Skip to main content

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.

Popular Posts

Book Review: "Generation HK" 書評:《香港世代》

Unpacking the young generation in Hong Kong is a tall order, not least because a singular, archetypical “Hong Kong youth” does not exist. The cohort is as diverse and divergent as it comes, from socioeconomic background and upbringing to education and exposure to the wider world, to values, ideals and aspirations. It defies stereotypes and generalisations.

Ben Bland, a British correspondent for The Financial Times, is in a unique position to take on that ambitious project. Whereas Bland’s extensive experience reporting in Asia—including stints in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar—has given him a broad field of view, his relatively short tenure in Hong Kong—just over two years—allows him to look at its people through a long-range lens.
It is that unadulterated objectivity and his unquenched curiosity that make Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow a discerning and refreshing read. Released last summer under Penguin Book’s inaugural “Hong Kong series” to mark the 20…

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice.
The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin-starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants, serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds.

While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents and visitors alike. Whatever your budget and palate…

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Who is Agnes Chow? 誰是周庭?

It was roughly six months ago when Nathan Law, chairman of Demosisto, lost his job. He and five other pro-democracy lawmakers had strayed from the prescribed oath during the swearing-in ceremony, and were ousted from the Legislative Council (LegCo) after Beijing issued a reinterpretation of the oath-taking provisions in the Basic Law. Many saw the unseating of six democratically-elected lawmakers, dubbed “Oathgate” in the local press, as a calculated political move to purge the legislature of the opposition.

The time to fill some of these vacated seats is finally upon us. Four by-elections will be held simultaneously on March 11, in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, New Territories East and for the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape sector.
Barely old enough to run, 21-year-old Agnes Chow (周庭) of pro-democracy party Demosisto has thrown her hat into the ring hoping to win back Law’s Hong Kong Island seat. Her decision to run has not come without a price: she has deferred …

As You LIKE It 人人讚好

Social media are the greatest invention of the 21st Century, not least because they provide ready fillers for life’s many dull moments. The virtual world is the perfect antidote to our real life drudgery. Bring on the mile-long taxi line, the interminable Monday morning meeting and even the deadly silent treatment from an upset spouse. All we need to do is whip out our phones, drop our heads and, with a flick of the thumb, wade through stream after mind-numbing stream of news feeds and tweets. In the parallel universe of restaurant check-ins, vacation selfies and baby videos, we are the celebrities and we are the groupies. No one wants to admit it, but many of us have started to reorganize our lives based on how the status update would look on our carefully manicured timeline.

It is therefore all the more important to observe proper online decorum and protect our virtual image. The idea that anything goes in Cyberspace, or that a random post is as consequence-free as tossing a bottl…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…