Hong Kong’s student leaders must understand the world beyond Facebook

Gary Cheung says no true consensus can be reached for the benefit of Hong Kong if our new-generation leaders hear only from their like-minded friends

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:22pm

Speaking at a seminar in Geneva in December, Egyptian internet activist Wael Ghonim said he was wrong for once holding the belief that “if you want to liberate a society, all you need is the internet”.

Ghonim helped touch off the Arab spring in his country by setting up a Facebook page that inspired the massive demonstrations in Cairo in January 2011. The protests brought down president Hosni Mubarak the following month.

But he lamented during the seminar that the post-revolution events were like “a punch in the gut”. “The euphoria faded, we failed to build consensus, and the political struggle led to intense polarisation. Social media only amplified that state, by facilitating the spread of misinformation and hate speech,” Ghonim said. “We create our own echo chambers. We tend to only communicate with people whom we agree with. It became really hard to change our opinions.”

Truth and lies echo around Hong Kong, leaving a deeply divided society

In the digital age, many Hongkongers, particularly internet-savvy young people, are creating and living in their own echo chambers. On an RTHK programme on June 4, Chinese University student union president Ernie Chow Shue-fung said there should be “insulation” between Hong Kong and the mainland. In the heated exchange that followed, former student leader Andrew To Kwan-hang criticised Chow’s view, saying it was no different from the Communist Party warning Hongkongers against “interfering” in mainland affairs in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

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“Would you stop eating simply because the Communists are eating?” Chow retorted. On the same day, like-minded internet users posted messages on Chow’s Facebook page, including “To has a problem with his intelligence” and “To was pointless”. To was one of the Hong Kong student leaders who delivered money and daily necessities to those protesting for democratic reform in Beijing in 1989.

In the digital age, many Hongkongers are creating and living in their own echo chambers

In the past few weeks, new-generation student leaders have been firing salvos against the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the organisers of the annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park to commemorate those killed in the 1989 crackdown. They labelled the alliance’s slogan of “building a democratic China” a “utopian goal” that was impossible to achieve and criticised its mourning activities as being “ritualistic”.

A week before the vigil, Shue Yan University’s student-run editorial board even likened the alliance to “pimps and bawds in a brothel” whose task was to “lure young girls to be tainted, before submitting them to the gangs and bandits”. The jaw-dropping remarks, which reflect a growing sense of detachment from politics in mainland China among the younger generation, drew “likes” and appreciation on social media from many young people in favour of localism.

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Student leaders at the forefront of the Occupy Central protests were trapped in echo chambers of their own making after the historic talks with top officials at the height of the civil disobedience movement in October 2014. During the dialogue, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told student leaders the government would submit a report to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office to reflect the public sentiment since the protests began. The government would also consider setting up a multi-party platform for talks on constitutional development beyond 2017.

Student leaders failed to adhere to a prior understanding of giving a “mixed response” to the proposals, that is, not rejecting them outright while maintaining they would not fully meet their expectations. Instead, they lashed out at the government when they spoke to protesters that night. Professor Joseph Chan Cho-wai, a political scientist and one of the middlemen involved in bringing the two sides together, said student leaders were mindful of internet users on Facebook. On their way from the venue of the talks to the “occupation zone” in Admiralty, they became emboldened by the posts – which praised their performance during the talks – and then criticised the government with no holds barred.

If we choose to live in our own echo chamber, we will struggle to reach a consensus on matters affecting the city’s future, and move forward.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor