Jeffrey Tam writes about political and social struggles of Hong Kong’s youth.
Ben Bland, Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow (Penguin Specials, 2017) 100 pp.
Each chapter of Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow strikes a painful chord for readers who care deeply about the social issues of Hong Kong, and especially those who have grown up in its ruthless environment. However, no matter how bleak the situation is, there are still people who strive for change. This book captures the clash between crisis and amelioration of ‘Generation HK.’
With this term, Bland refers to the generation of young people who have reached adulthood in the twenty years since Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997. He writes that this unique generation finds itself in an ‘identity vacuum:’ they identify neither with the Chinese nor with the British. As the ideals of democratic freedom are slowly bled dry, property prices rise, bludgeoning academic and political pressure increases, these millennials have been forced to face the multiple problems of living in the cut-throat city of Hong Kong.
In a series of interviews, Bland offers comprehensive insight into the lives of diverse groups of young Hongkongers. The first chapter of the book recounts his meeting with three Demosistō members — Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, both of whom have been jailed recently, not too long after the release of the book, as well as Agnes Chow. The exchange with Law highlights the economic hardships faced by many of the local youngsters; it indicates that young people have no financial ability to purchase their own property, and that their salaries are even lower than those of people around their age as recently as ten years ago. Bland adds that soaring property prices have benefited the rich at the expense of everybody else, a ‘righteous’ injustice imposed under the two-decade ‘pro-business’ approach, which the government has been promoting. This constant urge to be successful and wealthy at the expense of mental health and well-being causes extreme emotional pressure and exasperation. Agnes Chow, another member of Demosistō, informs Bland that her parents have been threatened by the supporters of the current government because of her political activism. She declines to reveal the source of the threats, or speculate further on whether the government officials themselves were involved, but one can easily presuppose the linkage between threatened activists and governmental power. She states that this experience had exhausted her both physically and psychologically, but also encouraged her to continue fighting oppression.
Bland’s interview with Joshua Wong uncovers a similar situation. Like Chow, Wong has faced Chinese persecution for activism, including his trips to Thailand, where he traveled to deliver a talk to local students, a peaceful endeavor that resulted in detainment and deportation by the Thailand government in order to appease the Chinese government. Wong, however, shows no sign of reducing his efforts. He formed a democratic party alongside his colleagues to secure a legally-binding referendum on Hong Kong’s future. It is evident that political hardships have not decreased these young activists’ will to resist, but instead have given them all the more reason to do so. Law, Chow, Wong, and many other young activists are driven to resist precisely because of Chinese encroachment into the Hong Kong way of life, which emphasizes individual freedoms; a stance that motivates many Chinese citizens to relocate to Hong Kong in order to escape the tight grip of their government. Bland shows not only the lengths to which the oppressive powers would go to quell dissident voices, but also exposes the fact that Beijing’s hardline approach has already backfired immensely, fueling resistance rather than halting it.
Besides the ongoing struggle for democracy, Generation HK faces another challenge, one even more lethal: education. As concepts, lethality and education seem to be impossibly remote, yet absurd and horrific scenarios, as if lifted directly from Jonathan Swift’s prose, are not far-fetched in merciless Hong Kong, where secondary school students’ suicide rates have been steadily increasing. Bland asks about the asphyxiating academic pressure that students face in Hong Kong, an inquiry to which Billy Ng, a famous ‘superstar’ tutor replies in brevity, ‘Young people just have to get over the pressure. That’s life.’ Following this reputable local educator’s logic, the crushing coercion that pushes local students towards the edge of self-harm and suicide is simply a ‘part of life’ in Hong Kong. What this implies is that ‘life’ for youngsters in Hong Kong is, ironically, death, not just any death, but an extraordinary kind that is nevertheless discussed casually and integrated into the everyday. The distance between those who have found a stable income and livelihood and those who are on the frontlines of an uncertain future, hinged on the unhinged, cruel education system, seems to provide the former with a leeway to underestimate the psychological abuse borne by the latter. Bland goes on to show that the business of ‘super’ tutoring preys on this flawed education system to benefit greatly the celebrity tutors, who earn as much as football superstars. Students of these tutors find in their mentors a selling point: being ‘inspirational.’
Yet, the inspirational, enlightening feature of education is contorted into exclusivity and commerciality, accessible only to those who can afford to spend extra money and time, despite having already spent much on formal education. Furthermore, the type of ‘inspiration’ students find in these celebrity tutor courses is ostensible, as the classes foster not pupils’ talents but push them to ‘cram’ in material endlessly, to become Dickensian sausage casings to be filled with facts to memorize, instead of critical knowledge. Besides exposing the capitalization of student’s ailments, Bland’s interview with star tutors Yy Lam and Billy Ng reveals that their cram-schools are losing students due to the trend of decreasing birth rates in Hong Kong, ensnaring the tutors in a similar cycle of intense stress. While students struggle with academic stress, these star tutors face smothering pressure to be on par with increasing competition and to retain their attractiveness to customers, to an extent that their life and work become indistinguishable. Bland reveals to readers that, under the guise of ‘the Pearl of the East,’ Hong Kong strangles both students and those who prey on the benefits reaped from an immensely flawed system, and harbors a callous, inhumane attitude towards the youth, ostensibly the ‘pillars of the future,’ whom society claims to treasure but de facto slaughters by upholding the current education system, with inquisitive minds continually domesticated through sardonically mainstream, spoon-fed education.
In light of many serious social issues, Generation HK toils for change in the political spectrum. The lack of democracy, the wealth gap created by rampant capitalist, pro-business norms, and the deaths of many students under Hong Kong’s education system are all intertwined with the local political system. Bland refers to the radical Generation HK millennials who aim to achieve political reform as the ‘would-be revolutionaries.’ Edward Leung, one of the figureheads of Hong Kong Indigenous, tells Bland of the uphill battle that is pushing for Hong Kong’s independence. HK Indigenous, blocked by the government from being a legal identity, has to rely on donations and seek an alternate route of rousing mass interest in a radical change in Hong Kong’s legislative system. Their drive towards independence originates in the two-decade decline of local core values, lifestyle, and culture due to the Chinese government’s deprivation of Hongkongers’ political rights and the undermining of their culture, such as the proposed exclusion of Cantonese as a teaching language in primary and secondary schools. Bland complements Leung’s statement by providing statistics derived from the research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which indicates that nowadays 39% of 15-24 year-olds advocate for a separation from China, while the talk of independence was virtually non-existent only a few years earlier. As this surge of youth support towards separatism shocks the governments of Hong Kong and China, Leung’s admiration of Malcolm X’s approach of violent resistance comes as a surprise to Bland. The government and Beijing supporters would certainly despise such a direct challenge to their authority. Those who express pro-democracy sentiments but oppose violence and separatism can, however, sympathize with these frustrated, radical youths who give shape to the feelings that many fear to demonstrate. Chan Ho-Tin, another independence supporter whom Bland interviews, says that police brutality during Occupy Central, a massive protest with the power to disband the government in Chan’s point of view, has ironically incited what the Beijing regime considers criminal pro-independence endeavors. He states that Hong Kong and China, though similar, are different when it comes to personal freedoms, way of life, rule of law, currency and many more, and such difference is enough for Hong Kong to transition into an independent country.
Bland also interviews Baggio Leung, one of the two pro-independence young lawmakers who were surprisingly elected into the legislative council, and astounded the world of local politics even more when they were appallingly disqualified by a high court judge, who claimed that they had failed to faithfully observe their oath. Despite the toiling efforts of those who assisted them in the election, Baggio says his goal was to show that the rule of law in Hong Kong is obsolete. The already infamous swearing during his oath-taking ceremony was a gamble, he says, which would prove either his goal or cause for himself and Yau, his fellow young lawmaker, to be seen as ‘heroes,’ had the government failed in removing them from office. He moves on to state that his ultimate goal is to fight for independence in the streets instead of within the legal or political system.
After reading Bland’s report of this stunning revelation of the reasons why the two young lawmakers risked their rare, hard-earned positions in the Legislative Council, it is not difficult to understand why some have called Baggio and Yau agents provocateurs, a term that initially described the 19th century English government spies who incited revolutionary activity so that the government could have an excuse to execute actual revolutionaries. If Baggio’s goal was to take the fight for independence to the streets, he could have done so without running for office. Besides, if his goal is to expose the lack of the rule of law in Hong Kong’s, he need not sacrifice the hopes of young voters who thought their voices would finally be a part of the legislature. The locals have already been well aware of Hong Kong’s rule of law being slowly eroded, especially when the most recent news report that Joshua Wong had been suddenly jailed, even after he had suffered his previous punishment as concluded by the court. Although this proves Baggio’s to be neither an agent provocateur nor a radical revolutionary, it serves to show that, in politics, even within radical subversion, one has to remain vigilant amidst blurred lines between honesty and deceit.
Some may argue that Bland provides a limited representation of Hongkongers by interviewing only a handful of individuals. However, Bland confronts this caveat by stating that the interviews discuss serious issues in Hong Kong, shedding light on the struggles faced by the masses and especially by Generation HK. He does it effectively, as his interviewees highlight the key problems and their causes, and discusses in detail the possibilities hidden within these times of change. The education system terrorizing even the star tutors who seek to profit from it, the possible reasons behind the disqualifying of two young radical lawmakers, and Beijing’s oppression inciting rather than suppressing resistance, are examples of profound insight to be found in Bland’s book. Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow is highly recommended to those interested in Hong Kong’s politics, education, economy and social issues.
Jeffrey Tam is a writer and musician born and living in Hong Kong. His book reviews have appeared in both the Hong Kong Review of Books and the South China Morning Post.