Teen protest leader Joshua Wong shouts slogans outside a magistrate's court in Hong Kong on July 21 2016
© AP

So many young people in Hong Kong now had long lived under colonial rule,” proclaimed CH Tung, who served as Hong Kong’s first chief executive after the territory handed to China by Britain 20 years ago. “Hence there must be a process of a ‘return’ of their hearts.”

I am part of this generation . He is certainly right in noting that we seldom, if ever, identify as Chinese and are no fans of the communist regime in Beijing. But the reason he provides is nonsensical: I was born only nine months before the Union Jack was lowered.

For me and likewise for Agnes Chow, a fellow activist and longtime ally born two months after me, July 1 1997 was a day we could not even remember. Nathan Law, who chairs Demosisto, our youth political party, and was elected last year as Hong Kong’s youngest-ever legislator, is only 23. Even Alex Chow, the oldest among our group of student leaders of the “umbrella” movement of 2014 — which demanded China uphold its promises of genuine democracy in the territory — was just a six-year-old boy at the time of the handover.

What Mr Tung fails to understand is that we have consolidated our strong identity as Hong Kongers — rather than embracing a Chinese identity — not because of the city’s British colonial past, but because of Beijing’s continuing assault on our way of life. Recent talk of outright independence — a position I do not advocate — shows that hardline control leads to further radicalisation.

Many of the older generations of Hong Kongers had fled to the colony from Maoist China, especially during the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. Although some are more critical than others of Beijing’s continuous oppressive rule and human rights abuses — both in Hong Kong and the mainland — their background and upbringing give them, to varying degrees, a shared sentiment of Greater Chinese unity. Even the most progressive democracy crusaders among them seldom challenge the legitimacy of Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Hong Kong or question their Chinese nationality.

A similar generational gulf exists in Taiwan, which held its first presidential election in 1996. The unification-leaning Kuomintang has long enjoyed a significantly larger base of support from older voters compared to its independence-leaning rival, the Democratic Progressive party, currently in office. An even more vocal — and younger — third force, the New Power party, was founded in early 2015 after the “sunflower” movement successfully prevented the then KMT government from increasing Taiwan’s economic dependence on China.

One was protesting against a commercial agreement and the other for democracy, but the sunflower and umbrella movements were similar. Both exemplified a clear rejection of Beijing’s increasing interference, chiefly by young people, in otherwise autonomous regions where it insists on claiming control in the name of “territorial integrity”. Yet rather than showing a genuine intention to introduce liberal reforms to win us over, Chinese leaders have been doing the opposite and tightening their grip.

Of course, the two territories are different. Despite the international community’s continued refusal to recognise Taiwanese sovereignty, which threatens its survival, Taipei nevertheless operates a fully functional, democratically elected government with a clear separation of powers.

On the other hand, according to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the 1984 accord that led to the handover, Hong Kong will remain, at least on paper, a special administrative region of China under the “ one country, two systems” framework until the 50-year, no-change guarantee expires.

The real question for Hong Kong is, therefore, what happens in 2047? This is a certain uncertainty, just like 1997, the date of expiry on the New Territories lease — a treaty that granted the British 99-year control of some 92 per cent of the colony’s area. The same questions have already begun to resurface in post-umbrella Hong Kong: will land leases expire? How about 30-year mortgages? These are the very concerns that, coupled with Hong Kong’s deteriorating freedoms, convinced HSBC not to move its headquarters back to the former colony — it left in 1993 following the Tiananmen massacre.

Hong Kongers were barred from participating in negotiations in the 1980s. With the territory’s future again in the balance, it is time for our generation to look ahead. Only through learning from our past mistakes — political apathy and overconfidence in Beijing — can we truly determine a free future.

The writer is a student activist in Hong Kong

Letter in response to this article:

A loan that can be made due at any time / From Tony S K Li, Hong Kong

Get alerts on China when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article