Time’s unlikely to be on the side of youth

A new generation of young radicals may have developed since Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, but the real problem is an ageing population

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 October, 2017, 1:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 October, 2017, 1:08am

The 20th anniversary of the city’s return to China should serve as an interesting demarcation, not so much for celebration, but for a time of trouble.

During this period, a generation of young people came of age. They have little to no experience of British colonial rule, enjoyed the freedom and autonomy of a quasi city state, and do not identify or interact much with the mainland or its culture and people. Many don’t just reject communist rule, but their very “Chineseness”. Radical localism and the desire for independence are the logical outcomes.

We may face serious social challenges with an ageing population, but our political problem at the moment is with young people. I find enlightenment on this demographic in politics more from reading several fine books on the Arab spring rather than any local studies.

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The populations of virtually all the Arab countries affected by related uprisings, revolutions and civil wars had a median age of 24 or under. In Hong Kong, it’s 43.5, which may be why we had the Occupy protests and the Mong Kok riot rather than an “Oriental spring”. In Japan, it’s almost 47.

Since the 1990s, Hong Kong, like many Arab countries, has undergone a rapid expansion of tertiary education. But universities serve less as social integrators and stabilisers than schools for revolution and political agitation.

In the Middle East, graduates face unemployment. In Hong Kong, they face stagnant wages and poor career prospects. Young people feel contempt not only for political conservatism, which they rightly consider corrupt and sycophantic, but also the older progressive politics of their elders. Witness how student union leaders from our public universities collectively refused to take part in June 4 commemorations, rejected mainstream pan-democratic parties and declared they had no interest in democratic development across the border.

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But we are a developed economy, so we have the world’s highest life expectancies but also low birth rates. Our real problems will be with an ageing population, not youth. This transitional generation of young people may reject China because they have had the freedom to do so. But when they age and their raging hormones dissipate, they will moderate. The next wave of young people will learn to live as part of China.

Joshua Wong Chi-fung, the jailed activist, often said time is on the side of young people. It’s good rhetoric, but time is more likely to be on China’s side.