Hong Kong’s Ground Zero: A Battle for Hearts and Minds

Elliot argues that the real danger threatening Hong Kong arises from unanswered questions regarding the social contract of the city, the intergenerational gap and its relationship with China. Resolving these issues are first and foremost needed to ensuring a harmonious resolution to the protests racking the city. 

Judging by pictures of endless seas of protesters gathered in the streets of Hong Kong, one may be led to think that Hong Kongers are unified in their quest for democracy.

This cannot be further from the truth.

Over the past few days, heated debates between family, friends, and colleagues have taken place. Popular online forums such as uwants and discusshk, and Facebook groups with more supporters than protestors themselves, are now replete with attacks against both participants and leaders of the disobedience movement. Images and videos, based on the confirmation bias of each, continue to circulate widely in social media (a pattern familiar to those who lived through other protest movements of recent history).

The real battle is not fought on the streets between Hong Kong citizens and the Beijing government but in everyday interactions amongst Hong Kong-ers themselves. The real battle takes place in homes, schools, and workplaces. This debate exacts a heavy toll on Hong Kong’s social fabric representing a bigger danger to Hong Kong than the threat of a credit downgrade.

Clarifying three major assumptions made by each side could alleviate and ease the tension:

The first is whether Hong Kongers’ relationship with the government is one of ruler and subject, a more traditional, Confucian stance, or rather one of state and citizen, where residents devolve power to the government, on the condition that this trust may at any time be revoked. The answer to this question may seem straightforward in the West, where notions of the “social contract” are well engrained, but this remains a topic of debate in Hong Kong, not one to be taken for granted. Older generations default towards a more traditional social contract, hence may consider clashes against the police, alongside any form of chaos, as intrinsically reprehensible.

The second is whether young people, who make up a substantial part of protestors, are victims in need of paternal protection, or whether they can be credible agents of change. Unlike many other economies, Hong Kong possesses a rare demographic makeup where parents and children live in the same city. Due to high property prices, most children continue to live with their parents until they form a new family. The implication of this “two-staged” life-course, in contrast to a “three-staged” one, is that parents tend to assume a greater sense of responsibility and guardianship over young people and by extension, view them as victims of politicking rather than as legitimate leaders fighting for the greater good, inherently discrediting their views.

This more conservative stance explains why hatred towards youth leaders, such as the 17 year-old Joshua Wong, convener of the activist group ‘Scholarism’, may often be greater than that towards adult leaders playing similar roles, such as Benny Tai and Chan Kin-Man, both university professors.

Third and foremost, there has yet to be consensus towards the proper relationship between Hong Kong and the rest of China. Key terms in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, including “come directly under” or “one country, two systems”, are frustratingly unhelpful in this regard, and raise more questions than they answer.

If, for example, one sees Hong Kong as “just another city” in China, then it is perhaps natural that the central government has a greater say over its choice of leader. Analogies used include that of a board of directors choosing a CEO, or a school choosing a headmaster.

If, on the other hand, one sees Hong Kong as truly “special”, as the suffix “Special Administrative Region” implies, then the requests of the Occupy movement, which include a more open candidate nomination mechanism, may lead to ends which justify the means, alongside any short-term damage done.

It is in the interest of leaders of both camps to make explicit the nuances of the above three fault lines to their supporters, and to argue the implications of this for their respective visions of justice.

For the question is not is not whether Occupy is legal, but whether it is just.

Continuing to skirt these key issues will merely wear down both sides’ patience at the expense of social harmony. One side will eventually win the battle, but neither can win the war.


Elliot Leung is a startup founder based in Hong Kong. Previously he was researcher at the Fung Global Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewyleung 


Elliot Leung is a startup founder based in Hong Kong. Previously he was researcher at the Fung Global Institute.

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