Social media

HK policymakers can't ignore online activism

Bernard Chan backs efforts to understand activism driven by social media

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am


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Hong Kong's establishment is struggling to keep up with a new phenomenon: youth activism driven by new social media.

We have had protest movements in Hong Kong for decades. What is different about today's is that they have their own extensive forums and sources of information, often quite separate from those used by the rest of us, including the government. Young activists in particular occupy a different media world altogether - one with its own way of thinking.

One result is fierce group opposition to various government proposals and policies, which can present the administration with a completely new type of stakeholder and agenda. Take the northeastern New Territories plan for new towns. Officials know they must deal with particular interests. There are landowners, some of whom want to stay, some of whom are speculators eager to sell. Some of these people are indigenous to the New Territories, others are relative newcomers. Some are squatters. And there are representative bodies like the district council and Heung Yee Kuk. All that is complicated enough.

But then we have a variety of activists with no direct economic or livelihood stake in the proposal. Many are young and idealistic. Some want to defend the current residents - just as they sided with the farmers who had to move to make way for the high-speed rail project.

Others oppose the plan because they think it will benefit only developers or the new housing will be sold to mainlanders. These stances are quite often unconventional. They are angry and untrusting, and they do not reflect the traditional style and substance of debates in mainstream media or even in the Legislative Council.

You might remember the Queen's Cube controversy last year, when an urban renewal project produced a tower of very expensive flats. Some creative young filmmakers made a mock video about what they called King's Cube in Kowloon - presenting tiny subdivided slum flats as a luxury development. This satire has now been seen by over 420,000 people in one YouTube version alone. A hundred letters or editorials in the newspapers would never have had such an impact.

That video went viral, as the new phrase goes. The more hits something gets online, the more other people hear about it. But I wonder how many government officials ever saw it.

Another new media phrase is "meme": an idea or concept that spreads, maybe online or in the real world. The backlash against property tycoons that has taken place in the past few years is a meme - and the King's Cube video contributed to it. Guy Fawkes masks have become a visual meme, worn by protesters against authority all over the world.

A meme that has taken off this year in Hong Kong is the old British colonial flag, or adaptations of it, being carried by young activists on demonstrations. Many older people find the sight puzzling or shocking.

To the youngsters who use it, it is a symbol of a Hong Kong that is distinct from the rest of China. They will be inheriting the Hong Kong that the older generation of officials are currently putting into shape, and they do not like what they see happening.

It may be that they are not well-informed about government plans and intentions. It may be that they are too panicky or pessimistic about such trends as integration with the mainland. It is certainly the case that they do not trust the government and do not believe that it is working to make a good future for them. Discontent over issues like mainland visitors, national education and development in the New Territories is forming a broad informal movement.

Some of us live in a world where opinion-forming happens in newspaper editorials, TV news, political parties and government consultation exercises.

Some of us, notably the young behind this new movement, live in a parallel universe where ideas, consensus and influence come out of online chat rooms, Facebook and internet radio. It is a universe that officials in particular need to find some way of entering and understanding.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council