“Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow” by Ben Bland

(photo: Citobun, Wikipedia) (photo: Citobun, Wikipedia)

Whether or not you agree with the arguments of Hong Kong’s student activists, everyone can agree that their emergence has been one of the biggest changes to Hong Kong’s political situation for at least a decade.

Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow , Ben Bland (Penguin, July 2017)
Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow , Ben Bland (Penguin, July 2017)

Ben Bland, South China Correspondent for the Financial Times, has written one of the first books on the subject with his recent Penguin Special Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow. Through interviews with some of Hong Kong’s most prominent young people, such as student activists Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, leader of the localist movement Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, and even a few celebrity tutors, Bland concludes that the current generation is defining themselves and their identity in opposition to China.

Generation HK shows Bland’s skills as a reporter; while many of his subjects have been interviewed in the press, having all of them in one place provides an overview that was otherwise missing. However, while Bland posits the existence of a “Generation HK”, his short book does not demonstrate how representative these individuals are.

There are some reasons to believe that “Generation HK” is a real thing. It is, for example, the first post-Handover generation. It is also the first to come of age during a period of relative economic stagnation and reduced social mobility. Previous generations had a reasonable expectation that hard work would result in better living standards for themselves and their children; this seems less clear now as increased living costs, especially in housing, have cramped the prospects of the young.

Bland notes these costs in the introduction of his book, but also argues that the issue goes beyond economics to concern Hong Kong’s fundamental values. Bland positions the discussion largely as an either/or question (i.e. economics or values), but it’s likely that each influences the other.

The question underlying Generation HK is: what do young people as a whole in Hong Kong think and believe? The book’s reporting doesn’t extend to what might be considered ordinary people. Bland himself admits that the people he talks to “do not form a representative sample of Generation HK … They do not speak for a generation so much as speak to it.” Opinion-leaders, in other words, or at least self-styled ones.

One cannot but wonder how young people in Hong Kong are interpreting what is being said to them or, indeed, how homogeneous the group is. How many care deeply about these issues, deeply enough to act? Do they buy into the student movement’s arguments and objectives entirely, or do they moderate them for their own purposes? Is the evident inter-generational polarization perhaps leading to apathy: a belief that nothing will get fixed?

Generation HK is a work of reportage with some editorial but—understandably given its length and purpose—it is neither a work of sociology or political science, nor a deep ethnography. Without systematic surveys it’s hard to know how deeply the arguments of student activists and other prominent members of “Generation HK” are penetrating amongst ordinary young people. It would also be interesting is to see how the beliefs of pro-establishment youth (there are some) have been influenced by the rise of “Generation HK”. For example, Hong Kong has an increasing number of university students and young immigrants from the Mainland: what do they think of the rise of this new post-Handover generation?

Generation HK adds considerable anecdotal depth to the idea that “Generation HK” is an actual phenomenon and it is influencing public opinion. But it remains anecdotal. Political—and editorial—discourse is however unlikely to wait and see how Hong Kong’s youth continues to develop their identity.

Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He works at a think tank in Hong Kong. His writing has also appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin.