For Hong Kong’s Disenfranchised Youth, the Future is Now

2047 looms as a spectre over the young rebels of Hong Kong. It is the year in which the Sino-British agreement expires, and the semi-autonomous city’s liberal order may yield once-and-for-all to the political might of the Chinese state, becoming one nation under one leader.

However, Hong Kong’s disenfranchised youth have long believed 2047 to be an arbitrary date, with the Chinese government attempting to impose policy reform that would compromise the city’s special status as a liberal market economy with certain personal and public freedoms. 

In 2012, the China Model National Conditions Teaching Manual referenced the Communist Party of China as an “advanced, selfless and united ruling group.” The book was to be used to train up teachers as part of Hong Kong’s moral and education reforms. 

The backlash that ensued to the planned changes was so fierce that it gave birth to new brand of activists, a politically-engaged throng of youngsters, resolute and tenacious in their purpose: to thwart the attempts of Beijing politicians to denigrate Hong Kong into a Chinese vassal state, a mere abortion of land on the outskirts of the most powerful totalitarian nation on earth.  

The erstwhile leader of that 2012 marque of young insurgents, Joshua Wong, sits with me now, in the basement of the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Up above, at street level, the roads have become swarmed by a colony of pro-government activists. Clad in blue attire, they are threading themselves through the tapestry of the city. Their muffled chants can be heard through the walls of the building we are in – in perfect unison, their mantras call for the police to be exculpated for their part in the brutality that has struck this city over recent months.

“I have been targeted,” Wong tells me. “I can’t risk it up there.”

Slight, well-presented and erudite, Wong is a millennial dissident. At 22 years of age, he has already served time in prison for his part in the protests. Over the past few months, the spirit of 2012 has been revived following the proposal of an extradition bill in April that would have allowed the authorities to deport suspected criminals from Hong Kong to China. 

In parallel with this, the movement has grown to new strengths, with millions of citizens taking to the streets to oppose the reforms, as well as calling for the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam.

“Carrie Lam’s family have British passports. I think she should retire and move to England,” Wong says. “She is just a puppet for Beijing.” 

Hong Kong elects its Chief Executive every five years. The leader is decided by an election committee of 1,194 members – comprised of the 70 members of Hong Kong’s legislative chamber as well as and a mix of professionals and business elites. It’s another area in which Beijing has been seen to exerting its influence: In 2014 the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ was borne, following Chinese attempts of electoral reform that would have allowed Beijing the opportunity to vet potential leadership candidates.

“What we seek is real and legitimate universal suffrage,” Wong tells us. “We want the people of Hong Kong to have the right to choose their own leader, not influenced by Beijing.”  

Today, Wong is Secretary General of Demosisto, a pro-democracy party that advocates self-determination. However, he has found his group repeatedly face the ire of the governing authorities, particularly when putting forward candidates to stand in local elections.

A case in point is the former Chairman on Demosisto, Nathan Law. In 2016, Law was elected to serve in the Legislative Council. However, along with a handful of other pro-democracy campaigners who won seats, he was disqualified for making additional comments during the swearing-in process.   

Wong tells InsideOver that the next critical moment for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is 4th October, when the application process opens for candidates to stand for seats in the district council elections, which take place on 24th November. 

“The question is, will they allow us to stand?” Wong says. 

If tensions between the rival pro and anti-government groups continue to rise as they have, the answer would most probably be no. After the first anti-extradition bill protests on 9th June, Hong Kong has played host to eight consecutive weeks of demonstrations, some of which have turned violent. 

The day after I spoke to Wong, on Sunday 22nd July, Hong Kong was once more corrupted by an exchange of clashes as suspected triad members rushed a metropolitan station in Yuen Long, randomly attacking bystanders with wooden and metal implements in a frenzied cacophony of violence. And on the weekend of Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th July, violent conflicts struck once more as police discharged tear gas and rubber bullets at protestors, again in the Yuen Long region.  

The path of the protests

The Hong Kong protests are moving ever-closer to mainland China. Yuen Long is located opposite a bay of marshlands on the border. A mixture of old and relatively modern developments, it is regarded primarily as a market town, and, due to its proximity to the neighbouring city of Shenzhen, is often used by parallel traders to sell goods to the Chinese mainland. 

The fact that the protesters are moving ever closer to Shenzhen may reveal a telling undercurrent to the wider narrative of Hong Kong-China relations.

First designated as a city as recently as 1979, Shenzhen was the first municipality in China to be designated as a ‘special economic zone,’ meaning that it was offered liberalised economic policies designed to entice investment – both domestic and foreign. Today, Shenzhen is regarded as China’s Silicon Valley, home to numerous tech giants including Huawei, Tencent and DJI, and with huge expenditures in research and development – in 2018 the outlay was US $14.9 billion.

Meanwhile, China is placing a lot of faith in the future potential of the region. As part of the Chinese government’s February 2019 Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, all major cities in the region, including Shenzhen and Hong Kong, will be transformed into world-class centres of innovation and economic dynamism. 

In an April meeting between Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary for Administration, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung and the Mayor of the Shenzhen Municipal Government, Mr Chen Rugui, the pair discussed the ways in which they could cooperate as part of the Greater Bay Area development plans – and the official line is that the two cities are amicable bedfellows in one another’s future growth.

Moreover, the Hong Kong government’s Deputy Director for Information Services, Brett Free, told me that Shenzhen and Hong Kong will both seek to work in harmony with each other as part of the development plans. 

“Hong Kong and Shenzhen play complementary roles,” he said. “Hong Kong provides the global connections, financial, legal and business services platform and Shenzhen leverages its advantages as an I&T development and testing ground.”

However, in the context of Chinese government policies struggling to be implemented in the already liberalised Hong Kong – due to the protests of which Wong has played an integral part – Shenzhen is emerging as a veritable rival to steal Hong Kong’s crown  – attracting a young and vigorous workforce as well as becoming amenable to westernised cultural traditions

Speaking to the South China Morning Post recently, Tian Feilong, an associate law professor at Beihang University in Beijing, said that China in time will naturally want to shift its priorities away from Hong Kong and towards Shenzhen, as a result of the protests.

“In the future, the reform and opening up of the Greater Bay Area will focus on the mainland instead of Hong Kong,” he said. “The traditional advantages of Hong Kong are fading and it is getting more difficult for central government’s policies to be implemented there.”

In addition, the newspaper reports that last week a commission chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping backed plans to allow Shenzhen to implement bolder economic and administrative reforms, with the aim of fostering developing in the city to rival Hong Kong. 

So publicly, Chinese officials are keen to preserve the complementarity of the two cities, but behind closed doors the government may have realised that in light of the difficulties of imposing policy reform in Hong Kong, there is a more effective way of subduing the people of the city: By developing a formidable and international metropolis of innovation and trade powerful enough to take a hammer to Hong Kong’s liberal economic authority, drawing business and capital away from the city and coercing commercial investments into mainland China.

For the protesters in Hong Kong at least, the reforms to Shenzhen’s economic policy will not dampen their resolve. Wong for example doesn’t believe that any other Chinese city could offer the freedoms enjoyed by his own.

“People should support Hong Kong’s fight for democratisation not only on moral grounds, but also for business reasons,” he tells me. “China is attempting to erode our market liberalism. Hong Kong offers many benefits that other Chinese cities simply could never serve up.”

Essentially, Wong’s long-term objective is to ensure that in the run up to 2047, the Chinese do not politically impose themselves on the semi-autonomy of Hong Kong. After 2047, he says that the “Hong Kong people should decide.” 

The chances of that are indeed slim, and with Shenzhen’s rising authority in the Greater Bay Area, Hong Kong may see its influence dwindling.  Whether or not the city manages to maintain its global economic clout essentially comes secondary to Wong’s impetus to one day achieve a fully-democratic Hong Kong. 

“We want to be the masters of our own house,” he tells me, before skipping outside into the warm Hong Kong rain and disappearing into the backseat of an unmarked taxi.