Skip to content Skip to navigation

“Hong Kong: Conversations toward a Democratic Future”

April 11, 2017

A Project of Human Rights in China (HRIC)

Hong Kong stands at a critical historic juncture. The people of Hong Kong are facing complex challenges: increasing interference from mainland authorities is threatening to erode the “One Country, Two Systems” principle underlying the Basic Law, fundamental freedoms, and core values of Hong Kong, and is intensifying the cultural tension between locals and mainlanders living in Hong Kong. As the possible futures for Hong Kong are now being debated and struggled for, the young people are playing a key role in envisioning and shaping that future.

In 2016, HRIC launched the “Hong Kong: Conversations toward a Democratic Future” project aimed at promoting engagement, mutual understanding, and mutual respect among young local Hong Kongers and mainlanders living in Hong Kong.

In the series of conversations we have convened, the participants explored a range of topics, including identity and implications for community actions, Hong Kong’s core values, factors contributing to the clash between Hong Kongers and mainlanders, and visions of Hong Kong’s possible futures. The conversations were conducted in a combination of English, Cantonese, and putonghua, as preferred by the participants.

In these conversations, we were impressed by the nuanced thinking, the shared generosity, and the genuine intellectual engagement among the participants—which can serve as a model for civic discourse in this difficult time. And we found inspiring the capacity for listening to and learning from one another. We believe that that capacity and the collective strength of diverse experiences and views will contribute to the building of common ground among all people in Hong Kong for advancing democracy and preserving freedoms in Hong Kong. In the longer term, insights and lessons from the Hong Kong struggle can also contribute to fostering the growth of a civil society inside China. But first, we need to develop more resources for talking with each other.

We are pleased to share this edited transcript of one of these conversations, conducted in September 2016 in Hong Kong with four participants—three local Hong Kongers and one mainlander who now calls Hong Kong home.

The English version incorporates translation of the Cantonese and putonghua spoken during the conversation. (The Chinese language podcasts and edited transcripts will be available on HRIC’s website at a later date.)

The traditional and simplified Chinese versions incorporate Chinese translation of the English spoken during the conversation, as well as conversion of Cantonese into written Chinese.

Project leads:
Mi Ling Tsui
Sharon Hom

Contact us if you would like to participate in an upcoming conversation. Write to: communications@hrichina.org with this subject line: HK Conversation.


“Hong Kong: Conversations toward a Democratic Future”
Edited transcript of a conversation with four participants

About the Participants

Alex

Self-introduction: I am a Hong Konger and a law student at a local law department. I had been politically apathetic until my introduction to human rights at university, where I came to understand that human rights struggle and development are closely linked to political struggle. After the Umbrella Movement, I spent a year as an exchange student in the United States, where I not only studied human rights and politics, but also, in my spare time, did not neglect to “collude with foreign forces”—to tell the people around me about the situation facing Hong Kong. In that time, I was fortunate to work as an intern at Human Rights in China. Currently, I am trying to forge a future path for myself and also for Hong Kong.

Joseph

Self-introduction: I am a 27-year-old teacher and theatre producer, born and grew up in Hong Kong. I have a B.A. and an M.A. degrees in English literature, and am pursuing a second Master’s degree in education. Politically, I identify myself as a moderate, and would like to see Hong Kong as part of China under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework as delineated in the Basic Law.

Peter

Self-introduction: After graduating from university in 2008, I lived in Beijing for four years where I came to know quite a few rights lawyers and defenders. I started working at an NGO there in 2011. In September 2012, I came to Hong Kong to study at the Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film. I care about human rights, public interest, and films.

Wendy

Wendy is a Hong Konger in her early 20s. She is in her final year of law studies at a local university. She doesn’t have a foreign passport and doesn’t believe that Hong Kong people should think about emigrating because of the current political climate.


 

September 21, 2016, Hong Kong

Questions of Identity

Joseph

When I think about my identity, I would really hesitate to define myself by any national boundaries. I definitely do not see myself as a Chinese citizen. Hong Konger—definitely, but by law I am a British citizen. So I think the idea of a national boundary is limited and archaic, and should be abolished sooner or later.

And then, I usually see myself as the functions I fulfill and the books I read. So I see myself identifying much more with Western philosophies and thoughts, particularly the Utilitarian theory advanced by 18th-, 19th-century liberal scholars, and so on.

If we were discussing [identity] in China, it would have become a question of political position.

So when I think about 18th-, 19th-century Western philosophy, what really jumps out at me would be the aspect of self-determination. Self-determination manifested itself at that time as the establishment of nation states. I think the natural extension of that philosophy would be self-determination beyond racial boundaries. So when I think about identity, I think about self-determination and the hope that we would be defined by more than the little line on our passport, or arbitrary markings on a map.

Peter

I think, for me personally, I’m first and foremost a human rights defender. Basically, after I became an adult, after I became independent-minded, I came to know many rights lawyers, including some scholars with a conscience. They have had a big impact on shaping my individual character.

After I graduated [from university] in 2008, I stayed in Beijing for about four years. During that time, I experienced a great deal, and also saw many facets of the ugly reality under that system, including lots of homeless people and lots of people suffering injustice. So, I felt that I, personally, have a responsibility to do something.

But then, how in fact should I go about doing it? That question perhaps has to do with my second identity—my occupation. I’ve had NGO work experience. And another thing is, I wanted to pick up a camera and film documentaries, and later I also made movies. This is my occupation, my other identity.

So now that I’ve come to Hong Kong, regarding this question [of identity], I recognize Hong Kong as a place that has given me freedom, that it is better than mainland China. This is because, being in Hong Kong, I have this very natural feeling that it is home. It is a place that gives me the air of freedom and an environment to live freely. Here, I have the right to speak freely, and a kind of very natural right to be protected by law and not subjected to fear. But as soon as I across the border at Lo Wu [into the mainland], I get this kind of inexplicable fear that I can’t get rid of. And I feel that that is not a place I should be living in.

In Hong Kong, I have this very natural feeling that it is home. . . . But as soon as I across the border at Lo Wu, I get this kind of inexplicable fear.

And even if I devote my life to changing that place, I feel, judging from the current situation, it is still very hard to change it. So my choice is that I’ll live perhaps for a long time in Hong Kong. So now it seems—whether on an emotional level or in terms of my long-range plans for my own future—Hong Kong is a home for me.

When you’re in your home, you’ll feel very secure. It’s a very warm feeling. You won’t be subjected to or have to worry about—unless you’re Joshua Wong or someone like him—you won’t have to worry about police suddenly kicking in and bursting through your door, this kind of thing, unless you’ve done some very radical thing.

So I think, for me, this sense of security is already very important. I have this kind of right to express my opinions freely. And I won’t be followed—like in mainland China—and I won’t have to worry about things happening that you can’t explain.

Alex

Actually, I really hadn’t thought much about this question of identity previously. Perhaps the first time I thought about it was when I went to high school, it was called LPC—Li Po Chun United World College. Aside from a lot of Hong Kongers, this school also had lots of international students. Perhaps it was in this environment that I was first prompted to think about what my identity was.

I think, the greatest revelation for me came last year when I went to the United States. Perhaps more conflicts tend to occur among people in a situation of contrast. When I went to the U.S., my first feeling was—similar to what Joseph said earlier—actually a country’s borders aren’t really important [in defining an identity].

In fact, to a large extent, our society has given us a lot of freedom to shape our own identity. We also don’t need to use other people’s nationality—that is, use geographic factors—to brand people we meet or ourselves. I really agree with this. But also, for me, I think Chinese culture has influenced me a great deal.

While we can choose to identify with whatever we feel linked to, on the other hand, it is not an entirely voluntary process, because we can’t choose where we were born or the influences that we grow up in. So, for example, personally, I feel a strong affinity to the Chinese language, especially when I was abroad. I felt that, a lot of ideas, a lot of philosophical concepts, local culture, and aesthetics expressed in Chinese literature don’t exist elsewhere. And that has been a very large discovery of myself. This kind of feeling is especially strong when I’m abroad.

But when I’m in Hong Kong, it’s the opposite: here, I’ve always been more interested in Western culture, and the books I read are English books. And I have very little interest in local pop culture and so on.

But I don’t think this is a contradiction—because the identity of many Hong Kongers is an integration of the two cultures.

So, two things, first, there’s a lot of fluidity to identity. And second, it does depend to a large extent on external factors. As far as I’m concerned.

Wendy

I really agree with what everybody just said about “Hong Konger” being a multi-cultural identity. I’m talking about this from a local’s point of view: I have no foreign passport, I grew up in Hong Kong, and I have never studied abroad. I did spend one year as an exchange student, but did not truly live or immerse myself in another country’s culture.

I think the question of identity has always been a hidden problem. Everybody knows the question exists but has never discussed it properly. And it wasn’t until the Umbrella Movement—so, very recently— that the problem surfaced: that is, this generation of young people is unable to define where they are situated.

So we say, “We need to fight for democracy.” But how many people actually know what democracy is?

For example, if you ask “what am I?,” I’d say a “Hong Konger.” But what does “Hong Konger” represent? Actually nobody knows. Some say a Hong Konger embodies a unique culture, like what Joseph just said, a “third culture.” But what defines this culture? Our appearance is that of Chinese people, or you can say, we are the “descendants of Emperors Yan and Huang” and belong to that bloodline; and our staple food is the same as that in China. But in terms of language, many Hong Kong schools value English over Chinese, and treat Chinese almost like a secondary language. So, in the end, what is a “Hong Konger”? Actually, I don’t even have a clear answer for myself.

So we say, “We need to fight for democracy.” But how many people actually know what democracy is? There are so many questions like this one. I can’t provide a concrete, definite answer as I myself have not been able to fully explore actually what a “Hong Konger” represents, and what defines a “Hong Konger.”

I think it is precisely this point that has caused many of our current problems. Because many friends from my generation or classmates all have this feeling of being “trapped in the middle.” We understand that China has a lot of problems, such as human rights, democracy, because we’re exposed to a lot of Western influences. But at the same time, we also understand the limits of what we can do about those problems. To a certain extent, we’re part of China, and we’re the most Westernized region in China. Again, I think it is precisely the deep-rooted problem of identity that has caused the many problems of today.

For example, recently, a lot of students organized many political parties to run for election. I forget which candidate it was exactly, but somebody asked him, “What does Hong Konger mean?” He couldn’t quite answer. So, does it mean you’re a Hong Konger if you were born in Hong Kong? And would we identify someone as a Hong Konger if he, like Peter, identifies with Hong Kong culture and identifies Hong Kong as his home? Do you see my point? All these problems create a lot of conflicts, ones that are very hard to resolve, because these questions are too fundamental. Therefore I’d say the question of identify is a question mark.

“In Hong Kong, It Doesn’t Matter How You Want to Identify Yourself”

Peter

What Wendy said just now made me think of this phenomenon. That is, in Hong Kong, a place with diverse values, where you can think freely, it doesn’t matter how you want to express yourself or define yourself, and you won’t have someone instructing you by force, or doing whatever to you. But in an authoritarian state, they will always have a very politically correct answer that they’ll inculcate in you through the education system.

So, when Wendy was talking, I realized that if we were discussing this topic in China, it would have become a question of political position. On the question of “Are you a Hong Konger or a Chinese?,” if you say that you’re a Hong Konger, you would probably be accused of advocating for Hong Kong independence.

Or, let’s say this concerns a Taiwanese person. Taiwanese entertainers who want to go to China to develop, they are first required to sign an agreement that they embrace the People’s Republic of China, or embrace the concept that Taiwan is a part of China. Only with such an agreement can you go to China to develop. This also applies to Hong Kong entertainers who want to go to China to develop. They also face this kind of situation.

That is to say, in that situation, you have to give up some of the things you could discuss in a free place, or you must tacitly accede to the PRC’s sovereignty. In many respects, you have to have an identity that is very politically correct, at least in this type of open discussion situation.

That’s why I really value the space in Hong Kong where you can discuss freely—even though recently there has been some tightening, and there’s been the talk of not allowing the talk of Hong Kong independence, or identifying oneself as a very local Hong Konger, this type of problem.

Wendy

I think this is a very interesting phenomenon. To Peter, Hong Kong is a relatively free place, and he feels that he has found a new life since he came to live in Hong Kong, where he can breathe the air of freedom. But from a local Hong Kong perspective, or, looking at Hong Kong as a whole, a lot of Hong Kongers think that Hong Kong in fact isn’t that free compared with many other countries. Many Hong Kongers feel, “oh no, Hong Kong is a real mess right now,” “the Chinese central government is really tightening things up,” “we should just leave, we should emigrate,” and that other countries are better, etc., etc. Personally, I think the situation is analogous to what Mr. Qian Zhongshu said: The people outside want to storm in, and the people inside are desperate to get out.[1]

I feel that if you look at other countries, of course a lot of them are much more advanced than Hong Kong in terms of democracy. But countries like the U.S., the U.K., Canada, etc., all have their own problems in politics and in terms of freedom. And they have incidents like police beating up protestors. It happens everywhere! By comparison, is Hong Kong really much less free? Is it really that bad in Hong Kong? I think this is an interesting question to explore.

My view is, if you identify yourself as a Hong Konger, then you shouldn’t leave. And I don’t see how much better it would be for you if you leave—that’s the most important question. If you’re standing here looking outside, of course the outside looks good!

“Either They Are Stupid or They Think We’re Stupid”

Joseph

The counterpoint I would like to give to that is: Of course, if you compare Hong Kong with China on an absolute freedom level, then Hong Kong is going to win out. But it is not the absolute comparison that we are interested in. We want to look at the trend. And you can’t argue about it: it’s definitely getting worse in Hong Kong.

And the really offensive thing is that you just have to wonder whether the powers-that-be think people are stupid. They bring in all these arguments, such as: “Do you belong?” “Are you for us?” “Are you against us?”—this kind of polarized thinking, this kind of basic demagoguery, basic propaganda. And the reason it’s offensive is that: do they think that we have not read George Orwell? Do they think that we have gone past all the Nazi stuff for nothing? Right now, in the 21st century, we are in a better position to recognize all these kinds of underhanded tactics. And you just have to think, either they are stupid, and they just try to copy the Joseph Goebbels strategy, or they think we are stupid, in which case we should be offended.

Another point is the comparison between Hong Kong and mainland China. Of course, if you compare the absolute freedom, the situation in Hong Kong is still better! But we should not be comparing absolutes. We should look ten years, 20 years ahead, toward 2047. As a Hong Konger, judging from the current situation, do I still feel optimistic about 2047? I don’t.

“I Was a Wumao

Peter

I’ll just use my experience to address Joseph’s points. Let me tell you, before I started my second year in university, I was a fool, I was a wumao.[2] This is the truth. I really believed in those things [that the government said]. Because if you’re in a closed educational environment, before you can access the free Internet, you are a fool. Your brain has been scrubbed clean. Everyone around you is like that. For everyone who lived through the Cultural Revolution—including your own parents—all they got, all day, was an education via news broadcasts, an education of the China Central Television (CCTV) standards.

From my experience, there are a lot of people who start out as Maoists on the extreme left, the kind of very patriotic people. So much so that, very often, after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, we really were the type who could go to the streets to shout [anti-American] slogans and openly oppose universal values. It now seems very foolish, very stupid, and very cruel even.

The reason I didn’t end up being an idiot is the Internet. I benefitted from the popularization of the computer.

[In that environment,] you don't have a single person to guide you. The Communist Party of China has gotten rid of all those people who understand. Or, no one who understands has the courage to speak out openly. And you just don’t hear any dissenting voices.

And the reason I didn’t end up being an idiot is the Internet. I benefitted from the popularization of the computer.

When I was at university, there were about six of us in the dorm room. The classmates from relatively more well-off families had personal computers. So, after they finished playing computer games and after they went to sleep, I could [use their computers to] get on the Internet.

Then, totally by accident, I found software to get through the Great Firewall. Now I want to thank Falun Gong. Yes, FreeGate.

At that moment, I found out what the outside world was like. In the beginning, there was an online forum called Douban, and people were using that to disseminate information. From that time on, FreeGate opened the door of freedom, and I acquired freedom of information.

Although some of the news from Falun Gong is exaggerated, at least I knew about June Fourth, at least I got to know things that were different from what CPC propaganda said.

These past few years, the CPC’s blocking of the Internet has become increasingly severe, mobilizing a large number of wumaos. They’re spending money to fashion an image of patriotism. And I believe a lot of young people are really like myself in those days.

But at the same time, what you do see is that there really are some people who can—after the baptism of freedom of information—become people with independent thinking. There’s a sizable number of these people.

So, in terms of the future development of the Internet, there is a lot of what we call “brick movers” (ban zhuan 搬砖). That is, they post some articles everywhere, including in WeChat groups and other forums. So, I believe that some people will continue to be enlightened, group by group.

Conflicts between Hong Kong and the Mainland

Peter

In terms of the conflict between Hong Kong and the mainland, I think a large part of the problem is that it is indeed being deliberately created by the CPC and the authorities, including C.Y. Leung’s government. My wife, she does research on English key terms in commentary. She found that the authorities use certain vocabulary in official speeches to deliberately drive public opinion toward a conflict.

And mainland newspapers are doing this, and the Hong Kong government, and some media outlets, are also doing this.

I think that they are trying to isolate Hong Kong, in order to undermine Hong Kong’s influence on the mainland over time.

Or to turn that influence into a negative one, rather than one of national cohesion, so much so that whenever young people on the mainland mention Hong Kongers, they would say things like, “They’re pro-independence, they’re creating chaos over there, they started the Umbrella Movement, they want independence.” All of the information about Hong Kong is heading in this direction.

What is really clear is that the Hong Kong media that can voice different opinions are now being increasingly suppressed on the mainland. Take the Wukan Incident,[3]  reporters from Apple Daily or Initium Media[4] who went to the mainland [to report on developments] were immediately detained.

You can’t report on events related to Wukan. Before, they at least would not directly attack Hong Kong media and Hong Kong journalists. I think they’re doing this according to a plan.

New Immigrants with Old Values

Alex

So I’d like to respond to what you just said: that you came to Hong Kong and really enjoy the free flow of information you can have here, and the absence of the kind of pressure from the powers-that-be that exists on the mainland. But, actually, I'd like to point out that not every immigrant from the mainland thinks like you. There are 110 new immigrants who arrive in Hong Kong every day. That’s over 30,000 a year. And that has brought more than 600,000 mainland immigrants to Hong Kong over the past 20 some years. Hong Kong’s current population is seven million—so at least 10 percent are new immigrants from the mainland. We call them “new immigrants,” but actually, some may have already been here for 20 years.

Furthermore, Hong Kong’s universities, such as the University of Hong Kong, actually all have a lot of students from the mainland. But, from my observations, these immigrants, who are here either short-term or long-term, may not in fact think the same way you do. They in fact may not give up the values that they’ve had all along. On the contrary, perhaps they came to Hong Kong for material reasons, and they may attach greater importance to things other than societal values.

Even though they have the Internet and can see the truth about the Chinese government anytime—they have the chance to do it—that doesn’t mean everyone will choose to question the things that they’ve been given.

I think this is very important. For example, elections: how can we mobilize people who came from the mainland? In fact, while we’re not mobilizing them, the Central Government’s Liaison Office is mobilizing them! It will use people on the mainland to encourage their relatives in Hong Kong to vote for certain people. From this, you can see that, in fact, the mainland government attaches great importance to the mainlanders who have come to Hong Kong. And we really shouldn’t overlook their impact on Hong Kong.

Peter

How can we mobilize people who came from the mainland? In fact, while we’re not mobilizing them, the Central Government’s Liaison Office is mobilizing them!

The problem you just talked about really is a very important problem, because the proportion of new immigrants moving here is relatively large. But many people—including a lot of people I know—are like this. They stubbornly cling to values that were previously formed. They refuse to assimilate, refuse to acknowledge universal values, and they also embrace the CPC’s set of values.

So how should I analyze this view point? I think it’s very much related to each person’s individual background. Because a lot of people coming here to study for a master’s or a Ph.D. degree, if they can afford the high tuition fees in Hong Kong, they are at least from a middle-class background. Many are even from families of officials. Children who grow up in this background will receive a traditional education. Particularly, the CPC education will have a great influence on them. After they arrive in Hong Kong, if they don't try to connect with local Hong Kong students, to assimilate, even to accept their values, and keep a kind of open mind, they will find it very difficult to accept another set of values, or to have their own independent thought.

Most likely, a lot of people’s thinking is: come to Hong Kong, get a degree from a famous university—get “gold-plated” (du jin镀金)—or even get a passport. And then when they go back to the mainland, they can get an even higher-paying job, and a better status. A lot of people have values like this. This is because since Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening-up, China’s values have become “money first”—really unacceptable values. But even though you say it’s unacceptable, there’s nothing you can do about it. You must accept it, this is a reality.

A lot of people’s thinking is: come to Hong Kong, get a degree from a famous university—get “gold-plated” (du jin镀金)—or even get a passport.

Moreover, you can see that the Hong Kong and CPC governments really do have a procedure, a plan. That is, step-by-step, they want to use those new immigrants with old values to control a large portion of Hong Kong’s votes. I have a lot of friends who are like that. They’re about to get their Hong Kong ID cards, they have Ph.D. degrees, but they still think the CPC is actually good, that there are no problems with it! But at the same time, they are also living in a free Hong Kong, every day.

I personally see this as a very big problem. How do you influence that group of people? Of course, I have tried to do it, but the results haven’t been very good. Especially with people in their 30s, who have received so many years of that kind of education. Unless they have had a great deal of setback or unless you can touch them in a big way, only then can you influence them.

Three Most Important Values

Joseph

I would say the three values that jump to mind would be meritocracy, freedom, and equity.

Alex

First of all autonomy, personal autonomy. Second of all, critical thinking, which means the ability to be skeptical towards some official narrative, or some unofficial or popularly-accepted narrative.

Wendy

I would say the first is respect. No matter whether you agree or disagree with other people’s opinions, mutual respect is most important. Different opinions should be respected. Secondly, it’s freedom, of course. And the third would be equality.

Peter

For me, the first should be freedom. I think the second should be fairness, and the third should be tolerance. With tolerance of different opinions, you can make allowance for the different opinions.

Adjectives for Hong Kong Culture and Society

Alex

I think Hong Kong’s culture is, first, very realistic, very close to the social reality. I think Hong Kong doesn’t have much theoretical discussion of culture or art. Then, second, a sense of humor. As far as I’m concerned, this is the most important part of Hong Kong culture. It’s not necessarily a positive thing, it can be sarcastic, or even black humor. Many Hong Kong movies, for example, and other cultural products, are humorous. They’re very willing to make fun of themselves or others, in order to reach some deeper truth. Lastly, it’s very commercialized. For example, you can see in Hong Kong’s movies, there are more and more cooperation and co-productions with the mainland. Often it’s because of financing.

Joseph

The three adjectives I would use to describe Hong Kong society are maximizing, cynical, and constrained.

The first one would be maximizing, in a selfish, capitalistic kind of way. So I suppose that echoes what Alex just said. We like to maximize anything: whatever we do, we just get the most out of it, like, the most floor space, the most number of apartments from a given apartment block.

I’d describe Hong Kong people as flexible. Look, they are squeezed into this tiny place, with the world’s longest work hours, without high pay, and with lots and lots of troubles and lots and lots of difficulties—still Hong Kongers have managed to survive.

And because we know that everyone else likes to maximize, that also makes people very cynical—that’s the second one. We have a deep distrust of whatever everyone else is doing. They say they are doing this for A, we will say, “Oh it’s probably for promotion, for some, you know, backhanded subsidy or whatever.”

And then the third one, I would say, because we are also maximizing and cynical, we are forced to live a very constrained lifestyle, in everything we do. We are constrained in the way we live physically, in the things we are allowed to do, and constrained by political correctness, by everyone else’s maximizing and by just being so cynical.

Alex

Can I just quickly respond to what he just said? I think, there’s a lot of use of humor to overcome the constraints you have mentioned. There are a lot of political jokes and a lot of sarcasm, precisely because Hong Kong people are very constrained, and we don’t have a lot of power to change a lot of things.

Joseph

Except I wouldn’t call it overcoming. It’s coping.

Wendy

I agree with what Alex said. And, just like Joseph described, Hong Kong people live with a lot of constraints, really. But Alex thinks it’s precisely because of these constraints that Hong Kongers invent a lot of humor to cope with the situation.

I’d use another word to describe it—I’d describe Hong Kong people as flexible. Their ability to survive is really stubborn. You can throw them in any corner, they will survive. Look, they are squeezed into this tiny place, with the world’s longest work hours, without high pay, and with lots and lots of troubles and lots and lots of difficulties—still Hong Kongers have managed to survive in these extreme conditions. I think this is one of their values.

Apart from that, what I’d say would be similar to what Alex and Joseph just said, that is: very pragmatic, down to earth. Maybe in recent years, more people like to discuss topics like 2047 and the future. But in the past, people didn’t discuss these things. They’d just talk about how much money they’ve made that day, what time they’d finish working, etc. I’d say Hong Kongers are really pragmatic.

Hong Kongers are very skeptical. They’d always keep an “I only trust you 70 percent” kind of attitude.

I also agree with Joseph that Hong Kongers are very skeptical. Maybe they aren’t as extreme as seeing conspiracies in everything. But, for example, when they read the newspaper, they wouldn’t believe everything there. They would read Apple Daily and not trust it completely, or Ming Pao. They’d always keep an “I only trust you 70 percent” kind of attitude.

Peter

But I view Hong Kong from my relatively foreign cultural perspective. My impression, or intuition, is that Hong Kong is a place with a strong emphasis on business, that, no matter what, the first priority is to “make money” or “make a living.”

The second is, in this place you can do anything as long as it’s not illegal. You can think anything. It doesn’t prohibit you from wishing to try. So, for me, this is a place that’s filled with freedom and possibility.

But if you don’t have a commercial objective, or a commercial plan, or a commercial project, then it’ll be very difficult for you to succeed. No one will support you. This is another aspect.

Another point is, or let’s say, if the goal is very clear, or very pragmatic, then people won’t waste a lot of energy doing other things.

There’s less of a spiritual side to this life. Perhaps I’m a bit biased. But in my circle, or among my classmates, there are relatively few who really read more serious books, or have serious discussions, such as about philosophy.

Clash between Personal Values and Societal Values

Joseph

So my immediate reaction to the question why there’s a disparity between personal values and societal values would be that, well, there is definitely an age gap, right? This probably just reflects why there are so many relatively younger people expressing angst, distrust, or just some sort of antagonism against society.

I think Hong Kong’s social values were formed by previous generations of Hong Kongers. Their legacy is one of emphasizing money, of pragmatism.

That can explain why Hong Kong’s younger generation does not agree with the pro-establishment camp. This makes sense. What we can observe from the society these days reflects this conflict. This conflict definitely exists.

Wendy

I completely agree. I think age is a very important factor. All of us at this conversation are relatively young people. If you ask about our personal values, they are of course those of a higher level. It’s because all of us are students, basically, and our thinking is still idealistic, and we like thinking about things of a higher level.

And of course, if you invite a group of people of my parents’ generation here, the values they will tell you about will be totally different, I believe. Another issue is the course of Hong Kong’s development. Hong Kong is renowned for its development as a financial center.

Hong Kong’s advantage is its having become a port of trade and financial exchange for China with the rest of the world. That’s why our financial sector is a source of pride for Hong Kong people. And in a certain sense, this has, over the years, shaped the value that finance is the most important thing, that we’ve got to make more money, and that it is only through making more money that we can achieve a higher position in the world—and only then can we be assured of our own value. It is because what we’re best at is this: being “Asia’s financial center.”

Peter

I think it is true that, for a long time, Hong Kong has been a place that has provided for such a massive population for so many years with very few resources.

Then, to have become a financially-oriented place wasn’t a coincidence. You can see that since the Second World War, Hong Kong has had this position of being a relatively free financial center. It has played a great role in being an entrepôt, including during the time when the CPC imposed a material blockade on the mainland.

And of course, later, the Reform and Opening-up of mainland China gradually had a big impact on the manufacturing industry of Hong Kong. And when its manufacturing industry slowly declined, it had little choice but to continue to develop its financial sector.

Or, looking at it from my immigrant perspective: survival is the first priority. And for those who came to Hong Kong illegally [fleeing from the mainland], survival is the number one priority. And then, this kind of cultural concept was handed down through generations. That’s why money is perhaps considered the most important thing.

Spiritual culture, or spiritual needs, is not the most important.

Alex

You two brought up a lot of important points, and what I want to say is that this value about commercialization and so on is very entrenched. It is systemic—it’s already become integral in Hong Kong’s values. And this isn’t necessarily a personal choice—it has to do with family or education. Or a lot of it is from the atmosphere of the society. It is very deeply-rooted, and widespread.

The second point is, actually what we just mentioned, autonomy, freedom, self-expression, etc., actually, aren’t in conflict with commercialization. That is to say, you can choose to be a banker, right? If you have autonomy, you can choose to join Wall Street, work in finance. But why do so many people walk down the same path? This is perhaps because we don’t in fact have real freedom. Perhaps on paper we can choose. But, in fact, invisible forces are all pushing to shape the same kind of people.

The Road Ahead

Wendy

I agree that mainland China has done things to restrict freedom in Hong Kong. But I think Hong Kong people have also contributed to worsening the relationship between the two sides.

First, I have to admit that, I personally feel that if Hong Kong continues on this path, it will not lead to a good future. By “this path,” I mean the serious antagonism in the Hong Kong-mainland relationship.

Antagonism. I agree that mainland China has done things to restrict freedom in Hong Kong. But I think Hong Kong people have also contributed to worsening the relationship between the two sides. For example, the media have played up views such as “China is so bad, so bad,” or “we should boycott mainland people,”etc. I feel that, from a historical perspective, this kind of hostility between ethnic groups would never end well. The only solution is cooperation and communication. To be honest, if Hong Kong wants to separate from the mainland, how would you do it? Are you going to send soldiers to fight the mainland? It is impossible.

I think Hong Kong has developed a little bit of an “anti-other” mindset that isn’t quite rational. For example, I don’t remember whether it happened last year or the year before, a female student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong had a traffic accident on campus. She was a mainlander who came to study in Hong Kong on scholarship. Once the news was on the Internet, there were a lot of comments on Facebook saying something like “She deserved it.” I thought: she didn’t do anything to offend the people who posted these comments; and it seemed that their irrational anti-foreign sentiments went a little out of hand. I think it is most important to not let ourselves be so easily provoked by the media or anything else, let them make us say we’re “against China, against all mainland Chinese people.” I think this kind of mentality is unhealthy and won’t contribute to the good development of Hong Kong.

I think it is most important to not let ourselves be so easily provoked by the media or anything else.

So I hope that people will take a cooperative, instead of an antagonistic, approach. I think there’s no need to be antagonistic. I think the majority of Chinese people have done nothing wrong—it is really the Chinese government, if you really want to blame someone. So I hope that the approach in the future would be one that promotes communication and cooperation.

Joseph

I think most of Hong Kong’s problems would be lessened to a great extent if we just had a truly accountable government.

And the second thing is, I think in order to improve our bargaining power versus China, we definitely need to be more self-sufficient. Right now, they control our power supply, our water supply, and our food supply. And I think that starts us fundamentally at a disadvantage—if we think about it from a realpolitik kind of way.

And then my hope is that if we have a better government, if we are more self-sufficient, then we as a public can talk about better things, because, honestly, we are sick and tired of always talking about the same old kind of things like identity, independence. I mean, why can’t we focus on, housing, for example? Healthcare is a pretty good thing to focus on. People are growing old, and the birthrate needs to be focused on. So, a better Hong Kong would be an accountable, self-sufficient place where we can focus on better things.

And then, in order to effect this change—speaking as someone who works in the media—it just needs to be effected through better media. You don’t really change minds until you get people watching a show and they really empathize with a character. You can publish as many scholarly essays as you want, but people won’t go and read them. I think all these messages need to be in popular entertainment media; they need to be in plays, in documentaries that are shown on TV, or be free and very accessible, and starring people whom the viewership would care about.

You don’t really change minds until you get people watching a show and they really empathize with a character. You can publish as many scholarly essays as you want, but people won’t go and read them.

So until we get these discussions into entertainment, I just don’t see how we can get enough people to actually care and talk about it. In the U.S.—it’s relatively niche—but at least you have “House of Cards,”[5] [and] in the UK you have “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister.”[6] And people talk about these things, and they think about whether these things are true or not true—they are all in entertainment. So you get to people’s minds through stories, I think, through narratives.

And then, that also ties into how we can keep the conversation going. I think, what’s really missing in Hong Kong, because there are all these accusations, baseless, going around, is a very impartial, very trusted fact checker, so that people can just see, “Okay, this guy said that, that’s false”—a fact checker to cut all the bullshit that has been flying around.

I mean, in the UK and U.S., they have very high level and intelligent discussions, like the Oxford style debate, with lots of rebuttals and so on, which are very accessible for people.

Right now, we don’t really have the basic information accessible. We have kind of niche websites like Hong Kong Free Press and FactWire, and so on, the self-declared impartial sources. But then, obviously, people take them with a grain of salt.

So right now, we lack this impartial force to mediate everything. And until we have that impartial mediating force, the best we can hope for would be accusations running from A to B and then from B to A again. And we would never see the end of it.

Peter

I think it is after the movie “Ten Years” [came out] that Hong Kong really seems to have what you could call an independent movie of some influence. So I think this is a good start. That’s to say filmmakers are beginning to wake up, to really start to not just consider commercial things but to try to use serious things to influence the general public. This is a good start.

I feel that this should be a good thing for us filmmakers. Perhaps we will slowly develop in this direction, make some truly independent movies.

And then, another point, for Hong Kong, independent media are of considerable importance. That is, the type of independent media with investigative powers. Of course, we are now seeing a lot of these media really coming out and doing things.

Alex

I won’t repeat what the others have said, but the other thing that we really have to consider is how the “One Country, Two Systems” will develop going forward.

Albert Chen Hung-yee[7] said the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s decision on August 31 [2014][8] was a “moment of awakening” for the pan-democrats in Hong Kong. What do we do next? We can accept it, and say “OK, this framework is already set. It’s better to be able to elect [the next Chief Executive in 2017] than not at all!” We could think like this but perhaps it’s time to revisit what kind of decision Hong Kong people will make under this framework.

Peter

Also, I think Hong Kong really needs a legislative council with a political goal that is genuinely controlled by the voters. This is a very important thing.

The [recent] elections really gave me a lot of confidence. I think a lot of people feel that the future is fairly bleak. But after the elections, they think, “Eh! There’s still some hope.”


This project is supported by a grant from The Bay & Paul Foundations.


[1] A reference to the theme of Fortress Besieged (圍城, 1947) a satirical novel and one of the best-known works by Qian Zhongshu ( 钱钟书), 1910-1998.

[2] A “fifty center”—a person in mainland China who is paid 50 cents per online post that is pro-government and against government critics.

[3] In 2011, the villagers of Wukan, Guangdong Province, erupted in mass protests alleging corrupt officials sold their land to developers; the protests escalated in December when one of their representatives died in police custody. In September 2016, riots broke out after Lin Zulian, an elected village leader, was sentenced to prison for bribery following his public complaints about continued official corruption. The authorities have imposed a news blackout on the protest and reportedly detained five Hong Kong journalists.

[4] A Hong Kong-based Chinese language news website: https://theinitium.com/.

[5] “House of Cards” is an American political drama television series that is adapted from the 1990 British mini-series of the same name based on a book of the same title by Michael Dobbs.

[6] “Yes, Prime Minister,” 1986-1988, was the sequel to the BBC Television satirical sitcom, “Yes, Minister,” 1980-1984.

[7] Professor Albert Chen Hung-yee ( 陳弘毅),  of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, is a member of the Committee for the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region under the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China.

[8] The formal decision on the 2017 election framework states that two to three candidates for the office of the Chief Executive will be selected by a nominating committee (which is largely pro-Beijing), and that each candidate must be endorsed by a majority of the 1,200-member committee. This decision contradicted a previous decision issued by the NPCSC in 2007 that the election of the Hong Kong Chief Executive in 2017 “may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage” and triggered the Umbrella Movement of 2014-2015 in Hong Kong. 

Explore Topics

Access to Information Access to Justice Administrative Detention Arbitrary Detention Asset Transparency Bilateral Dialogue
Black Jail Book Review Business And Human Rights Censorship Children Chinese Law
Circumvention technology Citizen Activism Citizen Journalists Citizen Participation Civil Society Communist Party Of China
Consumer Safety Corruption Counterterrorism Courageous Voices Cultural Revolution Culture Matters
Current and Political Events Cyber Security Daily Challenges Democratic And Political Reform Demolition And Relocation  Dissidents
Education Enforced Disappearance Environment Ethnic Minorities EU-China Family Planning
Farmers Freedom of Association Freedom of Expression Freedom of Press Freedom of Religion Government Accountability
Government regulation Government transparency Heilongjiang Lawyers’ Detention Historical Anecdotes Hong Kong House Arrest
Hukou Human Rights Council Human rights updates Ideological Contest Illegal Search And Detention Inciting Subversion Of State Power
Information Control  Information technology Information, Communications, Technology (ICT) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) International Human Rights International Relations
International Window Internet Internet Governance Judicial Reform June Fourth Kidnapping
Labor Camps Labor Rights Land, Property, Housing Lawyer's rights Lawyers Legal System
Legal World Letters from the Mainland Major Event (Environment, Food Safety, Accident, etc.) Mao Zedong Microblogs (Weibo) National People's Congress (NPC)
New Citizens Movement Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Olympics Online Activism Open Government Information Personal Story
Police Brutality Political commentary Political Prisoner Politics Prisoner Of Conscience Propaganda
Protests And Petitions Public Appeal Public Security Racial Discrimination Reeducation-Through-Labor Rights Defenders
Rights Defense Rule Of Law Special Topic State compensation State Secrets State Security
Subversion Of State Power Surveillance Technology Thoughts/Theories Tiananmen Mothers Tibet
Torture Typical cases United Nations Uyghurs, Uighurs Vulnerable Groups Women
Youth Youth Perspective