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High Speed, High Drama – Part 2 高鐵鬧劇-下卷

It frustrates and it infuriates. At times it makes us question the very future of our city.

The express rail link (XRL) controversy has hit a nerve in Hong Kong. What started out as a rubber-stamping exercise has snowballed into an all-out social movement gaining more momentum by the day. In less than two weeks, this runaway train will collide with the upcoming five constituencies resignation (五區總辭), a de facto referendum on political reforms staged by two pan-democratic parties. The collision is guaranteed to send shock waves through our political landscape not seen since the July 1st rally in 2003. And the new decade has barely begun.

An anti-rail link protest

As we well know and mourn, Hong Kong’s one-of-a-kind electoral system is as bizarre as some of the English names we give ourselves. Among other oddities, half of the 60 seats in our legislature are taken by “functional constituencies” (功能組別) elected by pro-establishment special interest groups and designed to keep democratically-elected lawmakers out of the policy-making process. 

Like a boxer who is only allowed to block, opposition parties are left with two defensive weapons: filibusters and a veto vote over constitutional amendments. Undemocratic as it is, our electoral design has so far remained something of an academic subject. Citizens have not felt its sting on a personal, tangible level – that is until now. 

The XRL saga has brought to light not only the systemic absence of government accountability but also the utter powerlessness of the opposition coalition under the status quo. Our grotesque legislative process has finally reared its ugly head, and it did so in the plain sight of a watching city.

The city wouldn’t have been watching quite so closely if not for the exploits of a few dozens restless youths. Amidst the political maelstrom emerged a new social force that has caught the government completely off-guard. Known fondly in the local vernacular as the “post-80s” (八十後) generation, these trucker-hat-wearing, iPhone-wielding twenty-somethings have succeeded in turning a run-of-the-mill government infrastructure proposal into a lightning rod for social discontent. 

With seemingly inexhaustible time and energy, young protestors besieged the legislature for weeks. They circled the century-old building the way the Children of Israel did in the battle of Jericho, and the walls of public opinion came tumbling down. On the night lawmakers finally cast their vote on the XRL proposal, angry protestors played tug-of-war with police using iron barricades and kept transport secretary Eva Cheng Yu Wah (鄭汝樺) under house arrest in Central for six hours.

Eva Cheng, the latest villain

A lot of ink has been spilled by the media over these post-80s activists since the controversy erupted. Most of these discussions are based on broad generalizations and focus more on how we look at them – their frustration and angst caused by the recession and the missing rungs in the socio-economic ladders – rather than how they view the rest of us. By-and-large, these youths come from the demographic cohort of liberal-minded, Internet-savvy university graduates born during the Booming Eighties. 

Whether by choice or by circumstance, these twenty-somethings are not particularly career-minded and many loathe the idea of a nine-to-five job. But what they lack in ambition in the material world they make up for in passion and gumption. They root for society’s under-dogs and hate being pushed around by the upper-crust. Above all, they just want to be heard.

If there were a rulebook for politics, it would begin with the Law of Unintended Consequences. By writing off the young dissenters as a bunch of know-nothing, do-nothing social rejects, the government has inadvertently driven them into forming an unlikely alliance with the League of Social Democrats (社民連). Loud, radical and controversial, the LSD nonetheless possesses just the right mix of grit and political acumen to appeal to these young activists. In the XRL saga, the banana throwing lawmakers taught the new-kids-on the-block an important lesson on local politics: in the absence of true democracy, playing Mr. Nice Guy will get you nowhere. A little shouting and shoving around, on the other hand, can go a long way.

The banana thrower

Still, the government appears to be doing little to defuse this ticking social time-bomb. When the Facebook and Twitter soldiers came marching in, bureaucrats responded with riot police and pepper spray, trying to fight a 21st Century cultural war using 20th Century weaponry. Meanwhile, the public seems equally unwilling and ill-prepared to get through to these young men and women. Like an annoying uncle at a family dinner, newspaper columnists and talk show hosts hand down their predictable verdict, dishing out trite rhetoric like “expressing opinions is laudable but aggressive behaviors must not be condoned.” Here’s to Uncle Wong: save your breath and have a nice day. Nobody wants your opinion.

My family and I attended some of the protests at Chater Garden last weekend. The collective frustration over our government’s arrogance and lack of accountability was palpable. For a few brief moments it felt as though our long-lost civic conscience had flickered back to life. At a time when the news media are neutered by self-censorship, university students are sleepwalking through their adolescence and the opposition coalition is about to collapse on itself, the post-80s generation has shown us that all is not lost. 

Will these twenty-somethings rise to the occasion and grab the lightning before their fifteen minutes of fame run out? Do they hold the key to turning Hong Kong from an economic city to a true democracy? Only time will tell. But for now one thing is certain: young activists are not what is wrong with this world.

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