Hong Kong’s youth identity crisis worsening as Beijing tightens the reins, author of ‘Generation HK’ says
Financial Times correspondent and author Ben Bland believes young people are feeling more alienated after increasing pressure on Hong Kong’s autonomy and that the city’s young political community is at a point of reflection
Journalist and author Ben Bland, 35, refers to those Hongkongers who have come of age since the 1997 handover as “Generation HK”, and the group was the focus of his 2017 book, Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow. But he believes that even though it is not yet a year since the book’s publication, the situation has already changed significantly.
“Increased pressure on Hong Kong’s autonomy from [China] in the past year has added to the sense of identity crisis. The pressure has increased,” said Bland, the South China correspondent for the Financial Times based in Hong Kong, to a packed house at a Royal Geographic Society event in Wan Chai last week.
When he finished the first draft of his book, activist Nathan Law Kwun-chung had been admitted to Legco and things were looking up. But the past 10 months have seen Law and others kicked out of Legco, young activists jailed and their political movement break up.
Bland said Hong Kong’s young political community was at a point of reflection.
“They’ve tried going to the streets and that didn’t work. They’ve tried going into politics and that didn’t work. Everything has happened so quickly on the political front, now they have to go away and think about what they can do next,” he said.
Although impressed with the determination of young Hongkongers to fight for the things they believe in – “a lot of young people around the world talk about it, but it’s rare to maintain momentum when facing hurdles” – Bland is disheartened by what he sees as the emergence of a vicious circle.
“Beijing feels nervous, so it tightens the reins and the more they tighten, the more alienated young people feel,” he said.
Another development since the release of the book has seen the Hong Kong and Chinese governments aiming propaganda at younger Hongkongers.
“They are going after people in primary and secondary schools hoping they will have a better go, such as getting youth groups to do the goose-step march rather than the colonial march. It sends a message to people that they are trying to get them into line,” Bland said.
Having lived in the city for just three years, Bland might seem an unlikely candidate to have written a book about Hong Kong. But as a foreign correspondent, he said he has the benefit of an outside perspective and fresh eyes.
Still, he wasn’t expecting to write much about Hong Kong, let alone a book. He was frustrated that he missed the 2014 Occupy protests. On June 4, 2015, he attended the annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park and then stopped in on a counter protest across the harbour. He was surprised to see a small group of boisterous teenagers waving the British colonial flag.
“They explained that they didn’t want [Hong Kong’s former governor] Chris Patten to come back – they barely knew who he was despite his love of egg tarts. What they wanted was to stick two fingers up to Beijing. This was an interesting moment for me. I thought ‘What is going on here in terms of identity?’”
Bland’s picture of a typical member of “Generation HK” is in part informed by a conversation he had with Lau Ming-wai, the young billionaire son of Joseph Lau Luen-hung and adviser to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who talked about growing up in an “identity vacuum”. This was in reference to the first 15 years after the 1997 handover when the Chinese government was considerably more hands off.
“For people of Generation HK, they feel they are Hongkongers. No one told them they are part of China, no one was ramming Mandarin down their throats or changing the history curriculum to make sure they studied Hong Kong as a part of China, rather than Hong Kong or Chinese history as a separate subject,” Bland said.
He is quick to point out that when he talks about “seeking identity in China’s shadow” – the subtitle of the book – he is not suggesting Hong Kong should become independent. “I’m not talking about independence – something that makes people nervous – I’m talking about how people feel about who they are,” he said.
In his first year in Hong Kong he was struck by the way in which many people, particularly young Hongkongers, imagined themselves as a community, even a nation of people. Everyone he spoke to for the book agreed that Occupy Central was a moment of great awakening.
Now that Hong Kong youth – Generation HK – has been awakened, it remains to be seen how the story will play out. Their identity has been forged by a combination of political, economic and social pressures, and that sense of identity feeds back into the sense of political and economic frustration.
“People don’t like to hear about youth identity crisis, but when you speak to people across all sectors they agree that this is a big issue,” Bland said.