Generation HK is a fantastic read for anyone interested in contemporary Hong Kong or Taiwan. The former British colony is a weathervane – or supposed showcase – for Taiwan’s prospective future under the loving embrace of Motherland China’s “one country, two systems” principle. Unfortunate then that the PRC is like a pantomime villain in the role of abusive would-be-parent looking to adopt Taiwan. Yes, China has every incentive to treat the first adopted child well, for a while at least – “Don’t slap the child,” twitch “don’t slap the child” – so as to prove itself a worthy parent, but … slap, oops, slap, slap … sometimes an authoritarian regime just can’t stop those reflex actions.
This short book, it’s a Penguin Special so comes in at under three-hours’ reading, is especially relevant to Taiwan because its focus is on the millennial generation in Hong Kong. Just as a separate Taiwanese identity has grown most strongly among the young, so have their Hong Kong counterparts been the keenest to distance themselves from China.
The “generation” in the title “Generation HK” – a catchy term author Ben Bland has coined – describes those who have come of age since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. These young Hong Kongers have a new, more local identity, formed in large part as a reaction to Beijing’s policies. The identity is both cultural and political; they favour the Cantonese language over Mandarin and traditional characters over the simplified ones used in China, and they also prefer democratic freedoms to, well, not having democratic freedoms.
As in Taiwan, some of the discontent stems from financial factors. Employment opportunities for graduates are poor and the young don’t feel they have benefitted from the rise of China. And then there’s the overpriced, famously cramped housing:
When bow-tie-wearing former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang was jailed in February 2017 for misconduct in public office, some joked that at least his cell would be bigger than many subdivided homes and come rent-free.
Ben Bland, the South China correspondent for the Financial Times, says that when he moved to Hong Kong in early 2015, he feared that he had missed all the action. The Umbrella Revolution, so called for the umbrellas used by protestors to fend off police pepper spray and later carried as a symbol of resistance, was winding down; all that remained were “a few sorry-looking tents and protesters outside the city’s Legislative Council.”
With the Umbrella Revolution over, it seemed that things would return to normal, i.e. public apathy in the face of Beijing’s autocratic pressure. Bland was pleasantly surprised, however, as over the following eighteen months….
Hong Kong was swept by a wave of political change that no-one had predicted. Disappointment at the failure to win democratic elections hardened into a growing rejection of Beijing’s rule over Hong Kong. China’s secretive government responded by dramatically intensifying its interventions in the affairs of semi-autonomous Hong Kong, kidnapping booksellers, interfering in the political process, and leaning on its allies in the territory to enhance censorship and close down public debate.
Bland had his story, which he chooses to tell in Generation HK by looking at six particular groups, one chapter at a time. First up are the student leaders such as Joshua Wong. Next, “The Super Tutors” chapter examines the competitive exam culture. Students typically take extra-curricular classes at private schools hoping for a pathway to top universities and lucrative professional careers. The majority of the students get a poor return on their investment of time, money, and stress.
The “Rich Kids” chapter looks at the much-maligned offspring of the city’s tycoons. They proved an elusive quarry. As Bland explains:
the problem with detached, self-serving billionaires is that they tend to be detached and self-serving. Getting to them, via their ranks of public relations advisers and secretaries, was the first challenge. Getting them to talk openly and honestly about the problems facing Hong Kong was a much bigger task, even if I promised not to use their names.
In “The Banned Artists” Bland investigates the extent of censorship and self-censorship. In the other two chapters, “The Professional Democrats” and “The Would-Be Revolutionaries,” contrasting approaches to resisting Beijing are explored.
Bland’s writing is tremendous fun. The procedural elements he includes make us feel like we’re on the beat with him, tagging along as he sets up interviews and heads off across the city on the trail of the various players, effortlessly filling us in with the necessary background details along the way.
The structure and style help give the book an accessibility and freshness. In fact, I was left wondering whether Bland being relatively new to Hong Kong was an advantage. What’s the sweet spot for a reporter investigating a contemporary trend – does the inquisitive newcomer with a few years on the ground and whose formative experiences there are closer to the story beat a knowledgeable but jaded old hand? Regardless, I think it’s valuable for a reporter to have had prior overseas experience rather than turn up as a virgin. Bland did have, coming to Hong Kong after previously working for the Financial Times in flawed democracy Indonesia and authoritarian Vietnam. He arrived expecting Hong Kong would fall somewhere in-between these two in terms of the atmosphere of openness.
But my expectations were confounded, on the downside. Senior government officials were reluctant to give interviews to foreign journalists, while most in the private sector were unwilling to go on the record criticising the government. When Hong Kong’s leaders like chief executive CY Leung were pressed on worrisome issues like the kidnapping of the booksellers, they gave no substantive answers about what had happened to them, leaving their people living in uncertainty.
Notwithstanding the author’s humour and light touches, and his admiration for plucky Hong Kongers defying the stereotype of being apolitical and materialistic, there’s a sadness to the book in the future it suggests for the city.
If we’re doing unhappy endings, then I might as well finish this review with some criticisms. Apologies to the author for bringing them up here as they’re not specific to his book, but after reading numerous Penguin Singles I’ve reached my limit. There’s only so much punctuation perversion a bibliophile can take. My issue is with Penguin’s house style regarding numbers. Small numbers are given as numerals, so Hong Kong is described as a city of “7 million” rather than “seven million.” With large numbers, units of thousands are marked by spaces, so we get comma-less abominations such as “100 000” people taking to the streets instead of “100,000.” At least Generation HK doesn’t have a yellow cover, though that damn penguin is still photo-bombing front and center. Michael Cannings, friend, Camphor Press co-founder, and cover designer tells me Penguin covers are a stroke of design genius, but I remain blind to the brilliance.
HK Generation: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow is part of a series of Penguin Singles marking the twentieth anniversary of the handover. It’s published by Penguin Australia, and is also available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
You can follow Ben Bland on Twitter.