city because of the high transport costs. Their stable community is ripe for politicians trying to build a constituency, with a voter base of frustrated people and an army of youth volunteers eager for a narrative that can ignite their imaginations about the meaning of their future. This leads us to the second factor.

What kind of narrative strikes a chord? Here I draw on parallels in German history. The Thirty Years’ War, which ended in 1648, wreaked unimaginable destruction. In terms of total deaths as a fraction of the world population of the time, it ranks among the top 10 in world history and the worst ever in European history.

The war crushed the German spirit and a huge national inferiority complex developed towards the progressive Western states, particularly France, which dominated the sciences and arts. German intellectual life retreated in the direction of the inner life of the human soul, even to the extent of glorifying the irrational and mystical.

For decades, well into the 18th century, the entire German population shared the misery. In Hong Kong, the suffering has been concentrated in a growing minority that lags increasingly behind the winners.

The German search for human fulfilment after the Thirty Years’ War culminated in the rise of the militaristic Prussian state and the imagining of liberation as a construction of state power and with it a national identity.

In Hong Kong, the articulation of nativism as a narrative for the future is still ongoing, but it is manifesting as a rejection of the dominant political ideas of the past 60 years regarding the roles of government, the establishment and the mainstream democratic opposition. The rejection of all dominant ideas of the past, including those held by mainstream democrats, and paying lip service to democratic values, is the third factor shaping the rising influence of radical nativism.

Both the German idea of unification and the current Hong Kong nativist narrative seem ridiculous for their times, but in the German case the power of ideas eventually triumphed and, unfortunately, also led to some very terrible consequences for humanity.

Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) was a German jurist and political theorist who supported Nazism. He argued for the historical destiny of the people and their state, and the acceptability of deploying all methods to overcome obstacles to progress.

He also reasoned that given the adversarial nature of politics, conflict becomes unavoidable when communities with different cultures engage each other deeply, as we are seeing now in the spread of terrorism in a globalised world. The rising martial spirit in Hong Kong’s social movement among radical nativists as an instrument of their struggles is the fourth factor.

A German philosopher on the edge of the precipice will look down and, unable to see the bottom, take a leap in an act of faith. The British philosopher will decide that he is not curious enough to know what is down there and move away from the edge and continue his walk on firm ground. I hope Hong Kong’s young men and women will not be too tempted by the German philosophical and political ideas that emerged before the second world war.