Public Eye

Has Beijing missed the boat for Hong Kong hearts and minds?

When it comes to a choice of boarding the Liaoning or having freedom of speech, the young appear to have already decided

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 7:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 7:43pm

Can a one-party communist state win the hearts and minds of those who belong to that same state but have lived in a separate free society for generations ? Twenty years after Hong Kong’s reunification with China, that remains a question many would rather avoid.

Hearts and minds have been lost – mainly in the past five years. Should we blame former chief executive Leung Chun-yin? A conspiracy theory thrives that he highlighted an obscure pro-independence article so he could play hardball with the movement to brown-nose Beijing.

Hong Kong bids farewell to Chinese warships as Liaoning aircraft carrier ends maiden port call

Is the opposition to blame for picking a fight with Leung – and by extension Beijing – on every issue during his rule? Is Beijing to blame for alienating Hongkongers with its obsessive suspicion of the opposition, and for treating the independence movement as a bigger bogeyman than it really is?

Or is it simply Hongkongers cannot identify with a country that limits free speech, controls the media, and jails political dissidents? Hongkongers take their democratic freedoms for granted. That’s why many are repulsed by Beijing’s treatment of the now dying Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was jailed for speaking his mind.

If there is one thing Beijing understands it’s that regaining Hong Kong’s sovereignty after more than 150 years of humiliating colonial rule is only skin deep if it doesn’t also win back hearts and minds. Reports suggest President Xi Jinping personally approved sending the aircraft carrier Liaoning to Hong Kong and allowing locals to board, a privilege denied to mainlanders.

But are such charm offensives to celebrate the 20th anniversary of reunification enough to fire up patriotism? Look closely at TV footage of ecstatic Hongkongers on board the Liaoning and you’ll see something that struck me. Most were older people with just a few young Hongkongers.

It seems many of those who fled to Hong Kong after the communist takeover, and their offspring, are more ready to become patriots than the generations that came after.

I don’t know if the millennials and especially the post-millennials, many of whom don’t even consider themselves Chinese, are lost to the motherland forever or if Beijing can somehow make patriots of them.

What I do know is young Hongkongers, especially those born in the digital age, see such things as China’s ever tightening internet firewall as totally alien to them. Maybe the only way to lure them is a changed China.