| Jerome Taylor & Dennis Chong |
HONG KONG (AFP) — Hong Kong’s unprecedented student-led democracy rallies have highlighted a stark divide between a disenfranchised younger generation who say they have little to lose, and an older guard who favour pragmatism over protest.
Throughout the past week the legions of predominantly youthful demonstrators camped out on the city’s streets have focused their energies on the single galvanising issue that sparked the mass sit-ins — universal suffrage.
Dubbed the Umbrella Revolution after umbrellas were used to protect from pepper spray and tear gas, protesters say Hong Kongers should be allowed to both nominate and choose their next leader in 2017.
Beijing insists only candidates vetted by a loyalist committee will be able to stand for election.
But the battle for full democracy in the former British colony is only part of why so many of the financial hub’s youngsters have taken a leading role in what has become the greatest challenge to China’s hold over the territory since its 1997 handover.
The protests are taking place against a backdrop of rising inequality and soaring living costs which leave many young people with little prospect of renting, let alone buying, their own homes.
Increased competition with wealthy mainlanders, anger over the cosy relationship between the government and Hong Kong’s financial elite and a sense of alienation from the ruling authorities have left the younger generation deeply uneasy about what awaits them in adulthood.
Shadow Wu, a 16-year-old secondary school student, believes the government simply does not care about what awaits its younger generation.
“The government now doesn’t listen to our concerns, it’s a fake government that doesn’t respond to the needs of the people,” she fumes.
But Wu, who has spent the last nine days camped out with two teenage friends, admits her grandparents believe her protest is a “waste of time”.
“My grandmother and grandfather had really hard lives, so they think we’re silly and that we should be happy to have comfortable lives,” she says.
Unlike their Chinese compatriots on the mainland, whose desires for greater personal and political freedoms have largely been counteracted by Beijing with the promise of stellar economic growth, Hong Kong’s youngsters are ever more restricted by the rocketing cost of living.
The average rent at 50 major housing estates hit a record high of HK$26.99 per square foot in August, the South China Morning Post reported last month, meaning a tiny 300 square foot flat goes for at least HK$8,000 a month ($1,030).
In comparison, the average monthly graduate salary last year was just US$1,650, job search website jobsDB found.
Carol Hung is typical of many young professionals protesting — a 30-year-old graphic designer, she lives with her parents and feels her future is bleak.
“We feel that the past generation achieved a stable life if they worked, but now, no matter how hard we work, we may not be able to achieve this.”
Hung, who has drawn a series of satirical cartoons that have gone viral in recent days, also says the city’s younger generations — many of whom are the first in their families to go to university — are more determined to fight for personal freedoms than their parents.
“The last generation saw their livelihoods as their priority but for our generation, a lot of us have had access to more education so we will have a different mindset.”
Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo says that the mass protests are young people’s “one big chance” to voice their anger, frustration and resentment.
“We used to believe in the ‘Lion Rock spirit’,” says Mo, using a local phrase which refers to a mountain overlooking some of the city’s poorer districts and encapsulates Hong Kong’s renown as a place where hard work and perseverance meant a brighter future.
“The younger generation feel that Lion Rock spirit has been killed off.”
Many of Hong Kong’s older citizens escaped grinding poverty or political persecution on the Chinese mainland and toiled long hours to give their children a better life.
Some now believe their children and grandchildren risk throwing that away in what they see as a “radical” protest.
“I support democracy, but I don’t agree with this approach,” said Chan Kuen, a 69-year-old retired civil servant.
“Rents are so expensive now, but shops have had to shut. What they are doing is too radical and people’s livelihoods have been affected.”
“What can they achieve?” questioned one man in his eighties, who was watching the protests at a distance and gave his name as Hui.
“They should be going to school instead. If the government decides to clear this area, they are doomed.”
But student movements have played pivotal roles during political upheaval in recent Chinese history — from the anti-imperialist protests of 1919, to the bloodletting of the Cultural Revolution and the quashed Tiananmen protests.
And some older members of the community have shown their solidarity.
“I think I should give some support because they are doing what is right,” said Kwok Kwai-to, a 61-year-old retired bus driver who had spent almost a week protesting.
“I will be doing it until there is an answer, whether it’s a crackdown or dialogue. I am willing to go to jail because I am old.”