Fair Observer: Young People Are the Key to Reconciling China and Hong Kong

June 28, 2021

by: Zoe Leung and Eric Yang

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In 2019-20, a pro-democracy movement erupted in Hong Kong. Students from both high schools and universities took to the streets. They gambled with their futures for democratic ideals. Instead of getting inspired by the youth in Hong Kong, many of their counterparts in mainland China turned against them. Some mainland Chinese youth even supported the harsh crackdown by authorities and other repressive measures.

The divide between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong youth has reached alarming levels. Multiple surveys have revealed that almost no one under 30 in Hong Kong identifies as Chinese. The clash between these two groups has now arrived at university campuses around the world as both sides are adamant in presenting their side of the story. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these differences. Mainland Chinese see the success of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in managing the pandemic as proof of its competence. Hong Kongers do not trust their CCP-influenced government and view the measures to control the pandemic as another excuse for increased repression.

Despite the Differences

The divergent beliefs among young people in mainland China and Hong Kong assume importance in the context of new geopolitical realities. US President Joe Biden is championing a democratic agenda for the world, corralling like-minded countries to counter growing Chinese influence. Hong Kong is key in this new global struggle between democracy and autocracy. Having been under British rule until 1997, the territory is still governed by common law and has enjoyed greater relative freedom than mainland China. Now, that era seems to be ending. 

Since 1997, many mainland Chinese have moved to Hong Kong. In particular, students have arrived in large numbers. At the end of 2019, more than 38,000 mainlanders were studying in Hong Kong. Greater interaction between these young people was supposed to increase mutual understanding. Instead, they still live in parallel universes. Mainland students live together, hang out with each other and tend to share similar beliefs. As hosts, Hong Kongers have made little effort to reach out.

Despite many differences, both groups of students have a lot in common. Both are tired of the rat race, the decreasing social mobility and widening inequality. Mainlanders celebrate slacking off during work. They speak of “mō yú,” a phrase that means “feeling the fish.” They also speak of “tǎngpíng,” or “lying flat.” This is a refusal to participate in the economic rat race. Hong Kongers are equally, if not more jaded about the economic system. They see the city’s economy in decline. They worry about getting decent jobs, buying an apartment and raising children. Prima facie, mainland and Hong Kong students should be uniting around common economic concerns.

Yet Chinese and Hong Kong youth have very different perspectives. The former has strong feelings of national pride due to ideological indoctrination. For many Chinese students, the CCP has delivered good governance, economic growth and social stability. The CCP’s “performance legitimacy” has increased among mainlanders. They are wary of Western democracies that criticize the Chinese model. This wariness is rooted in an education system that the CCP developed in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The education system highlights the “century of national humiliation” that began when late imperial China was forced to cede sovereignty and territory to foreign powers. It glamorizes the CCP-led “national rejuvenation” that entails China reclaiming its seat at the top table as a great power. Under President Xi Jinping, the CCP has redoubled its drive to promulgate nationalist education. In 2019, the government published a new outline for Chinese patriotic education that emphasizes rejuvenation even further. As per this document, national rejuvenation is “the Chinese Dream,” Xi’s pet slogan from November 2012.

A Different Reading of History

Hong Kong students have a different reading of history. In 2012, they took to the streets to protest against a proposed curriculum that emphasized China’s model of political meritocracy over the messiness of Western democracies and downplayed political events like the Tiananmen Square massacre. In 2014, students rose up again in what came to be known as Occupy Central, or the Umbrella Movement. They demanded universal suffrage as promised in the Basic Law, the city’s constitution. 

Hong Kong students have a very different experience when compared to their mainland peers. Hong Kongers have opposed the CCP’s increasing interference in the territory’s governance. Mainlanders see the CCP as the torchbearer of national rejuvenation. Hong Kong students want the autonomy and freedoms of the “one country, two systems” model to continue. Mainlanders want China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong asserted.

Importantly, young Hong Kongers are increasingly cynical of authority. They are prepared for prolonged underground resistance to the harsh new national security law. Some have adopted a destructive philosophy of “ultimate burnism” because they have lost faith in the future. Today, almost 60% of those between 15 to 30 would leave Hong Kong if they had the chance to do so.

It is clear that young mainlanders and Hong Kongers have different historical memories and political aspirations. Consequently, prospects for long-term reconciliation between the two sides appear grim. However, such reconciliation is more important than ever. Hong Kong was once a model for the coexistence of Western democracy and Chinese one-party rule. Its political fate is a bellwether for the future relationship between China and the West.

As such, it is important to build trust among young people on both sides of the divide. Only when they start understanding each other’s history and grasping their respective cultural nuances does reconciliation stand a chance.

Zoe Leung is director of Track 2 Diplomacy at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. Eric Yang is a research intern at the Bush China Foundation.