Book review: Generation HK - the student activists who claim to speak for post-handover Hongkongers, in their own words

Joshua Wong, Baggio Leung and other movers and shakers among the Hongkongers born since 1997 talk to Financial Times reporter, but his book doesn’t fully represent the views of a generation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 August, 2017, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 August, 2017, 1:13pm

Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow

by Ben Bland


3/5 stars

Whether or not you buy the arguments of Hong Kong’s student activists, everyone can agree that their emergence represents one of the biggest changes in Hong Kong politics for at least a decade. Ben Bland, South China correspondent for the Financial Times, has written one of the first books on the subject with Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow.

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Through interviews with some of Hong Kong’s most prominent young people, such as now-jailed student activists Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, leader of the localist movement Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, and even a few celebrity tutors, Bland concludes that the current generation are defining themselves and their identity in opposition to China.

Generation HK shows Bland’s skills as a reporter; while many of his subjects have been interviewed in the press, giving voice to all of them in a single volume provides an overview otherwise missing. However, while Bland posits the existence of a “Generation HK”, his short book does not demonstrate how representative these individuals are.

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There are some reasons to believe that “Generation HK” is a real thing. It is, for example, the first post-handover generation. It is also the first to come of age during a period of relative economic stagnation and reduced social mobility. Previous generations had a reasonable expectation that hard work would result in better living standards for themselves and their children; this seems less clear now as increased living costs, especially for housing, have cramped the prospects of the young.

Bland notes these costs in the introduction of his book, but also argues that the issue goes beyond economics to Hong Kong’s fundamental values. Bland positions the discussion largely as an either/or question (i.e. economics or values), but it’s likely that each influences the other.

The question underlying Generation HK is: what do young people as a whole in Hong Kong think and believe? The book’s reporting doesn’t extend to what might be considered ordinary people. Bland himself admits that the people he talks to “do not form a representative sample of Generation HK … They do not speak for a generation so much as speak to it.” Opinion leaders, in other words, or at least self-styled ones.

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One cannot but wonder how young people in Hong Kong are interpreting what is being said to them or, indeed, how homogeneous the group is. How many care deeply about these issues, deeply enough to act? Do they buy into the student movement’s arguments and objectives entirely, or do they moderate them for their own purposes? Is the evident intergenerational polarisation perhaps leading to apathy: a belief that nothing will get fixed?

Generation HK is a work of reportage with some editorial but – understandably given its length and purpose – it is not a work of sociology of political science, and nor is it a profound work of ethnography. Without systematic surveys it’s hard to know how deeply the arguments of student activists and other prominent members of “Generation HK” are resonating among ordinary young people.

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It would also be interesting to see how the beliefs of pro-establishment youth (there are some) have been influenced by the rise of “Generation HK”. For example, Hong Kong has an increasing number of university students and young immigrants from China; what do they think of the rise of this post-handover generation?

Generation HK adds considerable anecdotal depth to the idea that “Generation HK” is an actual phenomenon and is influencing public opinion. But it remains anecdotal. Political – and editorial – discourse is unlikely to wait and see how Hong Kong’s youth identity continues to develop.

Asian Review of Books