The Hong Kong student bubble

Dec 17, 2020

This is a very humble response from a University lecturer of many years in Hong Kong. It’s a response to various analyses to the Hong Kong protesters. Who are they and what motivates them to protest?

Enough has been written on the political situation of Hong Kong but there is a blanket assumption that protesters are radicalised youth fighting for democracy and freedom for Hong Kong. My first reaction as an educator is to ask for a definition of democracy and freedom. Secondly, as a long term resident, it’s clear that students are in a complex and increasingly difficult situation as are the rest of the residents of this city. 

Are local students a generation of spoilt brats as some surveys have suggested and have they misunderstood and misjudged the political situation?

The criticism is that they overreached themselves .Five demands and nothing less was the slogan for 2019 and that their demands for independence were completely unrealistic. Politically the protesters appeared naïve but the context needs to be seen at a societal level.  

As in any society there are narcissists and Hong Kong is no different. The protests were accommodating of different roles and the attention seekers would appropriately make their entrance, running through the crowds and being cheered on. The majority represented a variety of people, middle class civil servants, families and overwhelmingly students both secondary and tertiary.

Hong Kong is a highly conformist society with a strong Cantonese culture and with a very thin veneer of Westernisation, at least in the middle classes. While the introduction of liberal studies has been blamed by the CCP as radicalising students, there is little evidence that this has played a large factor.

It is the unlikely combination of a highly competitive society and Confucian values that have largely created the bubble that most students live in which has informed the outlook of the Hong Kong youth. The competition for students begin at kindergarten where parents have signed them up most likely before their children are born. The schools that your child will attend will determine the difference between a future and a job with no future. English is a strong factor in that all professional jobs i.e. the civil service, office workers and so on, require fluency in English. I had the experience of teaching in a low band school where English proficiency was very low. There were no students at the school that expected to attend University and hence were destined for low paying jobs.

Parents therefore push their children to study, to engage in appropriate hobbies and to basically lead regimented lives. 

While students probably do buck the system, they would do it in an underground manner. On the surface, Disney reigns as does K Pop and Japanese manga. These all espouse a level of fantasyof a world of orderly happiness. Hong Kong youth therefore have a strong sense of themselves as the protagonists in their own movie with the Hong Kong government and the CCP as the evil villains but in addition, there is a generation of parents and grandparents who lived through the Cultural Revolution . All these factors lead to a strange and complex world in which the youth have an idealised view of the world but also are confronted with harsh realities. In part, the protests are part of the Confucian duty to look after your community but also to preserve a way of life that is uniquely Hong Kong. All generations want to preserve their way of life which is to work hard and play hard. The hybrid of Western and Chinese values is relished and they don’t want to give it up to the CCP. Therefore when the students were protesting, they believed they were upholding community values, they were upholding their family histories and they are resentful towards Chinese encroachment of which is an alien culture. 

Right now Hong Kong is a city living with cognitive dissonance. It’s a society where school graduations are accompanied by large oversized stuffed animals, trips to Disneyland and Ocean Park are treasured.

Trump despite all his negative connotations, is the only one who supposedly will stand up to China and save Hong Kong. The harsh reality that students are facing is the ongoing arrest of either their classmates or their icons and the relentless competition for education and jobs. It’s an uneasy and forced truce with all the power in the hands of Carrie Lam and the CCP.

But they cannot be eternally vigilant, and continually miserly with Hong Kong reforms and that is when the youth will come out again. 

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