For the Chinese leadership in Beijing, this generation was supposed to be the difference makers, the enlightened ones who finally embraced the motherland and bridged the considerable cultural gap that separates Hong Kong from mainland China.
Instead, much to the central government’s disappointment and chagrin, young people coming of age in Hong Kong today – 20 years after the handover from British to Chinese rule – appear to be another lost generation locked in a loveless marriage with their counterparts across the border.
Indeed, the unhappy conjugal divide seems to be widening in direct proportion to Beijing’s efforts to drag Hong Kong into the greater fold of China’s ambitious plans for future prosperity and global leadership – a dynamic vision President Xi Jinping has characterized as “the Chinese dream.”
The more Beijing reaches out, the more Hong Kong youth seem to turn away.
If you believe central government officials and their increasingly compliant representatives in Hong Kong, the disconnect is due to the younger generation’s lack of familiarity with the history, life and culture of China, which comes as a consequence of more than 150 years of British colonial rule prior to the 1997 handover. Thus a new program of patriotic education has been promoted and a new requirement for Chinese history added to the secondary-school curriculum.
Officials have also, at different turns, encouraged the city’s youth to cross the border for study, employment and holidays and scolded them for their lack of curiosity, willful ignorance and narrow-mindedness.
Whether the tone is pleading or hectoring, the theme is always the same: Hong Kong’s younger generation simply doesn’t know enough about China to appreciate the obvious opportunities and advantages of being part of a rising nation that, after years of setbacks and humiliation, is finally fulfilling its grand destiny.
A new study – commissioned by a pro-Beijing Hong Kong political party no less – tells a different story, however. Conducted by Education University’s Academy of Hong Kong Studies for the New People’s Party, the study reveals that young people in Hong Kong actually know a great deal about life on the mainland; they just don’t want to live or work there.
For example, nearly all of the 1,279 secondary students surveyed between last October and this February had traveled on the mainland, and 85% of them could read the simplified Chinese characters used in China in addition to the traditional system still employed in Hong Kong. Almost 80% of them enjoyed watching films and television shows produced in China, and 7 in 10 used the WeChat messaging app that is popular on the mainland, where Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are blocked by government censors.
Still, despite this surprisingly high level of engagement, only 22% of the students surveyed would choose to live across the border while 26% would be willing to work there. These are disturbing figures for government officials preaching that further integration with the mainland, economically and culturally, are essential to the long-term prosperity of Hong Kong.
Furthermore, results were also unsettling when students were asked if their Hong Kong identity was “compatible” with being “Chinese.” On a compatibility scale of 0 to 10 – with 0 meaning “absolutely incompatible” and 5 meaning “half-half” – 36.6% of them chose a score of 5 while 19.6% chose between 1 and 4, and 8.7% chose zero.
The good news for Chinese authorities: Close to 10% selected 10 – “absolutely compatible” – but then again 20% of the students surveyed were actually born on the mainland.
Clearly, most Hong Kong young people are not particularly eager to buy into Xi’s proud vision for China; meanwhile, however, the physical and economic integration of Hong Kong into China continues apace.
After much delay and ballooning cost overruns, Hong Kong recently completed the construction of a HK$84.4 billion (US$10.7 billion) high-speed rail link to Shenzhen that connects the city with the greater high-speed rail system extending throughout the mainland. But the cost of the 26-kilometer link, scheduled to open in September, was not just financial; the city was also compelled to cede a section of the terminus in West Kowloon to Chinese immigration authorities.
In what the Hong Kong Bar Association – the regulatory body for barristers in the city – has decried as a breach of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and a betrayal of the “one country, two systems” arrangement agreed to at the handover, Chinese laws will apply in that portion of the terminus allotted to mainland immigration and security officers. So, at least theoretically, mainland-style detentions and interrogations of individuals regarded as political dissidents could soon occur in Hong Kong.
Another big integration project, the US$16 billion Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau mega-bridge – also beset by delays and cost overruns as well as questions about its structural integrity – is finally scheduled to open to traffic in July. It will stretch over 55 kilometers, making it the world’s longest steel sea bridge, and reduce the travel time between Hong Kong and Zhuhai, now about four hours, to 45 minutes.
But Beijing’s biggest-yet infrastructure plan for Hong Kong and other cities in the Pearl River Delta, dubbed the Greater Bay Initiative, aims to integrate Hong Kong into a mammoth economic and business hub linked to 10 other cities – Macau, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Zhongshan, Dongguan, Huizhou, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing.
Of course, these are all places in which most Hong Kong youth say they don’t want to live or work.
If they won’t go to China, it seems, China will come to them.