Watch Out for the Generational Shift! My Views on Hong Kong’s Elections
I’m part of a rollicking conversation on Hong Kong’s elections on China File. The full debate is here. My contribution is below:
The most important message for the gerontocracy ruling China from the elections in Hong Kong is that generations are shifting, and power is moving to a group for whom the myths, concerns and defining events of their lives are fundamentally different from those who came before.
That’s actually a lesson that needs to be learned and learned well by politicians and leaders on all sides of the political divide, and on both sides of the border. The older generation of “pro-democracy” activists in Hong Kong have more in common with the generation of sexagenarians in the standing committee of the Politburo than one might think—both had their politics forged first by the chaos and trauma of China’s Cultural Revolution and then by the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown in 1989.
The rising generation is different—and, frankly, still unformed.
The cohort leaving university in Hong Kong this year was born in 1995—they have no personal memories of British colonial rule; China’s Tiananmen trauma was something their younger teachers and older siblings could tell them stories about; the Cultural Revolution horror belonged to their parents and grandparents and maybe wasn’t spoken of at all.
The concerns of the new generation are economic, are identity-based, are different and are expressed in a vague and inchoate form. Even “localism” for Hong Kong is still defined more by the negatives than any positive: not a colony, not a fundamental part of China, not Beijing-Mandarin speaking, not Queen’s English speaking, not a manufacturing center anymore, not China’s major entrepôt, not giving local people enough opportunities, not capable of supplying even its own toilet paper or fresh water. And yet… however inchoate, “localism” expresses a longing for identity that will need to be listened to, adjusted to and forged by anyone or any body politic that hopes to lead this territory.
The Chinese Politburo should actually be grateful to Hong Kong for expressing through democracy this generational shift that is also affecting the mainland, yet has no true representative outlet there. It needs to recognize it and respond. When the next Politburo and Standing Committee are selected at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, to miss this opportunity and crisis would be to sow the seeds of true crisis.
President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream is aimed at the two 100s: the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021 and the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2049. Yet to focus on these historical markers has as much resonance with the newly emerged cohort as my grandmother’s harkening back to the cultural joys of pre-Nazi Germany had with me.
To govern Hong Kong successfully, a new generation of leaders has to recognize that youth has emerged with concerns, needs and an identity confusion that require fundamentally different answers and approaches. To govern China successfully, the Communist Party needs to rejuvenate itself and to reform to—at the very least—find ways of representing and reflecting society as it is becoming.