Skip to main content

This city’s youth are fed up with an economy they see as rigged and a political system that’s taken their freedom. But as their uprising spirals out of control, the city carries on with business as usual

Hong Kong, Aug. 5: A protester throws bricks at the police after they fired tear gas during one of several simultaneous rallies in a general strike.Isaac LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images

Tom Grimmer is a Hong Kong-based consultant and writer.

On Aug. 5, the day of Hong Kong’s first general strike in 50 years, I took an evening walk down to government headquarters in the Admiralty district, which has been a focus of the protests since they began in early June. It was already 9 p.m., most of the demonstrations in the area were finished for the night, and black-shirted protesters were rapidly draining out by bus and subway. So instead of watching a siege, I settled for a beer in a nearby pub.

There were two customers in the otherwise empty bar, twentysomethings dressed in the standard Hong Kong protester kit: black clothes, sneakers and knapsacks. While they sipped IPAs, the young man played Candy Crush on his phone, nodding and half-listening as his girlfriend nattered and posted pictures on Instagram. They chatted in Cantonese, but the young woman addressed the Nepalese waitress in flawless English.

What struck me about this was its ordinariness. Two kids, just out of their teens, enjoying a drink on a summer’s eve.

On another day, in another year, they might have spent the afternoon at the beach. It was hard to picture them throwing Molotov cocktails at a police station.

In a broader sense, it was also reflective of what Hong Kong is like these days. In recent weeks, there have been sporadic scenes of extreme behaviour otherwise alien to the city: a large fire burning outside a police station; a cop drawing his sidearm; protesters assaulting a Chinese journalist and seizing and zip-tying the hands of a suspected mainland security operative at the airport.

At the same time, Hong Kong continues to go about its daily business as one of the world’s great commercial centres.

Many of us still go to work, even if we go to work holding our breath. We try and concentrate on our lives despite the noise. The stockbrokers broke, the shippers ship, the taxi drivers careen around like maniacs and the old guy on my street who has fixed small appliances from a tiny stall for 40 years still shows up every day. I don’t know if he’s oblivious to what’s going on or it just looks that way.

It was only the closure of the airport – among the world’s busiest for passengers, the leader in cargo and a crossroads for global tourism – that really jolted the city. On Wednesday, demonstrators took the unusual step of somewhat sheepishly apologizing for the airport chaos.

“We’re deeply sorry about what happened yesterday,” read one banner unfurled by protesters. “We were desperate and we made imperfect decisions. Please accept our apologies."

Demonstrators hold up a sign apologizing to tourists at the Hong Kong airport on Aug. 14.Thomas Peter/Reuters

Aug. 12: Protesters occupy the departure hall of the Hong Kong international airport.Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Aug. 13: Medics attempt to remove an injured man, who anti-government protesters said was a Chinese policeman, during the airport demonstrations.Tyrone Siu/Reuters

But back to that bar.

Not two hours after I paid my tab, that very street in Wan Chai blew up with a flash-mob protest, tear gas and truncheons. The young couple from the pub may have joined in. Or they may have gone home to watch Netflix. That’s Hong Kong right now.

I write this on the eve of another weekend when, once again, massive rallies are planned. With protests now in their 10th week and increasingly violent, many of us long-term residents despair for an uncertain future. Satellite photos of armoured personnel carriers being massed just over the border in China don’t help.

This is among the biggest stories in the world at the moment, so I’ll skip rehashing how two million people filled our streets in June opposing an ill-conceived extradition law. That mass movement – one in four citizens – has become an amorphous, largely leaderless outpouring of frustration by Hong Kong’s millennials and Gen Z’ers.

The crowds are now much smaller, but the violence is exponentially greater. And the brutality undeniable from a police force once considered among Asia’s finest.

The proposed legislation that sparked this is “dead,” says Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. But for the people on the streets now, that is too little, too late. They want it formally withdrawn, a step that the government has been inexplicably unwilling to take, along with any other gestures of contrition. The black-shirts, as protesters are known, have other demands, including an inquiry into police behaviour.

Aug. 14: A man dressed in one of the protesters' signature black T-shirts reacts as riot police ask him to move at a demonstration in the Sham Shui Po neighbourhood.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

Aug. 15: Chinese soldiers practice detaining a person on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen, across the bay from Hong Kong.Thomas Peter/Reuters

I was brusquely asked, recently, how an expat in his 60s – who has a ticket out of here if the worst-case scenario comes to pass – can truly understand what motivates the youth of Hong Kong. It’s true: A survey by three Hong Kong academics conducted over the past two months revealed that 60 per cent of protesters are younger than 30, and more than 70 per cent have some postsecondary education. Ominously, it also revealed that most peaceful protesters understand why some of their comrades, facing a government that won’t budge, have resorted to violence. The “revolution of our times,” as the students like to call it, is a mixture of ennui, cultural rootlessness and economic despair.

The lack of cultural identity is, in a strange way, part of being a young Hong Konger – which means, first and foremost, not being from China (although almost everyone in Hong Kong can trace their roots there). Canadians should identify with this because we, too, define ourselves by what we’re not: Americans. Many of those who have taken to the streets were born after Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 after a century-and-a-half under British rule, and long after the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. In many ways, I admire their David-versus-Goliath guts, but I also wonder if they fully appreciate what they are up against if China is pushed far enough.

Moreover, these youths are not sure what being “Chinese” means. Is it the culture of their parents and grandparents – who made Hong Kong great – or the culture of authoritarian capitalism in China? The only thing they are sure about is they don’t want the latter. But one also gets the sense that they are not only rebelling against Hong Kong’s impotent government in the shadow of China, but also the Confucian traditions of conservatism. They struggle to see what’s in it for them – and can you blame them?

Which leads us directly into a discussion of economic desperation, perhaps the most intractable issue at play here. Hong Kong is supposed to be in 50-year transition to full Chinese rule in 2047. But economically and socially, it’s already a done deal. Hong Kong always benefited from mobile capital but static labour. That’s no longer the case. In its core industry, finance, the Mandarin spoken on the mainland has all but become the second language. Socially, the mainland allows 150 people a day to emigrate from China, in addition to the professionals who flock here to work. Naturally, Hong Kong’s de facto official Cantonese dialect is feeling increasingly diluted. Slowly outnumbering your hosts is the oldest colonial trick in the book.

There’s more. Hong Kong has the most expensive residential real estate in the world and the second-highest (after New York) Gini co-efficient, the classic measure of the rich-poor gap. A lot of young people in Hong Kong have little hope of ever owning a home, and many live with their parents into their 30s and even after marriage.

They look upon what seems to them like a rigged economic system, run by a handful of family-controlled conglomerates and pro-China business lobbies. They know they are at a disadvantage in what is mislabelled a meritocracy. (It remains to be seen if their rage stays focused solely on the government and the police, but so far there have been no broken shop windows, overturned cars alight or willful damage to private property despite 10 weeks of unrest.)

July 27: Hong Kong resident Fung Cheng, 25, a graphic designer, has a five-square metre bedroom in a cramped flat with his parents and brother. He vented his frustration at a system that he believes has robbed him of the chance to ever have his own home.Thomas Peter/Reuters

That same person who upbraided me for being a dopey expat also suggested that the young people in the streets are the “no hopers.” These are not the kids who get a strong secondary education and then go on to Hong Kong University or top schools abroad. I think there’s a broad spectrum of protesters, although many are from the communities in Hong Kong’s periphery, in both a geographic and economic sense. They must compete not only with each other, but with the mainland kids, many of them well-connected, who come into Hong Kong after attending universities in the West.

These are the people with no easy way out of here if things really go pear-shaped. Many people who were here pre-1997 have alternatives, either through relatives who emigrated or other back-pocket arrangements. But others have no such option.

In a nutshell, for these kids, the Hong Kong economic dream – work hard and you’ll succeed – looks dead. The political dream, for a full democracy that was neither present under the British pre-1997 nor under China now, seems more distant than ever.

Since that night of the strike, things have ratcheted up considerably, including the unprecedented airport siege, the firing of tear gas inside subways stations, and disturbing rumblings out of China about foreign “black hands” and Hong Kong’s protests showing “signs of terrorism”. No one knows where this is going; it is completely uncharted.

As things have spiralled out of control – into “the abyss,” in the words of Ms. Lam – I have wondered about that pair from the pub. They may have been at the airport, or gassed and beaten in that subway station. Will they, in 28 years when Hong Kong reverts fully to Chinese rule, tell their kids about these heady days of rebellion? Perhaps like the anti-establishment Western youth of the sixties, they will simply succumb to economic reality and forge a compromise with the future. They might watch from afar, from say Sydney or Toronto. Of course, it’s very hard to say where China itself will be politically by then, but chances are those two will know one thing for sure: They witnessed free expression as we knew it die in Hong Kong.

In the protesters’ own words

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles