Why are so many young people on the streets of Hong Kong, risking clashes with local police and a Chinese government that has a history of brutal crackdowns?
Part of the answer lies with protesters such as Ka-Chai Kwok, 25. A recent college graduate, Kwok said she had few job prospects. Hong Kong rents are so high that she lives with her parents, sleeping on a couch. Unlike her parents and grandparents, Kwok said she felt little kinship with the Chinese mainland. She’s fed up with what her city is becoming.
“For our generation, people in their 20s, we were born here and have witnessed the change since the British handover,” said Kwok, referring to China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. “We feel this is our stand. We have to create a space for free speech and away from the threat of the CCP,” the Chinese Communist Party.
For the last four days, tens of thousands of protesters like Kwok have taken to the streets, risking tear gas and pepper spray to seek a more democratic system for local elections. Along the way, they’ve exposed a deep generational divide in this former British colony, one that separates young protesters from not just Beijing but also from their pro-democracy elders.
“The young people of Hong Kong no longer have the same kind of identification with China as their parents did,” said Sebastian Veg, the director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China.
Veg, who’s written extensively on Hong Kong’s politics, notes that much of the city’s older generation lived under British rule. As a result, they feel more of a patriotic attachment to the Chinese mainland than their offspring do.
Surveys back up this claim. Twice a year, the University of Hong Kong polls a sample of residents aged 18 to 29 and another group that’s 29 and older. The latest survey shows that 86 percent of those in the younger group identify themselves as “Hong Kongers.” Only 62 percent of the older group identify themselves as such, with the remainder identifying themselves as “Chinese” or some other ethnicity.
“To tell you the truth, we don’t want to be defined as Chinese people,” said Simon Wong, 24, one of several protesters McClatchy interviewed who made similar statements.
“I am not one of those people who thinks that Hong Kong can become independent,” he quickly added. “But Hong Kong is a special place, with a special autonomy. We just want them (Chinese leaders) to keep the promises they have made.”
Under a 1984 pact, Great Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China in 1997. The agreement promised Hong Kong residents a “high degree of autonomy” under a construct that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping called “one country, two systems.”
According to Veg and others, many Hong Kong democratic activists at the time supported the handover. “They had a somewhat romantic notion of China democratizing and Hong Kong decolonizing at the same time,” he said.
It didn’t turn out that way. China remains a state of rigid one-party rule. A month ago, its legislature approved an election system that will effectively allow Beijing to vet potential candidates to be Hong Kong’s chief executive. Protesters have called that “fake democracy” and a broken promise, and they insist on a system that allows the public to nominate candidates.
A savvy netizen constantly glued to her mobile phone, Kwok has been following these developments closely. Her parents, by contrast, haven’t paid close attention, she said, and they seem grudgingly resigned to whatever Beijing dictates.
“We are a different generation. We have the power of information,” said Kwok. “We have roots in Hong Kong. This is our home. For some of the older people, Hong Kong was seen as a temporary stop to another place.”
The divide can also been seen in the Hong Kong groups that are trying to marshal pro-democracy protests. The most prominent group, Occupy Central With Love and Peace, is led by two older academics and a minister. They originally wanted to launch an occupation of Hong Kong’s central business district on Wednesday this week.
But their plans were quickly overtaken by protests staged by college and high school students. Led by a 17-year-old named Joshua Wong, those students converged on Hong Kong’s government complex last Friday. Wong was soon arrested – and later released – and more young people joined the occupation. That led to Sunday’s confrontations, when police attempted to disperse the protesters with pepper spray and then tear gas. That succeeded only in drawing more sympathizers to the cause.
Kwok said she was there from the beginning, ready with goggles and a face mask. She’s since worked as a protest volunteer amid what she said was a leaderless structure, with everyone pitching in to help with trash pickup, first aid and other duties.
At Tuesday night’s protest near the government complex, Kwok could be seen with a bullhorn, urging protesters to seek shelter during a thunderstorm and then later regroup.
When will the protests end? The bottom line for many demonstrators is the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who’s also known as C.Y. Leung. His departure, they think, might lead to a more satisfactory elections proposal from Beijing.
“China is known for making all kinds of fake things, and selling them abroad,” said Eric Ma, 24, who attended the protests Monday. “We don’t want to buy their fake democracy.”
What would protesters want done if they had real democracy? Answers vary, but several young people complained about widening inequality and a Hong Kong economy that caters too much to tourists, many of them from the mainland. They come to shop – or at least window-shop – at the outlets for Cartier, Versace and other luxury brands that line many of Hong Kong’s boulevards.
“All of these fancy stores are for the tourists, they are not for us,” said protester Choi-Wing Tung, who’s 23. “They are driving up the rents for all of us.”
Kwok agreed. “The housing policy of Hong Kong needs to be changed,” she said. Even a 300-square-foot apartment in the city goes for 10,000 Hong Kong dollars a month, she said, or about $1,500 in U.S. dollars. That’s why Kwok, who works for a nonprofit women’s foundation, is living with her parents.
“It’s crazy to live like this,” she said. “You have no control over your life. You can’t even have sex.”
Not all Hong Kong 20-somethings share Kwok’s frustrations or her activism. While she was shepherding protesters with a bullhorn late Tuesday night, others of her age could be seen hitting the clubs in Hong Kong, dressed for a big night out.
Kwok said she had no regrets. She expects to giving up her potential date nights for quite a while. “The government is trying to exhaust us,” she said. “We will not be exhausted.”